Children’s parties: a cultural quagmire for new expats

Last weekend was a weekend of parties. My elder daughter attended one on Saturday and my younger daughter went to two on Sunday. I was Mrs Taxi Driver all weekend, although I did get to meet some new people and have some fun chats with other parents, so all happy.

However, what these parties did bring home to me is what a potential mine-trap parties can be when you are new to a place and don’t know how others do it.

Let them have cake!

Let them have cake!

In our case it’s not so much the South African culture we have to worry about as the girls go to an International school and have friends from all over the place. But there is still a collective “knowledge” of how things are done – and the fear is that you will just get it plain wrong.

Sounds a bit silly? Well consider the following:

  • first of all – who do you invite? Just a couple of friends? The whole class? The whole YEAR group?
  • in some countries, no-one answers the invites, but they all still turn up
  • in some places, everyone will be at LEAST half an hour late
  • in others, they will all turn up on the dot of time
  • in some, you have to cater for at least two or three times the number of guests you have invited because they will all bring a brother, or a cousin, or a granny….who will all expect to be fed
  • do you leave your children at the party? If you do, will anyone be looking after them?
  • if the parents stay, will they expect to be fed?
  • if the parents leave, will they be back on time to pick them up? Will they even actually come back at all (and yes, this has happened to us – in St Lucia).

So whilst an earlier post I wrote about birthdays was whether we would have any friends to invite to my daughter’s 10th birthday party in a couple of weekends time, now my worrying has reached a whole new level. Add to the above things like how much food is expected, will we have to do party bags and will those guests who haven’t replied to the invitation turn up anyway? On top of this, we have had to battle venue issues (what sort of place was available? When we found somewhere, we had to book the food separately from the activity…); payment issues (they wouldn’t take an online credit card payment; we couldn’t pay direct into their bank account because we don’t have a bank account in the country yet…); and cake issues (where can I get one???? I can’t make one even if I wanted to – my baking equipment is still on the high seas….) and it’s left me feeling quite weak and in need of a llie-down instead of pumped up and ready to celebrate!

But in the end I decided that as this WAS such an international enviroment actually everyone would probably do it differently anyway. So we’re doing it the way we would back home (except we are inviting more children than we would – as she doesn’t yet have one or two “best” friends). We’ll only cater for the invited guests. Parents can look after themselves. I won’t encourage extra brothers or cousins to stay. We probably won’t do party bags but will send them home with some cake. And I will assume that only those who have said they will come will, actually, turn up.

It could be great…..or it could be a total disaster!

What birthday party cultural clashes have you encountered? Have you made any major boo-boo’s – and if so did you manage to cover up any faux-pas’? Do share your stories, it’s always good to know we’re not alone stumbling crazily through this expat life!

23 thoughts on “Children’s parties: a cultural quagmire for new expats

  1. I’m so with you on this! I’m of the reasoning that my children are NOT friends with everyone in their grade nor their individual class so even if that’s been the tradition, I go with what we prefer as a family. They get to invite a handful of friends (number TBD in advance) to do something special – whether an amusement park, sleepover, etc. I gave up on goodie bags 2 years ago – I just hate making them! What I’ve found interesting is the lead time given – in the US you want to book your parties MONTHS in advance, not just with a venue but with the kids. When we were in Spain, maybe you give a few weeks notice, if even. Here in the Netherlands, we’ve been given as little as 2 days notice!

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is it! Things like advance notice can differ so much from culture to culture. I knew exactly what was right back home. Here I am learning all over again (although as mentioned, it’s an international group so they would all have different expectations anyway!). As for friends, that is where we had got to back home (eg a couple of friends, a day out – perfect). But as she has only been at school for a few weeks here, she’s not at the point of having just one or two particular “best” friends so it’s all the girls who are coming. Which in the end I decided was easiest….


  2. This is my dilemma right now! PJ turns two in November and I would rather just bring a cake to her playgroup than throw a party and invite the same play group members to my house (sounds awful but hey I don’t want to deep clean for guests).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have almost 12 years of experience with birthday parties- with 3 daughters, it comes with the territory. I’ve seen and done it all! Some where all the kids have come, others when most kids couldn’t make it, some where all the parents stayed and I wasn’t prepared, and others when I was prepared for the parents to stay but they didn’t. I agree with your decision to do things how you would do them anyway. I don’t think it’s a cultural thing, I think it’s a personal choice (at least here in Australia). And when I take my kids to parties, I prepare myself and my kids to expect anything. Food or no food 🙂 Enjoy the party!


  4. Our son just turned six. We had his party at a park near our home in Pretoria. Maybe this is an indication of what to expect:
    * 1 friend who RSVP’d did not arrive
    * 4 friends brought along brothers and sisters
    * 2 friends pitched up very late
    * they all brought along their parents
    * we anticipated as much and had extra party packs and food at the ready

    Liked by 1 person

  5. At my kids´ school, whenever it´s a kid´s birthday they take a gift or a bento with food for ALL the kids in the school. I have sneakily managed to have “trips out of town” on both birthdays for my kids. Too lazy for all that insanity. We just have family day instead.

    Liked by 1 person

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