Chances are, if you've ever thrown a child's birthday party, this has happened to you: The invitations have been sent, a few RSVPs have trickled in, and then ... nothing. You e-mail a reminder. A few more parents respond, but you're nowhere close to a head count for the bouncy-house palace. You check your e-mail obsessively. Where is everybody?
It's become a huge hot-button issue: people who respond late, don't answer at all, or, most aggravatingly, don't reply and then show up with two siblings in tow. We recently asked on Parents' Facebook page, "What's the hardest thing about planning a birthday party?" A very vocal majority said RSVPs. To be sure, it creates anxiety for the host, both social (What if no one attends?) and financial (What if I shell out for ten and 20 show up? Or shell out for 20 and ten show up?).
What to do? First off, try not to immediately condemn the laggards. "Things get lost in cyberspace, and we don't always know what's going on in other people's lives," says Jodi R. R. Smith, founder of the etiquette consulting company Mannersmith, in Marblehead, Massachusetts. "Your child's party is not their top priority." Ouch.
Still, there are ways to goad them into action, says media psychologist Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Boston (and herself a mother of six). She likes to start with a paper invite and tuck in a balloon or stickers. Yes, it's more effort, but you'll get a higher rate of return. "Research shows people respond more when you've given them something, even if it's small," Dr. Rutledge says. Jotting a note creates a further sense of obligation ("Looking forward to having Sean join us!").
If your initial invitation is sent electronically, prod parents with an e-mail: "Please RSVP so there isn't a pizza shortage!" ("Our brain responds to scarcity," Dr. Rutledge notes.) Oh, and bribes work too. "Appeal to parents by saying, 'RSVP by this date and you're entered in a raffle for a bottle of wine,'" she says.
Smith suggests sending the first invitation four weeks out. Have a B list of friends ready, and then, as soon as a "No" comes in, send out another invite, up to a week and a half before the big day. If it's a week before, and half your list hasn't responded, find a small group, like the six girls in ballet, and have your daughter pass out invites to all of them in class. (Hand-delivered conveys A list.)
Doing an auto-reminder? Make the final RSVP date two days before the actual one. Then send your own e-mail follow-up: "I know everybody is so busy, but we need to give a head count by Thursday and just want to make sure your child is included." If the party is days away, suck it up and call to ask if the child will attend.
As for parents who bring extra siblings, have a plan. If you or the venue can't handle extra guests, it's fine to put on the invite, "We're sorry, but we're not able to accommodate siblings." If they show up anyway and the venue can take them on, show the parent where she can pay for an extra spot.
But if the party is at your house and there's leeway, have extra cupcakes on hand. And of course, remember this angst the next time an invitation arrives for your kid. "There are simple social rules that parents should follow," says Dr. Rutledge. "Don't send your kids to school when they're throwing up, and RSVP for parties."
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Parents magazine.