Fair or unfair, you should realize right off the bat that as a dinner host, you cannot write “No Children” on an invitation, unless you’re okay with forevermore being described in hushed tones as “hating kids.” As it happens, the accepted etiquette of the situation dictates that you should start by simply saying nothing.
“The rule about bringing a child to any event is that you don’t do it unless they’re invited,” says Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and author of the new 18th edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette. “You don’t bring your kids unless it’s explicitly stated. First-time parents can be almost terrified to leave kids at home, and that is a problem. They need to respect the host’s wishes.”
So as a guest, assume that if your children are not mentioned on the invite, they’re not invited this time around. If you absolutely must clarify, Post suggests calling the host to confirm that it’s an adults-only party—rather than calling to ask if your child is invited. “It gives the host an easy out,” says Post.
As a host, there are a few steps you can take to ease the path to adults-only dinner parties.
Start the gathering at an adult hour, like 8 p.m., when younger children will have already gone to bed. Not only does this send the signal that the evening is intended for adults, but it makes things easier on parents by not asking them to miss out on time with their children.
Vary things up. If you intersperse adults-only events with ones that include children—think lunches, brunches, picnics, and barbecues—it will go a long way toward preventing your friends from feeling that you don’t like their kids.
Lastly, be reasonable. If you’re inviting a person with a 6-week-old baby, you can’t reasonably expect them to chuck the child with a babysitter. You should assume any child under the age of 3 months is functionally inseparable from his or her parents, so either don’t extend an invitation to those friends or accept the baby’s presence with open arms.
What to do about those guests who insist on bringing their little ones regardless of what signals you send? Persistent problem cases may need special handling.
If you have a repeat offender on your hands and they’re a close enough friend, Lizzie Post thinks a frank conversation goes a long way toward resolving the issue. (And, no, email and text messages do not count as a conversation. Use the phone or do it in person.)
If all else fails? Start inviting them for lunch instead.
Elizabeth Gunnison is a freelance writer based in New York. She currently serves as the online food correspondent for Esquire.com, and contributes to such outlets as The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Esquire, and BonAppetit.com.