My husband and I refer to our firstborn as our “learner child”: we figure some things out on her and make (slightly) fewer mistakes with her younger sister.
Case in point: our older daughter’s high school graduation party a few years ago. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, here’s what I now know I needed…that I didn’t know I needed then… you can bet I’ll be rounding up in a couple of years when we gladly do this celebration dance again.
High school graduation party ideas
1. The go-ahead from your grad.
Does your son or daughter want you to organize an event in their honor? Are they envisioning an elaborate-themed party or something more modest with a few close friends and family? Would he or she rather have cold hard cash or a trip or a nice dinner out with people whose names don’t require a refresher course?
If a grad party is a “yes,” get details on what kind and proceed.
2. Big-picture perspective.
What you want most out of your party (trust me on this) is for your graduate to feel loved, celebrated, and cherished. Whatever else happens or doesn’t happen, if you accomplish this, the day will be a success.
The right perspective will help if it rains or ants get into the homemade lemon-meringue cupcakes you lovingly blowtorched that morning (NOT a hypothetical example), the tent blows over, or whatever. If going with the flow is not your default setting (raises hand), consider this a gift to the person you’re doing this for in the first place.
3. A friend who recognizes when the food needs to be replenished, or dirty dishes need to be removed.
As the graduate’s parent, you have three main jobs as host at this party: 1) to greet and talk with your party guests, many of whom are probably your friends and family you haven’t seen in a while; 2) to graciously receive the well-deserved congratulations of said friends and family, and 3) to check in with your graduate from time to time. Notice that none of these things is “empty the garbage” or “restock the ham sandwiches.”
What you need, ideally, is a friend or relative who loves your kid and wants to help make the party run smoothly but who is not so connected to all the guests that she feels deprived if she doesn’t get to spend the duration of the party mingling with them.
At my daughter’s party, we were blessed to have the world’s most organized, take-charge extrovert filling this role. She loves our daughter like her own and can talk to any other human being in the world…which she did when she wasn’t (wait for it) emptying the garbage or restocking the sliders and snacks.
Absent this admittedly rare breed of a friend, consider hiring a responsible teenager who, given the inducement of an hourly wage, could suddenly become very diligent about garbage duty.
4. An electrical dress rehearsal.
We held our DIY party in our restored barn, and I didn’t find out until afterward that my dad practically had to rewire the place mid-event while I sat talking with some of my high school classmates I’d hardly seen since our parties. If you’re holding your shindig at home, having a backyard graduation party, or in some other venue not specifically set up for large-scale entertaining, you might want to do a dry run to make sure three slow-cookers, a roaster, and the soft-serve ice cream machine you rented don’t overload your circuits.
5. Obvious and ample parking.
Nothing stresses me more when I go to a graduation party than not knowing where we’re supposed to park, and NO, I cannot maneuver my minivan into that parallel space between the fire hydrant and the driveway. Other than honoring your graduate, one of your main party goals should be to honor the people who’ve come to celebrate with him or her, and providing their parking is the first chance you have to do that on the day.
You may know perfectly well that it’s OK to park on the street and in neighbors’ driveways all up and down your cul-de-sac, but your guest doesn’t. So tell them! Add a note about parking when you design the graduation party invitations.
Put up many easy-to-read decorations or signs with streamers, ribbons, or balloons, or hire a teen to stand outside and direct traffic. And however much space you think you need for this, you need more.
6. Auxiliary refrigeration.
I don’t care how well you clean out your main refrigerator or how much ice you buy for that wheeled cooler you use for tailgating unless you are holding your party at an alternative time of year, like mid-January, or are having it catered, you WILL need an extra refrigerator and freezer space. Plug in that old model you never did haul out of the basement or find a nearby neighbor who’ll clear off a few shelves in exchange for leftover cake.
7. A dedicated amateur photographer.
Anybody can take decent pictures with their phones nowadays, but by “anybody,” I do not mean you on this day. You will be busy. You may be IN lots of pictures, but you will probably not have the time or presence to take them. I think this is an excellent job for some young relative who has to come to the party but doesn’t want to and who would be happy to have an important job to do (especially if you throw a gift card or something similar into the bargain).
Consider ordering a photo backdrop with school colors or designs for your graduation party theme. You could also spring for renting a photo booth. Position a few Class of 2023 props or banners with your grad’s school colors nearby. Taking Instagram-ready pics will be a big part of the fun and something your grad will want to do with their friends.
8. Accessible answers to your guests’ FAQs.
The lovely people coming to celebrate this milestone with your son or daughter will have a few basic questions:
What is the graduate going to do with his or her life?
What is this (for example, that famous pink gelatin salad of Grandma’s that the grad insisted she couldn’t have the party without)? and
(ahem) Where is the bathroom?
Do your guests a favor and answer these questions before they have to ask. Post a tasteful but well-placed sign indicating the location of the restroom. Briefly describe any unusual food items on place cards along the buffet line. And fill your guests in on your graduate’s plans in some way that does not involve your son or daughter repeating the same spiel over and over…on a chalkboard, maybe, or on additional place cards positioned on the dessert table.
I made up “FAQs about the Grad” chalkboard signs and propped them against the table centerpieces. Not only did these give guests something to read while they were eating, but when they did get to talk to my daughter, they could catch up on other details of her life and share updates with her.
9. A way to tell your graduate’s story.
There will be people at your party who haven’t seen your grad in a long time. There will be people who’ve never even met your grad (the ones dragged to the party by their parents or significant others). These people need something to do while they make their appearance. Also, your son or daughter can only talk to so many people simultaneously. While the queue is waiting for their five minutes with him or her, give them something to look at that reflects who your graduate is. This was one of my favorite graduation party ideas.
At our party, we hung a memory clothesline. The first item on it was the first tiny outfit I’d bought my daughter once I knew she was a daughter. The last piece was the t-shirt we’d gotten on our tour of what would officially become her college campus. In between were various items that told the story of what my daughter had loved in the intervening years: one of her favorite dance recital costumes, her marching band uniform, and her graduation cap and gown. I wrote brief captions for these on chalkboard clothespins that hung in between each item.
I loved it when I found one of our guests who’d never met my daughter studying the clothesline contentedly while her husband, one of my daughter’s favorite teachers, had his moment with the graduate. “This is lovely,” she told me. “I feel like I’ve gotten to know your daughter.”
Note: If you want to convey some of your teen’s milestones or accomplishments, mount pictures of the graduate on a poster board (or series of boards) to achieve the same purpose.
10. A down day after.
Your party guest list might well include out-of-town friends and family you don’t see very often. Resist the urge to pack the day after with a full schedule of activities with them. You will feel like doing approximately NOTHING the day after your wildly successful soiree, so nothing is what you should plan.
Gently tell your long-distance guests that they’re welcome to swing by if they want to clean up or bring you a cold drink while you lie in the hammock but that you will, alas, be unable to provide them with a guided walking tour of your town’s most popular attractions. Trust me again, and believe me when I tell you that you’ll be much more likely to enjoy what should be a special day for you if you know you have a built-in recovery day waiting on the other side.
After my daughter’s party, when all the leftover meatballs had been stashed away, I asked my graduate how she felt. “I feel loved and happy,” she told me without thinking about it. At which point, I knew that whatever we’d missed, we’d hit the thing that mattered most.
P.S. As our older daughter graduates college this spring; we may have the happy occasion to plan our first college graduation party, too!
More Graduation Party Ideas: