Etiquette for Planning Kid’s Birthday Parties

I glided along on the ice with my third-grade son, Dale before his skating lesson. There were many more kids in his grade at school than usual frolicking on the ice, along with their parents watching and socializing beside the rink. As I turned the corner near the picnic tables and saw why, it was like a blow to my gut. Another third grader, a girl we’d recently had at Dale’s birthday party was having a birthday herself and hadn’t invited him. The girl’s mother, who had seen us there before when our kids had been taking lessons stood to one side taking pictures. The fact that Dale had a hard time being accepted by his peers and was rarely invited to other kids’ parties made it even more painful.
On my next pass around the rink as I wondered how I would endure the next hour and forty-five minutes, I probably looking as horrified as I felt. I looked at the girl’s mother just as she turned and caught my eye. Embarrassed, I looked away and decided that no human should ever have to endure such social humiliation.
Dale was having better luck with the situation than I was. “Margie invited me to join her birthday party,” he said, smiling eagerly as he skated toward me. I felt even better when, a moment later a boy we knew who was an invitee also asked if we’d like to join them. Leave it to eight-year-olds to try to fix an awkward social situation, I thought.
Dale stepped off the ice and headed toward the festivities; I hung back, unsure of my welcome. “Come,” said Margie’s mom, waving me over as she walked toward me. “Please come join us. I’m so sorry that we forgot to invite Dale. We invited Margie’s whole class and a few other kids but Dale isn’t in her class this year and so somehow got overlooked...” She looked flustered. “We always try to reciprocate,” she finished. I wasn’t sure I believed her.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said with a smile. “Thank you for letting us join you.”
Another time we had one of Dale’s best friends, Stephan over for Dale’s birthday celebration. Two months later I happened to run into the boy’s father. “We sure had a crazy time at Stephan’s birthday party last week,” he said with a laugh. “All these kids running around wild . . .” He looked at me as if thinking that surely I could relate, while all I could do was wonder why he was telling me about it when they hadn’t invited Dale. Not wanting to embarrass him, however I kept my disappointment to myself.
On yet a third occasion my two-year-old daughter, Rowan was the uninvited one. I found out about the party when the birthday child’s mom e-mailed a list we were all on, mentioning her toddler’s party and how fun it had been. Then another mom in our social network told me about it as well. I felt the same hurt and rejection as the other times, especially since she was the person in our social group with whom I felt I had gotten to know the best. Are we the only people in the group she didn’t invite? I wondered.
When the birthday child’s mom later told me in person about her toddler’s party, I finally spoke up. “You might consider,” I said, choosing my words carefully, “not talking about your party with people you didn’t invite.”
“I know, it’s impolite—I didn’t invite you,” the woman said with a frown, looking away. “We know a lot of people-—we couldn’t invite everyone,” she said in her defense.
“I’m not trying to make you feel guilty,” I said, even though I was, “but you might want to keep what I said in mind in the future to avoid hurting people’s feelings.”
That type of experience, especially occurring threefold brought home for me the importance of parents practicing proper birthday party etiquette. The following are tips to follow when planning your child’s next big bash.
* If you don’t plan to invite your child’s entire class, preschool section, playgroup, or other social crowd always mail the birthday invitations. Never hand them out in front of others or place them in kid’s cubbyholes where other children and parents will see them. My kid’s nursery and elementary schools both forbade it. The same goes, obviously for e-mail. Don’t mention your child’s party on an e-mail list unless you invite everyone else on that list. Be discreet.
* Invite any other kids who had your child at their party. If this means planning for a larger group than you originally had in mind, consider keeping it simple and less expensive. Instead of having the party at a public place like a bowling alley, ice rink or other location where they charge by the head and probably have a maximum number allowed, have it at your house, apartment or a nearby park. If you’re into keeping up with the Joneses hire a clown or magician or have a piñata. Once the kids have smashed it open with a baseball bat, pass out bags for the kid’s goodies.
* If your child doesn’t want to invite someone who’s party she or he attended because your child says they’re “weird”, don’t give in. Even though kids often play musical friends, take advantage of an opportunity to teach your child the importance of reciprocation and resolving conflicts with their peers. Many kid’s groups have one youngster who, because they are physically or learning challenged doesn’t learn social skills as well as the other kids. The easy thing to do, of coarse is ostracize them. The other kids and their parents probably do just that, but you don’t need that on your conscience. Be compassionate and include them. If you’re worried about a certain child’s behavior, enlist the help at the party of that child’s parents, if possible so the child can attend. If the child is shy or a target for teasing, never let the other kids name-call, bully or reject them from a group activity.
* Never, ever invite your child’s entire class or other social group except for one child because their family is in any way different. Their parents may have a different sexual orientation, religion, culture, be green space aliens or (gasp) {insert your least favorite political party here}, but don’t succumb to bigotry. Always include them.
* Never mention your child’s birthday party to children or parents whom you didn’t invite. You may not think you know each other well enough for them to be offended, but don’t risk hurting their feelings. The same goes for another child’s party that your child attended. Again, be discreet.
* To avoid other awkward situations, don’t plan a party in a public place where it is likely there will be other kids and parents present within your child’s social group(s) that you didn’t include.
In summary be discreet, reciprocate, help resolve peer conflicts and differences and be inclusive. With a little forethought and planning, you can create meaningful memories for your kids, their friends and their parents that last a lifetime. Have a fun party!

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, award-winning writer and author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2. She is on the Board of Contributors to the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper and her articles have been published in both local and national publications. She lives in Palo Alto, CA with her husband, two children, two hyperactive dogs and a neurotic cat and can be reached at liz@funghi.com, or visit her at http://elizabethjohnsonlee.com.

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January 2015

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