Both my daughters are April babies so this is the time of year when our thoughts turn to birthday parties. Valentine’s Day is over, Christmas is a distant memory and now the sole focus of life is figuring out how to celebrate another year on planet earth, and with whom.
Up until grade one we invited the entire class to our parties. Cliques did not yet exist, so it seemed like the right thing to do. And while the party was a logistical nightmare, the up side was that no one’s feelings got hurt.
Now, turning eight and eleven, my kids don’t have the desire to include the whole class. And I support them in this because the parties are more manageable, and because I believe it’s their right to decide whom to celebrate with. Yes, I can see the benefit of including the kid who teases my daughter mercilessly everyday; after all, he probably needs a friend. But she doesn’t want to use her party as a way to extend the olive branch and I feel like I need to support her on that.
I don’t hold my kids to the reciprocal invite (they invited you, so you have to invite them), but I insist they include the children of the parents I have close relationships with, my rationale being that the families are friends and as long as they’re young, their birthday parties are “family” celebrations.
To be honest, I’m not always comfortable with these decisions. I’m not always certain we’re doing the “right” thing. Trying to balance letting my kids be independent in their peer relationships while helping them understand and navigate the consequences of their decisions is a full time freakin’ job.
But there’s no getting around the fact that birthday parties are a big deal. Whether as a host or an invitee, birthday parties help kids feel special and demonstrate belonging. As any teacher or playground supervisor will tell you, birthday parties are currency. They are often used in schoolyard disputes, as in “You’re not coming to my party anymore!” or “I’m not coming to your party anymore!”
A lot of us resent having to explain or justify our decisions around invitations, which is understandable. And it’s our job as parents to build resiliency in our kids, which often means working through the hurt that comes from being excluded from someone else’s celebration. This is all part of life. But if you want your kids to be the kind of people who will sit with anyone who’s sitting alone, the kind of people who go out of their way to be inclusive, this might mean using a birthday party to make a new friend or reach out to someone who needs one.
It’s easy for adults to sit back and dismiss parties and invitations as “not a big deal”, but the reality is, exclusions can cause pain and damage both child and adult relationships. Your family has every right to decide whom to include in your celebration but taking care to minimize hurt feelings can go a long way to ensuring your child’s special day isn’t spoiled by hurt feelings and misunderstandings.
- The first rule of birthday party is we don’t talk about birthday party. Tell your child not to talk about his party at school or around people who are not invited. Remind him of a time he didn’t feel included and how that felt so he understands why this is important.
- Keep the invitations out of school. Unless the entire class is invited, distribute invitations outside of class time or contact parents directly with party details.
- Talk to your child about his invite list. Invitations can still be his decision even if you have a hand in the process. If you understand why he’s choosing some friends and not others you can help him think through his choices and prepare him for possible repercussions.
- Keep the teacher posted. Many teachers will politely refuse to distribute party invitations on school time, especially if they’re not going out to the whole class. But letting her know that your little one may need reminders to not talk about the party might help reinforce that rule.
- Look for teachable moments. I support my kids’ decisions on whom to invite and not invite, but I also feel like it’s my job to help them understand how to get along in the world, and how to be a good and empathetic person. Turn the other cheek, be the bigger person, take the high road, whatever you want to call it, helping your kids see what making a different choice might feel like is part of being a parent.
- And when all else fails... Chances are no matter how much thought and care you approach this with, someone’s feelings will still be hurt. So coach your child on using humility and understanding when having the “No, I’m sorry I didn’t invite you” conversation.
Because of their importance on Planet Kid, most of us will find ourselves needing to tread carefully around birthday parties. If there’s a grudge to be kept or a score to be settled, try to keep birthday parties out of it. Use the fact of a party to address rifts in friendship, whether that results in an invitation or not, but don’t leverage them to make a point. This goes for you too parents!