Sorry, You Aren't Invited: A Practical Guide to Children's Birthday Party Guest Lists

Being on all three sides of a guest list -- inviter, invited and uninvited -- can help children not only become more resilient, but also more conscientious and empathetic. It's up to parents to use parties as opportunities for chats about friendship, kindness, and etiquette.
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kids celebrating birthday party ...
kids celebrating birthday party ...

Must you invite everyone in the class to your child's birthday party?

In my years as a nanny, and before that, as a preschool teacher, I've been to more children's birthday parties than I can remember. At their best, parties are a celebration of life and growth, a time for friends and family to have fun together, and an opportunity for children to develop vital social skills.

What they are not, or at least should not be, are places for yet another outbreak of "everyone gets a trophy" syndrome.

I'm quite concerned about the growing number of schools -- many private, but some public as well -- with intrusive policies demanding that students invite the entire class to parties. This is an absolutely terrible idea.

Classes can easily be quite large, with 20-30 students. Asking parents to host that many children at their home -- or worse yet, drop them off somewhere and bankroll activities on a grand scale -- is ridiculous.

I once took care of a little boy who desperately wanted to have a bowling party for his 5th birthday. His school banned us from inviting a handful of friends and demanded that we invite the whole class. For financial reasons, that wasn't an option for the family. Obviously, the little boy was upset. He invited a neighborhood friend to come bowling, but no one from his class could come. While we had a good time together, it wasn't the party he had eagerly anticipated.

Over the last decade, I've watched as sports trophies and ever-higher grades are handed to more and more American children just for bothering to show up. I've seen close up how this breeds entitlement, not self-esteem -- and I know how hard parents and caretakers have to work to offset this cultural shift. Now, it seems, this misguided philosophy has bled into birthday parties.

Nobody likes being left out. Rejection and disappointment sting, but learning how to push through them is an absolutely essential life lesson.

That's not to say that children's feelings ought to be disregarded -- quite the opposite! Being on all three sides of a guest list -- inviter, invited and uninvited -- can help children not only become more resilient, but also more conscientious and empathetic. It's up to parents to use parties as opportunities for chats about friendship, kindness and etiquette.

Rather than throw the birthday out with the bathwater by imposing new, totalitarian solutions to the age-old problem of hurt feelings, schools, parents and children can each contribute polite behavior within their appropriate domains.

Here's how everyone can do their part to reduce stress and tension of children's birthday parties and bring the party's focus back to celebrating a child's special day.

Parents : Part of a host's responsibility is dealing delicately with the feelings of those not on the guest list, and the earlier you can teach that skill, the better. Discuss ways to minimize hurt feelings, like avoiding party talk during school hours, and practice polite responses in case word does get out to uninvited peers.

There are some adult-specific things you can do, too. Track down mailing addresses so your child doesn't have to hand out invitations at school in view of uninvited peers. Call parents and let them know it'll be a small group so that they can coach their child on the social etiquette of attending a private party, and check if any special arrangements must be made for abilities or dietary restrictions. Decide whether parents and siblings are included in the invitation, and let them know in advance so they can plan accordingly.

When defining the guest list, Emily Post recommends the "age plus one" rule --for a 5-year-old, for example, invite six guests -- and I think that's excellent advice. It keeps the group manageable regardless of whether parents stay or drop off their children.

If you do choose to include the whole class, be sure to consider the practical challenges. I've been to some parties so crowded with children that the birthday boy or girl has no idea who's there, and I recently attended one party that had a bouncy castle, puppies, ponies and a clown! Those parties are celebrations of excess, not of the child, and often end up more stressful than joyful. Parties should focus on bringing delight to children, not showing off who can throw the biggest party. Especially if you have a large group, less is more.

Children If a child is old enough to be in school, she is old enough to keep the party to herself during the school day. Coach her to keep mum, and explain why. If a friend asks her about the party around uninvited children, she should politely say it's a small party and she could only invite a handful of children.

Children can have great fun participating in party planning. Starting around age 3, kids can choose the party theme and cake from two or three options, and can help fill party favors. After you've set a budget and a guest list limit, older children can help allocate funds to activities, cake or goody bags. You'll hear a lot less begging and whining if you allow some choice within firm boundaries.

If your child is old enough to practice politely receive presents, opening them during the party can be a great opportunity to use those skills. For very young children, however, put the gifts aside until the guests have gone.

After the party, children should write thank-you notes for their gifts within two weeks. (For suggestions on painless thank-you notes, see my earlier article.)

If your child discovers he's been left out of a fête, share a story from your own experience, emphasizing how you handled it. Talk through some practical reasons why he may have been left out, like constraints on space or budget. However, discourage wallowing -- if there's one thing we Brits know, it's the value of a stiff upper lip! Help him move on by planning something special with him and a friend, like a trip to the movies or a museum.

Schools Insist on etiquette. While children are learning proper social behavior, a bit of extra reinforcement can be useful. Although a compulsory guest list intrudes on the family sphere, it is perfectly appropriate -- and even beneficial -- for schools to regulate behavior within their own territory.

Teachers should discourage party talk during the school day. Just as it would be rude for adults to hand out party invitations to half the office at lunch, children should not be permitted to distribute invitations in view of classmates. While many schools forbid invitations at school altogether unless they include the whole class, I think that's nonsense; it's fine for children to discreetly place invitations in individual cubbies or folders.

With a bit of prior planning and respect for good old-fashioned etiquette, birthday parties can be great fun. Keep it small, keep it simple and embrace the opportunities parties bring children to learn to become amiable, courteous adults.

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