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The delicate dance of kids’ birthday parties

Christoph Hitz

The holidays are over, but for parents there’s no respite from party season — kids’ birthday party season, that is. The gatherings are a milestone for kids and a delicate dance for adults, who must navigate sugar highs, gifting etiquette, and rogue guests who don’t RSVP. Most crucially, hosts must cope with bruised egos on the part of children — and grown-ups.

“My mother always said, ‘You can invite the same number of friends as the age you’re turning.’ That was what I could handle, and probably all she could handle, too,” Sarah Winchester, a Newton mother of two, says with a laugh.


Winchester’s mother might have had the right idea. Nowadays, things get tricky after baby turns 1, says Jodi R.R. Smith, owner of Marblehead’s Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting: “The first party is about the parents. Serve beer and wine; invite your friends. The kid is locked and loaded in the high chair.”

At this point, Smith says, it’s completely acceptable to invite extended family and friends, even those without tots. (Partygoers who develop hives at the notion of singing “Happy Birthday” to someone in diapers should decline, no questions asked. The important thing is to extend the invite lest they feel overlooked, says Smith.)

Once the guest of honor begins socializing independently, variables increase. Does Great Aunt Tilly really need to attend a bounce house party? Must your college roommate endure three hours at a tumble gym, capped off with porous pizza? Is it crucial to invite the entire second grade to Legoland?

Well, probably. Inclusion is the modern party way, which raises its own set of complexities.

Wendy Pierce’s son, Jack, had a bar mitzvah in June. His school offered parents a party guideline: “Go small or invite them all.” So Pierce, who lives in Brookline, included her son’s entire close-knit class, even though it meant plucking her own friends from the guest list to keep costs in check.


“Jack looked at the guest list and would tell me, ‘I don’t know that person.’ And he was right. The night was all about him. My advice: Listen to your kid. It’s not about you,” says Pierce.

Her son had a terrific time, and Pierce ran interference with her non-invited adult friends, acting “preemptively” to explain space constraints. After all, she’d been on the receiving end of kids’ party snubs and knew the pain.

“A mom once asked me to car pool to a party, and I had no idea what she was talking about: Jack wasn’t invited. When I see the family who threw the party, I do hold a bit of a grudge,” Pierce says, laughing.

To avoid hurt feelings on the part of kids — and their parents — many schools now ask parents to err on the side of inclusion, reflecting the growing push for social sensitivity in schools and playgrounds nationwide.

Andy Rushford, a dad himself, has taught fourth grade in Framingham for 20 years. He’s seen firsthand how important childhood diplomacy has become.

“Kids have become more compassionate,” he says. “We meet in an open circle every morning, and we talk about bullying and inclusion. Kids get it.” At the same time, parents are more involved in their children’s social lives than in days of yore.

“Parents used to be happy to get a note from the classroom once a week. Now they can e-mail at any time. It’s not that they demand more, but they’re more in touch with a greater focus,” which includes the social habits of their children, he says.


Rushford once had to escalate a party invite gone wrong (which turned into a heated classroom argument) to the principal’s office.

In that sense, little has changed. “As a kid, telling someone you wouldn’t invite them to your birthday party was the biggest threat. I remember how much it stung not to get invited,” says Arlington’s Liz Lowsky, a former preschool teacher and a mother of two. “It’s the first step of that difficult social structuring that continues into adulthood.”

She’s now trying to negotiate with her 5-year-old over his upcoming party guest list to avoid hurt feelings. “I want him to feel ownership over his birthday party, while making sure everyone’s feelings are protected,” she says.

Of course, snubs will always occur. When they do, best to use them as a character-building exercise. Rushford recalls an instance when his son witnessed a limousine picking up classmates at school to whisk them to a water park party. One by one, children hopped in, leaving the elementary-schooler behind.

“You might wonder, ‘Why wasn’t my child invited?’ ” he says. “It’s a good lesson. Sometimes people aren’t going to be nice to you. Get ready for the world, kid.”

Kara Baskin can be reached at kcbaskin@gmail.com.