Passive Aggressive Diaries

Understanding passive aggressive behavior in families, schools, and workplaces

When Did Children's Birthday Parties Become so Complicated?

How an inclusive guest list can prevent bully behavior

To invite or not to invite: that is no longer the question for me. I had a lightbulb moment this week, in the midst of nine (I exaggerate not!) birthday party invitations for the month of November. As I plan my own daughter's birthday party for December, the Mama-Drama of one of this month's nine events has helped me to see kid's invitation-only events in a whole new-and I believe enlightened-way.


So, here's the background: my 4-year old wants to have her birthday party at a local craft store (love it!). According to the store's rules, the guest limit is 10. As a chronic rule-follower, I began planning the guest list by the letter of the law. The initial "draft" list included my daughter's two best girlfriends from her class, along with a host of other neighborhood and family friends. I instructed my daughter not to talk about the party in school, since the craft store's policy did not allow extra invites. She understood and agreed. Done. Simple. I thought.

Then, a good friend of mine confided in me her hurt that her daughter had been excluded from a different party-one amongst an elementary-school group of girls. This movie-party appeared to have a small guest list as well. In our conversation, we could only speculate that the theatre had party size-limits or that the parents didn't have enough room in their cars to drive additional girls to the theatre. Despite the mind-reading and rationalization, it left my friend-and her daughter, more importantly-feeling raw.

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Flash back to my party planning. I had made my list and I had checked it twice. And then it occurred to me how very not-nice it would be for me to exclude any of the girls from my daughter's class, lest I become "that mom."

Now-another sidebar:

I do a lot of writing about relational aggression (aka: bullying) and I observe my fair share of it as the mother of two young kids. My mom-friends and I often wonder aloud: How do kids even learn to be so mean at such a young age? and Where do kids learn about leaving each other out? My pat answer is often that mean kids come from mean parents.

And then it smacked me in the face. Many mean kids do pattern their behaviors after mean parents. Others, however, learn about calculated social exclusion from their parent's very best intentions. My birthday party list started ringing a bell-and I did not like the sound of it.

The guest list I was creating was borne out of necessity--I thought. My birthday girl deserved to pick her party place and I was just following that place's rules. I know plenty of other moms who have abided by size-limits or chosen to keep guest lists limited so as to keep prices down. In fact, I do not know of any moms who wrote their child's guest list with the intention of excluding a particular child. Nonetheless, in our efforts to make a party work-financially, size-wise, or whatever-we have all role-modeled a pattern of social exclusion.

My conscience literally couldn't bear it. I didn't want to do to the other three little girls in my daughter's class what this other probably well-intentioned mom had done. I called the craft store, fully prepared to cancel the party and lose my deposit or offer to pay more for the three additional guests. As it turns out, I summarized what I needed and why (that I was not willing to hurt any of the girl classmates) and the party place told me they would make an exception to their policy. Hurray!

For the craft store, it was good business, of course, but for me, I feel like I grew. For too many birthday parties, I had been stuck in the follow-the-rules mindset and risked inflicting an unintentional, but painful wound on the kids I excluded. I made myself feel better by reminding myself of "the size limit" or "the additional cost" but what I know now is that those pale in comparison to teaching my daughters that it is never okay to exclude and that it's important to go the extra mile to make everyone feel included. My daughter is quickly getting older and I am finally getting wiser.

 

Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed.

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