It is a common occurrence most Saturday or Sunday nights. The WhatsApp groups light up with parents thanking other parents for inviting their son or daughter to their child’s birthday party, and with good wishes for the birthday children as they celebrate their special day.
A tale as old as time – well 19 years old anyway. That is how long I’ve been dealing with Montessori or school birthday parties. And, dare I say it, the parents at my children’s schools have got it pretty spot on, for the most part. Which is no mean feat when you consider the minefield that is birthday party politics. Because anyone who thinks it is just a few fairy buns and blowing out candles, clearly has not entered the Twilight Zone yet.
There is much to consider. The where, when, who and how is your essential checklist. How much, is an obvious consideration, you might think, but hopefully not just as your child’s party approaches. This is the sort of thing you should have thought about when planning your family. One fund for the college years, and one for the birthday party years.
No one likes a party pooper.
As a veteran on the birthday party scene, my perspective has changed on many aspects of it over the years. My eldest child was the youngest in her class and the parties of her classmates were magnificent. And difficult to follow. One was held in a castle, or so we thought.
“This can’t be the house,” my husband said as we pulled up outside.
“They’ve clearly rented a venue. No one lives in a house like that,” I said with eyerolls, and in tones completely at odds with my rookie school parent status.
My four-year-old shouted back at us, excitedly, from the doorstep of the castle house after a brief conversation with the child’s mother. “No, they really do in live in this huge house,” she roared. I left himself to do the pickup from the party afterwards.
That was the year I thought it would be a great idea to get the parents of 25 five-year-old girls to make the trek to Dublin Zoo through Saturday afternoon traffic, and back again two hours later to pick up those same 25 five-year-olds, because no one else had done that yet for a party. And I wanted to do something different.
“It will be magnificent,” I thought.
“My mum thinks this is absolutely ridiculous,” one five-year-old attendee clarified.
She was right.
From the off, our schools got one thing absolutely right. No birthday party invitations were allowed to be exchanged in school. Under any circumstances. And so, though we groaned initially, all party arranging was done outside of school. And very quickly whole class parties became the norm, leaving the politics of who to ask, and who to leave off the invite list, in its wake.
Children typically share parties with two, three, four, even five sometimes, of their classmates meaning the cost is substantially reduced for parents – as is the stress and workload involved in organising. But most importantly, it has meant that no one is or feels left out.
When it comes to birthday parties as a whole however, and those situations where entire class parties just won’t work, it is not as simple as children learning a lesson that everyone does not get asked to all parties. That suggests all children are on a level playing field to begin with. But too often it is the same children who do not get asked to any parties, or do not get asked on play dates. And very often those children are neurodivergent, or have additional needs.
“My daughter has additional needs and is left out of class parties. She invites everyone,” one mother explained to me recently. “My neurodiverse son doesn’t get invited to anything – play dates and parties,” another parent said.
“If you’ve ever had a child left out, it’s just the most awful feeling. One of my boys always is [left out]. He has ADHD,” one parent explained. Another parent of a teenager said “in all of primary school he got one invite. Very rare play date and no inclusion at all in secondary”.
“I have twins – one with additional needs. Birthday parties break my heart in two,” another mother told me.
In these conversations with parents, there are always the examples to look to. The parents who remember to include the child usually overlooked. Or the parent whose experience of inclusion in these situations has almost always been positive.
But often they are the exception rather than the rule.
Children might be oblivious to the hurt it can cause, but can adults really claim the same? What makes a magnificent party you might wonder. One grounded in kindness and inclusion, for sure.