The Politics of Birthday Parties
Gleek turned twelve this week. So did one of her classmates. The classmate is throwing a massive party and inviting the entire class. This sort of large scale party is common at Gleek’s current school. It is in an affluent neighborhood where people have houses large enough that they can invite thirty (or fifty) kids for an evening and just let the kids go play downstairs in the basement basketball court/play room. I don’t live in that neighborhood. We drive from across town and our house sometimes feels crowded with just our four children. I’m glad that these families open their homes and provide opportunities for the kids. It is kind of them. Or at least I choose to interpret it as kindness instead of as displays of conspicuous consumption, but we can not reciprocate. I can’t afford to host a party for thirty kids. I wouldn’t even want to. Crowd control on an event like that is not my idea of a fun afternoon.
The trouble comes because birthday parties are one of the only forms of social capital available to elementary school kids. The kid with the amazing party is perceived as cool. My kids are coming up on the second year in a row where I’ve declined to provide that sort of coolness for them. Two years ago all my kids had parties. It exhausted me and burned me out. Last year I declared no friend parties. I loved that year. It let us focus on private family celebrations rather than adding more events to our already packed family schedule. I want to do the same this year, but I remember how Gleek spoke wistfully of a birthday party all last year. She kept doing it even when I told her point blank that an expensive birthday party was not going to happen. So I have to decide whether I want to let her have a party even though we’ve already had a special birthday outing. However opening the door to one party hands a lever to my other three kids who, in my judgement, don’t have the same emotional need for one, but who will fly the flag of fairness. Not only that, but I will then face the dilemma of how many guests. We can’t do a thirty kid party, which means Gleek can’t simply invite everyone she knows. We have to winnow down the guest list. This requires Gleek to prioritize her friendships, and is where all the social capital around parties comes from. After listening to a child agonize about who to invite and who has to be left out, I understand why some parents host a party for the whole class, it eliminates the need to select.
Perhaps instead of a single birthday party, I will encourage Gleek to invite smaller groups of friends over for movie night parties. By removing “birthday” it becomes a less significant event. Not being invited becomes less of a snub, particularly if the “snubbed” person is invited over for a similar event a different week. Of course this has me hosting multiple evenings with pre-teen girls taking over my family room. I think I still prefer that to the pressure and complications of a birthday party. Gleek really does need to be connecting with friends outside of school and we’ve had trouble making it happen lately. Smaller parties have another benefit: my kids get stressed by large parties. They don’t realize they are. They say that they want them, but more often than not the guest of honor ends up hiding in a quiet place away from the noise, or melting down because something did not go right. Smaller parties make sense, but they just don’t hold the same social cachet for kids as a massive spectacle.
Sigh. In some ways all of this gets easier when the kids are teenagers and begin arranging their own social calendars. For now, I just need to put the giant class party on the schedule and make sure that Gleek does not miss it.
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