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.

6 thoughts on “The Politics of Birthday Parties”

  1. Have you considered the option of a rec center or gym? Much more room than your home, I’m sure. Would it be manageable to have Gleek (or whichever child wants the party) to plan everything with the budget and scope you give them?

    Not that I have children, and I’m sure someone out there will tell me this is a bad idea, but I plan on quoting Princess Bride at my kids on a regular basis, anyway. I’m sure the two most used lines will be, “Life’s not fair, and anyone who says differently is selling something,” and, “Life’s not fair. Where is that written?”

  2. Renting the rec center might be pretty steep. But is there some free event type place? She is probably too old for a park to be a big deal. Also, crowd control (assuming parents expect to drop off and pick up) could get worrisome in an insecure area. Also, it’s winter.

    I sympathize with the struggle of getting connecting with friends to happen. Sometimes small multiple events take in total more energy, but they also supply more of a steady addition to socialization. Though, if she does indeed have 30 friends, and you only let 5 come over at a time, then you’ve just signed up for six parties. Which is (if you want to do this before school ends) a party or two a month. At which point I could also see the fairness flag being raised, with some justification.

    Random thought: Are you game players? If so, then what do you think of the idea of having periodic game nights. Maybe once a month. Each child could invite one friend and you might have one or two games going on, depending on interest. Might bleed off some of the need to connect, though it won’t probably fill the ‘party’ craving.

    Good luck.


  3. It somehow helped to hear that another parent finds these things stressful. People (my husband included)_tend to think I am nuts anytime I admitted to how stressed out my kids birthday parties make me.

    I finally ,after much begging, let my daughter have a sleepover for her 9th birthday. When you write about Gleek, it makes me think alot of my daughter. This is relevant because I think you will understand the meltdown that occurred when her friends at the sleepover belittled her choice of music when they were dancing. They weren’t mean but obviously didn’t like the music she wanted to listen to. We dealt and she calmed down and I believe learned some valuable things from the experience. She now looks back on the experience fondly. I , on the other hand, have an incipient panic attack at the thought of doing another birthday party(that’s the part even my husband doesn’t get)

  4. Some Guy on The Internet

    If you find that you can’t manage orchestrating social events on your own, tell the husband that he’s in charge of the next one. If you plan a night out for yourself the same night as the party; he’ll have to plan the menu and entertainment, then follow through with ‘crowd control’, cleanup, and the thousand little arguments that invariably pop up.
    ~~Never attribute to under appreciation what can be ascribed to ignorance.~~
    Once he’s lived through the experience, he’ll better understand what you go through–and if he still doesn’t ‘get it’, let him plan all the parties. He’s probably more of an extrovert than you.

    Smaller parties are a great idea. I have a very close-knit group of friends, but we’ve moved apart. Every month, one of us hosts a gaming party. Not everyone can make it every month, but we use it to keep in touch and talk face to face. Half the group has married and had children. When we all get together for important days–bringing the family with us–we don’t all fit in one house.

  5. Ugh. I’m already dreading these things. My 5 year old had a birthday disaster when NO ONE came to his party. I dread it getting worse from here. (And yes, I can relate to the desire to provide social capital re: displays of awesomeness of resources. Is your OUTSIDE big enough to host that many kids?)

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