Should we invite the whole class?
A former teacher’s answer to a sticky birthday party question
The Answer is: Yes!
The simple answer, from a former teacher, is yes, you should invite your child’s entire class to their birthday party. However, I am going to start by saying: I write from a position of privilege when I answer YES. We can afford to give a simple party for my child’s class. I will also say this: my child goes to a wonderful school that is very intentional in cultivating social and emotional learning. To intentionally make choices that might hurt his classmates seems counterintuitive. He also has a smaller class with fewer than 20 children. I know that isn’t the case for every child in every school.
But for those of us who can celebrate on a slightly larger scale, I want to make the case for inviting your child’s entire class.
Exclusion is Hurtful
There’s nothing worse on a Monday morning than to come to school only to find out that you missed out on a really awesome birthday party over the weekend. Even the children your child doesn’t like or doesn’t know deserve an invitation. Socializing outside of school can create new and different bonds than within school hours. And excluding a few children in a class can be disruptive and hurtful long after the event takes place.
One child with whom my son occasionally has conflicts at school, for example, came to his most recent birthday party and stuck to Bambino like glue. They had a wonderful time, this child had beautiful manners, and I was so glad they had such a wonderful, positive day together. Excluding him would not have helped their friendship, but perhaps being at our home for a few hours and having such fun will have positive ripples back at school.
Worse, some children use birthday party invitations as currency or weapons — “I’m not inviting you to my party!” or “She’s invited, but you aren’t.” We don’t like to think of our children doing that kind of thing, but the fact is they sometimes do. And frankly, the most hurtful examples are the parties where NEARLY everyone is invited — just a few children are excluded. Children are not equipped emotionally to rationalize that kind of behavior; rather they internalize it, and the wounds of being left out of a fun event can be long-lasting. As a parent, too, when you allow that kind of exclusion, you set an example that this is ok always. Those examples stick.
And this doesn’t begin to address the issues of bias and discrimination. Why is this child being excluded? Why is that child not invited? Does race or gender, socio-economic status, language, or disability play into that decision — even subconsciously? We don’t want to think that this happens, but it does. And we don’t want to be the source of that kind of pain.
It is easy to brush such slights off and to say, “It’s only a kid’s birthday party. It shouldn’t matter that much.” But here’s the thing: it does matter. What may seem small from an adult’s perspective can be huge to a child. Their life experience is much smaller, much more limited, and much more sheltered than ours. And let’s be honest: we all have felt the sting of not being included. It doesn’t get much easier as an adult. If we want the young people of the world to be better and different, we must show them the way — in big and small measures.
Separating by Gender is Problematic, too
Some parents choose to cut the numbers down by only inviting the girls or the boys. There are several issues here, though. First, a girls party or a boys party only serves to reinforce gender stereotypes. Are the activities you plan really only appealing to one gender? Why wouldn’t the girls in your child’s class enjoy a sword-fighting birthday party? I promise you they would. And wouldn’t the boys want to paint their own pottery? Again, I know they would.
I am going to confess: I can’t remember a boy ever coming to my childhood birthday parties. They were girly tea parties and celebrations of femininity. And I loved it! But, that was a long time ago. The world has changed. And as the mom of a boy, I see things very differently.
By inviting only one gender or the other, you are subtly telling your child that they should only enjoy friendships with one gender or the other. I didn’t have close friendships with boys as a child largely because when a boy and I showed interest in each other in any way, teasing about romantic intentions ensued. And I felt shamed, humiliated. The message was: boys and girls are only allowed to be romantically involved; they can’t be friends.
I want my child to have friendships with the girls in his class, and we actively encourage those relationships — at birthday parties and beyond. And should there be a friend who is nonbinary, gendered birthday parties can leave that friend even more isolated, too.
What seems like a simple solution — boys or girls — becomes far more complicated when you stop to think about the message such a gathering subtly sends.
Invite them all! The more the merrier!
Because we want our son to have friendships with everyone, to be inclusive, to be kind and compassionate and caring and to have friendships with all kinds of people, we use birthday parties as a simple place to model this behavior. In fact, we invite siblings, too! Including older and younger siblings makes for an even more diverse crowd of ages — and can make schedules a little less complicated for families, too.
But this means we can’t spend $30 per child on a birthday party at the local hot spot. Not even close! So, we have developed a simple and easy strategy for birthday parties which means that kids have a great time, and we don’t go broke.
Obviously, when a child gets to middle and high school, this isn’t usually possible. However, keep these things in mind even for older kids — the ages and numbers may change, but the issues of exclusion and gender and inclusivity remain the same.
What if they all come?
Some parents panic looking at the guest list and the potential number of guests. A few days before every party I have a small freak-out thinking: What if they all come? Then I take a deep breath. It would be ok either way. I plan parties that are flexible.
But here’s the truth: they won’t all come. People travel, have work or sport commitments, get sick, and have any number of other reasons that they can’t come. Get RSVPs so you can plan, but know that they won’t all come. And if they do, fabulous! You’ll have a wonderful time!
So, How do we do it?
I’ve written extensively about our birthday party strategies, but here are my five best tips for having a great birthday party for the entire class without breaking the bank:
Provide a few snacks. Don’t do a meal.
We have a simple menu: fruit and veggies, hummus, cheese and rice crackers, cake (with a gluten free option), juice pouches, iced tea (for parents), and iced water. Simple. Relatively healthy. And easy to prepare.
Plan activities — but also plan for play time.
Kids love free play time, so don’t over-schedule the party. Allow for time to run around outside and just play together.
Ask about allergies with the RSVPs.
There’s nothing worse than being the kid with the “weird allergy” and not having anything to eat at a party. Always ask parents when they RSVP if their child has allergies and how you can accommodate them. That small kindness will endear you both to the child and to the parents, too.
Invite parents to stay. Talk with them.
Birthday parties are a great time to get to know your child’s friends’ parents. Provide iced tea or adult beverages and a great place to sit and visit. Many will decide to stay, and they will have a good time, too!
Say “no” to gifts.
Before Bambino was even aware of birthday gifts, we adopted a “no gifts” policy — asking people to donate instead to a cause important to him or to our family. This is a great way to teach your child generosity — and to keep clutter out of your house!
Your child’s birthday is worthy of celebration! And as you plan your child’s birthday party, I hope you’ll consider inviting every child in their class. Each child is worthy. Each child is lovable. Each child deserves kindness, and you never know what a simple invitation to a party may mean in their life.
For more on giving great children’s birthday parties, read on about our formula for fun:
If you decide NOT to invite everyone
I know that there are many out there who simply can’t afford to have a birthday party with the possibility of twenty or thirty children attending. To those people I say: do what fits your budget. Celebrate your child! And this article is a great primer for those who decide not to invite everyone.
To avoid hurting feelings:
Don’t hand out invitations at school. Mail them or send evites.
Make it clear to other parents that not everyone was invited.
Invite fewer than half of the class. There’s nothing worse than a party where only one or two kids are excluded.
Talk carefully with your child about why you made your choice and how to avoid hurting others’ feelings.
If possible, postpone the party until a school break.