This morning I had a conversation with a group of moms about birthday parties—namely party invites, handed out in the hallway to a select group of kids, in front of others. About a friend’s child who barely receives any. About how difficult that is as a parent, and about what possible solutions there might be.
If you have a Facebook account, you’ll have seen countless shared news stories about kids with disabilities having heartbreaking birthday parties. Google “autism birthday party” and pages of these stories will appear: parents who posted their kids’ parties on community group platforms, pleading for strangers to come since all the invited kids declined, a high school football team making a surprise appearance at a boy’s birthday party since only one classmate RSVPed, an 18-year-old waiting all night in a bowling alley for guests who never came. You can guarantee that the kids whose parties are unattended don’t receive handfuls of invites either.
Birthday parties—throwing them, attending them—are one of those childhood minefields. Should you invite the whole class? Just a handful of kids? When and where should you deliver invitations? What if your kid comes home crying about a party they weren’t invited to?
We are lucky with Angus. He has a small group of good friends and is generally unconcerned about the goings on of kids outside that group. I have seen invitations handed out in front of him, but he has either not noticed or not cared about this. Parties are hard for him—all that unbridled excitement can be overwhelming. He’s as aware of this as we are, so is selective about the parties he attends.
Angus’s own birthday is in June, so he’s had nine months to get to know his classmates before his party. The first year of preschool, we invited his whole class to an afternoon of bouncy castle chaos in a rented gym. In the second year of preschool, there were a group of boys who called him names and ran away whenever he tried to play with them. We were more selective that year. In kindergarten there were similar dynamics, and we invited a tiny group, throwing him a party at the horse stables so the equine guests rounded out the attendee list. Grade one, when he was at a small inclusive school, we invited his whole class to a party at the beach. Then we watched in amazement as the kids spent two hours playing cooperatively in the sand.
Now Angus is in public school, and with friends from previous schools added to the list there is no way I’m willing to invite all his classmates to his party. Even a party at the beach or at a playground, with minimal organization required, is stressful: making sure all the kids are accounted for, are not being excluded, got a cupcake, didn’t lose their shoes, are in one piece when returned to their parents. But winnowing down the class list is relatively easy. Last year, I wrote a list of names and Angus circled kids who were “nice to him.”
All this to say, for me the minefield is easy to navigate. I’ve not had to worry about whether or not the “different” kid is invited, because generally Angus is that kid, and his friends with autism are always included. Also, because he’s a summer baby, we can be outside, where there is enough space for movement to satisfy kids, like my own, who can’t handle sitting for two hours watching a movie or following instructions at an art studio.
Maybe for you this minefield is trickier, so—based on my morning convergence of moms—here’s a list of suggestions:
1. If you’re a party-throwing pro, definitely invite the whole class. There will be kids who don’t get any other invites, and you’ll receive undying gratitude from them and their parents.
2. If you’re afraid to invite a particular kid because you’ve seen them melting down in the hallway and you expect they’ll make things uncomfortable and hard, ask how to accommodate them. I guarantee that no parent will be insulted by that question.
3. If you have a phobia of large groups of kids, invite a select group—but do it by email. Better yet, ask for addresses so your guests experience the thrill of mail.
4. If your child has thrown, or attended, a party with a small guest list, encourage them not to discuss the party at school. Talk to them about how they would feel if they overheard their friends discussing a party they hadn’t been invited to. Empathy is a life skill.
5. Having food or drinks for parents will encourage more of them to stay. You know what they say about many hands…
6. Try a toonie party. Gifts add a whole different set of issues: when to open them, how to ensure expressions of pleasure when no genuine pleasure is felt. Not to mention what they require from parents in terms of money and time, both time shopping and time digging around for ideas from kids who believe that other children like exactly what they like. Illustrated dictionaries, anyone?
7. Be grateful they only occur once every 365 days.