Must My Child Attend a Birthday Party?

Kids love birthday parties. Usually. But if there’s an invitation and the child doesn’t want to attend, should I push the issue and require attendance?

On the one hand, nobody likes the idea of a child’s birthday party with everybody skipping. The thought of a heartbroken child with no friends drives an impulse to require attendance as parents think there but for the grace of God, goes my child.  There are children who are simply unpopular for no particular reason and it shows in the order in which they’re picked for sports teams, or by the chronic name-calling that accompanies their schooldays.  Kids are cruel.  It’s this same impulse that drives well-meaning parents to press the kids to befriend someone who appears to not have any friends.  We talk to the invited kids and try to get them to see the other viewpoint:  how would you feel if…

But if the cruel kid is the one extending the invitation, then it’s entirely reasonable that your child is resisting.  And the trick is in figuring out why the child doesn’t want to go.

We’ve been burned by the willingness to extend sympathy.  One of our children came home from the first day of second grade and as we talked about who was in his class, he spoke about how everybody disliked one child whom he described as a "chunky chinese bully".  Both my wife and I talked to our son about this comment, reminding him that perhaps the boy  was acting out because of the weight and also being the only Asian child in the class.  To his credit, he took our advice to try and be a friend; the unfortunate reality was that our son was correct and in the rush to extend sympathy, we found that the descriptive term bully was entirely correct.  This child took over a large part of our son’s school year and my wife and I had multiple conversations with his parents as well as the teacher and principal.  Yes, my son was entirely correct in his assessment.

 So when Youngest received an invitation earlier this year and resisted attending, I had a better clue of how to approach it.  This particular child had a reputation of anger management issues and when I pressed my son, found that he had on multiple occasions taken swings at Youngest.  He had frankly taken swings at just about everybody in the class.  And when I looked again at the invitation from the boy’s parents, my heart dropped at what they’d written.  They were aware that there was liable to be no one attending and had pushed the presence of pizza, games and ice cream as added incentive to attend.  Mind that these are typical fare at birthday parties and I’ve never before seen them touted.

So if there’s resistance to the invitation, consider these factors.

  • Is this a name that you’ve heard before and if so, in what context?  That means when you talk with your child about school, ask who they played with and take note of what names are cropping up.  If the kid has raked your child’s face with a stapler, then you don’t want anything to do with it.
  • Simply ask why she doesn’t want to attend.  Vague descriptive terms like weird, nerd or geek with no other rationale can be the jumping off point for discussions about sympathy and extending a friendly hand.  Terms like bully, rough, cheater are words that have clear meanings even for small children and are worth some respect.
  • Look at the invitation itself.  If it appears to be overkill – as happened in my case – then the parents are unwittingly signalling their worries.
  • Listen to what your child is saying to other kids in your presence.  That’s why I love driving kids places:  I become wallpaper and absorb everything that they say as they forget I’m there.

And remember that when you get answers to your questions, you’ll probably have to dig further and deeper.  But the digging is worth it if it helps you understand the rationale behind the resistance.


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