The Ethics of Birthday Party Invitations

One might think there’s nothing more innocent and free spirited than the act of extending birthday party invitations. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

For within the planning of children’s birthday parties and the offering of invitations is a minefield fraught with ethical stumbling blocks and booby traps. Here are three pointers to help you maneuver the maze.

Pointer #1: An Invitation Sticks

How tempting it is for a child to yank a birthday party invitation after friction enters a friendship. “You’re not invited to my birthday party anymore!” is a common schoolyard refrain. Yet it’s important for your child to know that an invitation, like a gift, cannot be reclaimed. It’s best to wait up to four weeks before the date of the party before issuing invitations, verbal or written.

It is the rare child who is oblivious to an upcoming birthday. I once heard 9-year-old Sam’s older sister say, “So, Sam, this afternoon you’re going to see all your friends.”

He looked up. “Why?”

“It’s your birthday party today!” she cried out, exasperated.

“Oh,” he said with a shrug. “Right.”

Other youngsters begin serious planning for the next birthday party the moment the ribbons are swept off the floor from the current festivity. In between are children of various inclinations. Here’s your signal: As soon as your child starts verbalizing plans for the next birthday party, say: “Remember, hold off on inviting anyone until [give a date four weeks before the party or a reference point such as a holiday, beginning/end of school, etc.] You never know who you’ll still be friends with later on. Because once you give an invitation, it sticks.”

Pointer #2: A guest is 100% invited

Layering guests is another common dynamic. Youngsters will freely announce who is “next in line” to their birthday party. Yet lining up a waiting list all-too-clearly demonstrates to the waiting children their secondary, lesser ranking. Better for your child to understand that if a guest is invited, the guest is invited one hundred percent.

Friends not invited to the party may ask your child, “How could I’m not invited to your birthday party?” or even follow with: “You were invited to mine.” Your child could respond by saying, “I was only allowed to have [#] guests. Do you want to come over to my house to play soon?” Then arrange the playdate.

In suburbia, it’s not uncommon for children to invite a large number of guests to an afternoon party, and of that group, to invite a smaller number of the “closest” friends to remain for an evening or sleepover party. If your child proposes such an arrangement, do not for one second believe that the guests not invited to stay will not find out about the more desirable, later, party. Faster than the speed in which a birthday gift is torn open will the word spread. Those not invited will become instantly and dismally aware of their diminished stature. On more than one occasion, I picked up my daughter from a birthday party to find her fighting back tears, while nearby me other parents were similarly consoling their children, also left behind, and knowing the real party was just beginning.

Be sure your child understands that when a guest is invited, the guest is invited one hundred percent.

Pointer #3: Discretely distribute invitations

Completing and mailing birthday party invitations is an unwelcome chore. No wonder parents are tempted to streamline the process by personally handing out birthday party invitations at school.

When my younger daughter Hannah was in preschool, I noticed that parents would tuck birthday party invitations into the children’s open cubby squares. Though this method did not present a problem when all children in a class were invited to a party, when some youngsters were invited and others were not – particularly when the invitations were in brightly colored envelopes – it was all-too-clear to the ones not invited that there was no envelope in their cubbyhole. In the preschool years, it’s better for parents to hand the invitations directly to the other parents or caregivers. Or, if that’s not possible due to work schedules, to bite the bullet and mail them. Better yet, to email the invitations if that’s an agreeable alternative.

The tendency to hand out invitations in public places tracks through the grades. In the hubbub that followed a middle school play, I witnessed one preteen distributing birthday party invitations to a delighted crowd surrounding her. Glancing around, I noticed other youngsters also watched the excitement, and were not as pleased about it.

Let these three pointers guide you toward defusing the ethical booby traps in the world of birthday party invitations. Perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the genre of children’s birthday party invitations represents a microcosm of American ethical practices. For aren’t such everyday interactions of family dynamics the grist of our lives?

So tackle those birthday parties with vim, vigor, and knowledge. By your guidance, give your child another – a more lasting – kind of a gift.