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When Your Kid Isn't on the Guest List

Photograph by Getty Images

"What party?" is the saddest question in the world, according to Oscar Wilde. And if it's depressing as an adult to hear about a party you weren't invited to, imagine how devastating it can be to a child.

Just ask Susan, a mother of two in New Hampshire, whose then 8-year-old daughter was left out of a slumber party hosted by a classmate. "Sophie mentioned her friend was having a party after hearing other girls talk about it in the school lunchroom," says Susan, "but we hadn't received an invite. I told Sophie she was probably not invited, and she cried and insisted she was."

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Susan called the other mother, who "confirmed Sophie was not invited. She was pretty neutral. She said they told the child she could invite eight girls, and the child chose eight, and Sophie wasn't one of them. I was upset because this mom is also our Brownie leader and most of the other troop members were invited."

Needless to say, Sophie was very hurt. Susan says she was angry, too, "Although it was a good opportunity to discuss why these kind of things shouldn't be discussed at school."

As children navigate the sometimes tricky territory of friendships and popularity in grade school, being invited to a party—or being left out in the cold—can take on huge significance. Those who aren't invited to a party feel bad, while those deciding upon a guest list can face tough choices—especially if parents or party venues place limits on how many can attend. It's a perfect storm for what child psychologists call relational aggression.

An informal poll of friends revealed that nearly everyone has had complicated experiences with parties, invitations, and exclusion—this is one of those parenting dilemmas they don't tell you about when you're planning your child's nursery. But maybe they should. Because it's inevitable: Have a baby, and one day you'll be the one hosting a birthday party and trying to decide whom to invite, or you'll be the one consoling a child who never received that coveted invitation. Probably both.

Complicating the picture is "the parental arms race," as one mother put it, of expensive parties at faraway venues. It's hard to invite the whole class if you're spending hundreds of dollars to hold it at a fancy gymnastics academy.

Being inclusive is a choice—and so is being exclusionary.

Some advice, then, for hosts:

See if your school (or church or synagogue, or Brownie troupe) has any rules about about parties, at least parties in which invitations are distributed there. Some ask that the whole class be invited; others that all of one gender is OK (this personally rankled me and a few other moms whose sons are friends with girls, but at least there is some sense to it).

Keeping the party very small—under five guests—seems to mitigate hurt feelings. A big party you aren't invited to feels worse than one that is really tiny. "Our kids usually picked two or three close friends to spend the night and do something special," like an amusement park or camping trip, said one mom, who also teaches junior high. "I teach all day, so there is no way in hell I would host 25 kids on my weekend!"

As much as possible, talk to your child about not hurting anyone's feelings by gabbing about a party not everyone was invited to.

As with almost every other childhood challenge, it all boils down to parents modeling what we want our kids to learn. Being inclusive is a choice—and so is being exclusionary.

If at all possible, give birth in the summer! Because school isn't in session, you avoid the drama about inviting whole, half or part of a class, and in most cases it's warm enough to hold the party in your backyard or a city park. (It's too late for most of us, but many of the moms I talked to threw this out there!)

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The good news is that children mostly get over these sleights—and can even learn from them. Parents are another story.

In the end, Susan says, the event "inspired Sophie to choose a party for herself where she could invite more people and not exclude. I wouldn't want her to be left out a lot, but in retrospect it was not a bad thing to see how yucky it feels to be the one who is left out."

The girl who didn't invite Sophie is now one of her best friends, Susan says. "And Sophie doesn't seem to have any grudge. Although I do, a bit."

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