How To Not Invite Problematic Family To Your Kid’s Big Life Events (With Minimal Drama)
A therapist and an etiquette expert explain how to handle inviting racist Aunt Sally to your next gathering.
As lawmakers across the country continue their crusade against the most vulnerable members of our population, plenty of people feel more emboldened and empowered to share their hatred and bigotry in person and on social media. So, what do you do when you're hosting a gathering — say, your kid's birthday party or a family holiday — and you simply can't look past your cousin's racist memes on Facebook or your uncle's routine use of slurs in casual conversation? Do you have to invite people hell-bent on harming marginalized communities with their words and actions to the most important moments of your family's life?
In theory, you wouldn't invite anyone who so clearly clashes with your life views. And maybe you've even scoffed at the friend in your circle who keeps asking their problematic family member to every party. You don't understand why they don't just cut them out altogether! But generational curses and trauma are real — for some people, it's less about inviting or not inviting someone and more about the prospect of untangling themselves from a toxic dynamic that is decades deep.
Scary Mommy tapped an etiquette expert and a therapist, who explained how to handle such a sticky situation with more grace than the person might deserve.
First Things First
It's worth noting that you never need to put yourself or your children around people threatening your safety or well-being, and both experts agree that you can (and should!) set strict boundaries with anyone you welcome to your gathering.
"Creating an environment where everyone in attendance feels valued and comfortable is the number one etiquette standard a host should adhere to," says Tami Claytor, owner of Always Appropriate: Image & Etiquette Consulting. That means you're not required to invite family members and friends with whom you disagree on fundamental issues to events, she says.
"On one hand, family is an important part of many people's lives, and it can be seen as a moral obligation to include all family members in events," says Mandalyn Castanon, LMHC, an Indiana-based therapist who works with LGBTQ+ youth. "Excluding certain family members may cause tension and lead to further disagreements and conflict in the future. On the other hand, it is important to prioritize your own emotional well-being and mental health. If being around certain family members causes stress, anxiety, or discomfort, it may be better to exclude them from events to protect your own well-being."
While informal occasions might make things easier, Claytor notes that big milestones and more formal events can be tougher to navigate. If you do choose to invite the person, both pros recommend setting clear, strict boundaries and expectations for their behavior at the event.
"You can take steps to limit interactions between yourself and this person, such as seating arrangements, strategically planning activities, or even explicitly telling them that you won't be talking about politics or other hot-button issues at the event," says Castanon. "Make it clear to the person that if they choose to cross those boundaries and can't conduct themselves in an appropriate way, they'll be asked to leave or not be invited to future events. If they can't put aside their political or ideological differences for your event, there is no reason to invite them."
Claytor suggests asking the person if they can abide by certain off-limits conversations, which puts the ball back in their court and makes your wishes known beforehand.
Should someone cross a boundary at the event, Claytor says you could "furtively change the topic of conversation without drawing attention to what you found offensive" to avoid an awkward confrontation in front of others.
To address it directly, Claytor says you can "highlight that the conversation has turned to a topic that was mutually agreed upon would be off limits," or you can "take the person aside and have a private discussion regarding the topic of conversion and how you would like it to end."
On The Fence?
If you're on the fence, "it may be helpful to consider the potential consequences of inviting or not inviting this person," says Castanon. Zooming out and thinking about the long-term, big-picture ramifications can help you as you make your invite list. Are you willing to handle any inherent awkwardness or tension in the future should you leave racist Aunt Sally or homophobic Stepdad Bill off your list? That should help guide your decision, she says.
Claytor suggests having a conversation on the phone or in person if you choose to exclude someone. "It may be helpful to communicate your reasons in a respectful and compassionate way to avoid causing hurt feelings or further conflict," adds Castanon, who shares some phrases you can use:
- "I've been thinking about the guest list, and I've decided to keep it small..."
- "I hope you know that I value our relationship, but I've decided only to invite people who share my values to this particular event."
- "I love you, but your behavior in the past has made it difficult for me to include you in this gathering."
- "I've been thinking and have realized that our values don't align, and I don't feel comfortable having you at my party."
- "I hope you can understand that this decision is about me and what I need in order to feel comfortable and happy at my own party."
No matter what, Castanon emphasizes the importance of protecting the safety and well-being of yourself, your partner, and your children without guilt. But ultimately, it's up to you to decide how to proceed, and unfortunately, there's no clear-cut answer that works for every family and every situation.