Guest Again

Are Boys-Only Toddler Birthday Parties OK?

An etiquette expert weighs in on using gender to whittle down preschool party guest lists.

Written by Elizabeth Narins
Two little boys eat cake at a birthday party.
AzmanL/Getty Images

Birthday parties cost a freaking fortune these days, especially when you're paying by the head at a playspace that provides nothing but the keys to their castle. While my wallet hurts for parents who go all in on the venue, I can't quite wrap my head around excluding members of a preschool class to make the numbers work — especially when said classmates all seem to co-play democratically and enjoy each other's company at school.

It's why when my 3.5-year-old son was recently invited to his first boys-only birthday party, I swear I heard a record scratch. Sure, reason dictates that 3-year-olds are far too young to register exclusion, let alone let it bubble up into extraneous drama. And truth be told, my son would never have known if his name had fallen off the guest list of a birthday girl (or boy). But I still felt bad for the girls in his class who couldn't participate in their friend's festivities simply because of their gender.

While I hosted and attended lots of girls-only birthday parties when I was a kid, now that I'm a preschool parent, something feels off about arbitrarily discriminating against classmates of a specific gender at such a young age. Rather than boycott the party — hey, it was a good one! — I reached out to Nick Leighton, co-host and producer of the etiquette podcast Were You Raised by Wolves? to confirm whether this kind of early-onset exclusion is a host's prerogative or ill-mannered.

So, OK or awful?

Leighton’s take: It's always nice to include everyone in the class and select an event venue that accommodates the group and your budget so you don't have to leave anyone out.

Of course, this can be easier said than done. In fact, Leighton sees this come up all the time in wedding planning: The bride's dream venue is some inaccessible barn in Maine that only accommodates 75 people, but that means whittling down the guest list and even uninviting grandma, he explains. "It's backward — you should always start with who you want there, then find a place to accommodate your guest list and your budget," he says.

Do you have to invite the whole class?

Whether you're hosting a wedding or a kid's birthday party, inclusion is not a requirement. "The host gets to decide who is on their guest list, who is at their event, and what that event is. That's the privilege of being a host," Leighton says. A host's only job, he continues, is to make sure their invitation outlines the kind of party they're having so that guests can make an informed decision about whether to attend.

That's not to say that hosts are, like, bulletproof from proper etiquette. "One principle of etiquette is consequences," Leighton tells me. "Excluding certain people might have consequences like a host's kid being left out of a future birthday party." Given how little control most little kids have over their birthday party guest lists, this fact strikes me as sad.

Is there any possible positive spin here?

While paring down a guest list based on gender may seem unnecessarily exclusionary, at least it makes things impersonal, which should make you feel just a little bit better about being excluded or doing the excluding, he points out. Consider the alternative: Seeing your kid excluded because the birthday boy doesn't like them, or because his parents don't. So, in some ways, breaking things down by gender actually makes a whole lot of sense.

At the end of the day, Leighton concludes, it's not rude to exclude half the class based on gender or any other factor. "It's just not what I would do because I think it's nicer to be more inclusive," he says. And when your kid is watching your every move and taking notes on how they should be operating, wouldn't you want to be nice?

If you can't invite every kid in your child's class to their birthday party for whatever reason, you can at least sleep at night knowing that you're teaching an important life skill in coping. "You're never going to be invited to everything," Leighton says. "That's just how the world works."