This was the first year I really thought about it: 5.
My son wanted his first “real” birthday party—the kind that was less my friends and family members and more his friends from pre-school (most of whom I didn’t even know their parents). The kind that many parents think of as, well, a headache. It was exactly this kind of party that gave me stomach twisting anxiety.
In the past, my son’s parties had been more like grown-up gatherings. Perhaps one of his little friends, pizza, games, the pool set up in the backyard. Mostly, though it was my friends and family, adult beverages, and food. He had been happy enough just to have us there, and had been mostly shy in the way of having a number of preschool friends.
But this past year had been the starting year of these “big kid” parties. The themed invites with superheroes and unicorns trickling in in the preschool parent mailboxes, neighbors hand-delivering glittery envelopes written in 4-year-old printing.
I developed a bit of anxiety over the thought of him requesting one of these birthday parties. Mostly, if we invite his friends, what if people don’t come? Because of this, I was happy to have not had to worry about such a party yet. The thought of my kid sitting at his birthday party with none of this friends there kept flooding my mind. The thought of him being sad or disappointed, of feeling lonely or friendless—on his birthday of all days—was gutting.
I had a number of these constructed, imagined images of him popping into my head. Innocence-shattering heartbreak of feeling unloved, shoulders slumped in one of those cone-shaped birthday hats. An empty table. God! I could hardly bare it. But the reality was—this as a possibility had yet to even occur to my son. He didn’t know to be anxious. And thankfully.
It was this very feeling—long before my son’s birthday had even happened—that I adopted a personal policy. Go to the parties.
The truth is, I don’t want any kid to feel this way. No kid should invite his class to his birthday only to have no one show up. To sit there alone, to have the crushing realization that his friends aren’t coming.
There have been a few viral instances I can recall. A fire department coming to surprise a child after none of his classmates show up, or another where hundreds of people sent birthday cards and gifts to a kid who received none. But can we just make sure this never happens? That no kid has to feel that outcasted and alone and unloved?
I know that life is exponentially busy these days. I know there is so much going on, so much to keep track of as parents. I know there is no time. That there is exhaustion. I get it. It’s easy to forget to RSVP, it’s easy to totally miss the date after you have RSVP’d. It’s easy to be too busy, too preoccupied. There have been times we had forgotten to check our school mailbox and altogether missed parties because of it. I know.
But here’s the thing: my son got to pick 9 friends to invite to his 5thparty. 9 friends he hand chose to come, all of whom he really wanted to come. He asked me every day whose mom had said they were coming. He made loot bags for each kid, deciding what they personally might like in it. He couldn’t wait to give them out. He counted down the days, the hours, the minutes to this party. (And let me tell you, when you have a 5-year-old who doesn’t understand the concept of time, this is like 90% annoying.)
With the two people unable to come, he noticed. He wanted to know why. Some kids invite their entire classes. They know who they are inviting. They know who doesn’t come. They look for them, they wonder about it.
I know it’s easy to assume kids will be there, that perhaps your child hardly even knows that kid. I know you may think the kid wouldn’t even notice or care if you guys attended or not. But they know, and they are looking for your kid.
Go to the parties. Because you don’t know how many kids were invited. You don’t know how many kids will go. You don’t know how much it means to parents who are hoping at least a few kids show up. Make it a priority. Teach your kid that showing up, showing you care, celebrating others—is a priority.
When my son was invited to the party of a little boy I knew he wasn’t particularly fond of, I asked him about it. This boy tended to hit. He had tantrums, he didn’t share, he grabbed toys. I knew of the boy. Particularly, I knew he had had a rough start in life. I knew he had been adopted from foster care, where he had spent the first few years of his life.
My son said to me, “He doesn’t even like me and he hits and takes toys out of my hand.” We talked a lot about this boy. About different people’s struggles and backgrounds and experiences. We discussed that this boy was still learning, that he may not have had the same opportunities as other kids in the class. That he may not have always had people being nice, and kind and sharing with him. We talked about being nice anyway. About sharing, being patient, about remembering that it’s not personal. This little boy is learning, let’s show him that people can be nice, kind and share, and be his friend. It may help him learn to be a good friend and do the same.
It was not an option to not attend this boy’s party. In particular, it had occurred to me that if my son felt this way about this kid, how many other kids did? How many people wouldn’t go? And as we talked, my son seemed to understand. He was excited to pick out a toy he would like, and to go play at the play gym. He wanted to try. Out of two classrooms invited (around 25 kids), 4 kids came. Most didn’t even RSVP. The long table looked sadly empty as they sat to sing happy birthday, and there was so much excess food and cake.
While this little boy certainly had fun, did he notice that only 4 of his classmates came? Of course. My son noticed, and asked me where everyone was. I am grateful that 4 kids came and played, brought him presents and sang to him. I am grateful he got to experience kindness. But I am saddened by the fact that so many people probably didn’t give it a second thought. And the horribly sad repercussions of what that could mean for a little boy’s sense of feeling cared about.
Go to the parties. They will be loud, and maybe obnoxious. You may not know the other parents. You may feel awkward. You may wish you could be doing something else with your time. But go anyway.
Pick out a present and show up. Show up for the mean kids, the bullies, and the kids that get made fun of. Show up for the kids that eat their boogers, or the kid that pushed your kid on the playground. Show up for the kids with special needs whom other kids may not understand. For the kids who are different.
Go for the parents who are worried no one will come, and go for the kids. It’s more than just another birthday party. It’s a child who wants to feel loved and cared about. Special for a couple of hours. Teach your kid early: we show up for others, we celebrate others and no matter our differences, we choose kindness.