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Page last updated at 15:33 GMT, Monday, 30 June 2008 16:33 UK

The politics of birthday parties

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Birthday party in EastEnders
Who's in and who's out?

Balloons. Pass the parcel. And a slice of cake wrapped in a napkin. Even those who take this lo-fi approach to their child's party run into the minefield of who to invite - and who to leave off the guest list.

When your little darling is small, issuing birthday party invitations is straightforward. Grandparents - check. A few friends from playgroup, chosen because you like their parents - check.

But once a child reaches school age, it all becomes much more fraught. Aside from any parental competition to throw the best bash, what matters most is who will come. And whether your child can expect an invitation in return.

In Sweden, an eight-year-old boy handed out party invites to all but two of his classmates - one because he had not asked him to his party, and the other he did not get on with. The teacher confiscated the invitations, claiming discrimination, and the school has complained to the Swedish Parliament.

No-one likes to feel left out, and small children feel this more keenly than most. So what are the pitfalls?

1. Invite the whole class. But with numbers nudging well into mid-20s, this can hardly seem practical if the venue is your home - especially if there is no garden in which small people can let off steam, or rain stops outdoor play. And there's the cost issue. But it is an unwritten rule in some schools, for the first few years at least. While some teachers may help distribute invitations in bookbags, others may not unless everyone is included. Hence the rise of joint parties, hosted by several families with birthdays close together.

Five-year-old girls at a New York nail bar
No boys at this manicure party

2. So beware of upping the hyperactive tendencies of small children. There is a reason cloudy apple juice and homemade potato wedges have become the stuff of middle-class cliche and that reason is to do with what they lack. E-numbers. If little Johnny from Acorn class knocks over Granny Mabel's Clarice Cliff vase while high on Sunny D, it would hardly do to claim reparations from his pocket money.

3. Limit numbers. Some families put relatives first. And some schools tell parents not to feel obliged to invite every child to a party, but urge them not to leave just one out. Because no-one likes to feel like Billy No-Mates. By Year Two - age seven - numbers tend to shrink, depending on the activity organised. "When your kid is one of a select few going to a climbing wall, they are gone all afternoon which is great if you want to do something," says one party veteran. "But payback comes when you do the same and have four or five hyper kids for most of the day."

4. But under-fives who draw up feverish lists of guests - everyone at nursery, the lady from the bus, the monotonous relatives, the man in the paper shop - will not notice that only a fraction have been invited. There are balloons!

5. After five, inclusivity can go out the window. Boys reach an age when girls have germs and vice versa. More poignant is when children start asking just a few close buddies and one child who finds it difficult to make friends is left bereft of invites.

6. What about parents? Should little Johnny's mum and/or dad help police the roving youngsters wired on sugar and excitement? For under-fives, the answer is probably yes - these are grown-ups starved of social engagements. Oh, and their kid may cry if they try to leave. But if a child's mummy and/or daddy are insufferable bores of one sort or another, their child may well be left off the guest list.

Birthday cake
Don't forget a slice for Daddy

7. If parents come, they will expect to get fed and watered. And cloudy apple juice won't cut it. Although rice crispy cakes most certainly will. By the fourth birthday, it may only be one parent - perhaps under strict instructions to return with cake.

8. School-age offspring may want to invite that child with the dull/overbearing/pushy parent. Worry not - chances are they will regard another child's party as time off for good behaviour. Unless the hosts are renowned for their particularly fine rice crispy cakes.

9. Unless their child is not invited, in which case perhaps be prepared for an awkward discussion at the school gates. With a scowl like a Big Brother contestant denied entrance to the VIP area, these parents cannot see that the lack of fellow feeling between their child and yours should be any impediment to admittance.

10. Perhaps you can take this as a sign that your rice crispy cake is not to be missed. But do not expect an invitation once their child's party rolls around.

Below is a selection of your comments:

For our son who is 7 next week, the party rule was - Invites to those who invited you to their party. This meant the exclusion of one "friend" who had been "bullied" by a third friend not to invite our son to his birthday party. Ah the politics of the playground.
Gw, Bham

Thinking about, talking about and planning a party is a great time to get to understand your child's friendships better. The grown-ups are in charge , should be sensitive to age, needs, and what your child would really like but within a budget - and it can be quite cheap. It's the gaiety, fun and specialness which counts. The manicure party is a ghastly thought. We lead by example, and if the parents are the sort who notice who's left out and care for others (not necessarily what others think of THEM) then a birthday party could be special for EVERYONE.

We found a good formula was one friend per year of age, so a three year old invites three friends. Young children especially are overwhelmed by too many guests. I used to do the food, my husband the games. Children used to go away aking if their next party could be the same.
Christine Thompson, Cornwall

A child in my son's class invited the whole class to his 7th birthday party, apart from my son. I am amazed the parents found this acceptable. Whilst my son was upset and wondered why he was excluded - he usually gets on well with the boy - I wonder what manners and standards other parents try to instil in their children. I could understand if they did not usually get on together.
Neil, Surrey

For goodness sake, childrens parties are just that. Parents should get a grip and not try to out-do each other. Our kids have simple parties with only upto 10 guests. Children simply want to have fun, they don't need additional stresses piled on them by over-zealous parents.
Jane Cummings, Crewe, England

Interesting article, although you forgot to mention the all important, incredibly expensive, competitive PARTY BAGS!!! Whatever happened to the simple idea of cake and maybe a balloon!!
Jane , London

Children should learn early on that failure to build and maintain relationships causes pain. If a child is not being invited to a party because they are aggressive, stand-offish, or have other negative traits, it's a great incentive for them to change their ways.
James Rigby, Wickford, Essex

When my son was 6 he showed me the list of friends he wanted to come along to his birthday party and the invitations were duly sent off to school and replies received. However, the scowl of the mother as she dropped off ONE of her twin daughters was enough to make me shake in my boots. When I asked my son why only one of the twins he said 'the other one is no good in goals' and therefore wasn't invited!

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