Kids’ Birthday Parties in Washington: Help!

Navigating the messy politics of children's parties isn’t for sissies

You know things have gotten out of control when there’s a Guinea pig wearing a cowboy hat at your kid’s party. Photo by Monica Sakala.

At this point, I’ve got a running list in my mind of things no one warned me about before I had kids. And the latest item on that list is kids’ birthday parties. I knew what I was getting into with sleepless nights, fussy babies, and nasty diapers. But no one mentioned how complicated the politics of inviting small children to your home could actually become. Not to mention how to figure out where in the world to host these parties without dropping a mint.
It can easily start to feel like you’re hosting Will and Kate’s wedding. Do you invite the entire class? If you do, then where do you host the party? What about siblings? Or your friend’s kids, do you invite them? What about neighbors? Who could bear looking over and seeing those sad neighbor kid eyes looking out the window, gazing longingly at the party?

There’s something to be said for Queen Elizabeth, because if she can get away with not inviting President and Mrs. Obama to Will’s wedding, what’s my problem?  I’ve yet to get this right, and we’re staring down my eldest’s sixth birthday in the fall. For her fifth birthday, I was adamant about keeping it small (famous last words). She was turning five, so she could invite five friends, I reasoned. I wasn’t going crazy with the goodie bags filled with plastic toys from Target. I wasn’t going to hire a clown or juggler or musician. We were going to be modest.

Yeah, right. I think I ended up with 25 kids in my backyard, goodie bags filled with items that coordinated with a bunny theme, and a farmer out front with half a dozen bunnies, a Guinea pig dressed like a cowboy, a goose, and several ducks.

How did this happen, you’re probably wondering?  Despite being the hostess and party planner, somehow I ended up blindsided by my own event. It slowly took on a life of its own, incrementally growing in size and cost, while I remained steadfast in my talking points of small and modest. Perhaps denial is a constant theme in my approach to motherhood.

Part of it was surely the, “Mommy, I really want an all-girl fancy five bunny party” requests that began the day after her fourth birthday, and were repeated ad nauseam for the rest of the year. Bunnies were simpler and cheaper than the complete petting zoo we hosted the year before, I convinced myself.

The guest list became the most botched and complicated part of the party. We were early in the school year, so I didn’t think we had to invite the entire class. Plus we had neighbor friends, cousins, and a few siblings of friends to invite, and I had to draw the line somewhere. So my daughter selected five friends from school she felt really close with, and we invited them.

Her teacher’s rule is like the first rule of Fight Club for preschoolers: We don’t talk about birthday parties at school.  Uh huh. Five year-olds definitely don’t talk about birthday parties at school . . . so while she changed her mind more times than she did over her Halloween costume about which school friends to invite, a few were awkwardly being added days before the party. In the end, we were still quietly able to have a (large) party without the entire class, but with a smaller group that my daughter felt were her close friends. Still, I never felt right about the guest list. While it’s true that parents should reasonably be allowed to draw the line at numbers, and kids shouldn’t be compelled to invite the entire class, when you’re 5, it’s pretty arbitrary who you end up inviting, and all the kids are sweet. Though I despise mommy guilt, I still felt guilty that we were leaving some out.

Fast forward to the spring and parents are still navigating the murky waters of the birthday party, managing the size, cost, and so on. One friend tells me her daughter came home from school crying because she knew she wasn’t invited to another girl’s party, and the rest of the girls were talking about the party at school. Unless I’m oblivious, I don’t think any parent is walking around angry that their kid isn’t invited to a particular party, at least not at this young age. Surely we all appreciate how hard it is to keep these parties small and manageable. But it’s always tough when it’s your kid crying because she’s been left out.

Maybe there is no easy answer. And in DC, I struggle to find an inexpensive solution. Few of us have homes large enough to host dozens of kids, let alone wish to have all those grimy fingers and feet tearing through our homes. Off-site places, on the other hand, are expensive and book up months in advance. If you’ve found a solution, please, don’t keep it to yourself. Enlighten us in the comments.

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