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The Non-Expert

The Party Racket

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we solve another parenting mystery: Exactly how many of your child’s classmates must you invite to the birthday party?

Have a question? Need some questionably expert advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.


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Question: We live in New York City and I’m planning a birthday party for my daughter, who is about to turn five. Do I have to invite all 17 kids in her preschool class (as many of the parents have done so far this year), or can I invite just a few? —Bridget

Answer: In our time, divorce and illegitimacy have become acceptable, but not failing to reciprocate a preschool birthday party invitation. You may think you’re having a small party because 1) your child doesn’t handle large parties well, or 2) you think it inappropriate for a five-year-old to receive 17 presents. But I assure you: The other parents will think you’re having a small party because 1) you’re one of those parents who don’t mind hurting other kids’ feelings, or 2) you’re cheap. What do you think the preschool interviews were for? Assessing your family’s compatibility with the school? Sorry. Assessing your child’s readiness for the school curriculum? Ridiculous. They were trying to determine 1) if you enjoy hurting kids’ feelings, and 2) your pre-tax income.

If you’re even considering not inviting the whole class, you obviously don’t mind hurting feelings and the Non-Expert applauds you for deceiving your preschool’s admissions board. But planning a party for 18 five-year-olds doesn’t have to be impossible. Here are your options.

If you have a lot of money, choose an outside venue. It will be expensive, but there will be a team of absurdly beautiful and energetic twentysomethings on hand to take care of every detail. If your daughter’s not happy—say she wants to eat while everyone else is still busy playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey—just send her over to “Samantha,” who, despite not having children of her own (despite not even having hips that look like they could birth a child), will be able to handle the situation better than you.

You don’t need to plan a game for the adults. They’ll bring their own: Trivial Pursuit, the New York real estate edition.If money’s a concern, plan a party at home. Here’s your template: craft, game, lunch, cake, presents (optional), playtime. The craft gives the kids something to do while you wait for everyone to arrive. Pick something easy that doesn’t involve scissors, toothpicks, or glitter glue. Cutting out paper snowflakes, for example, is a bad idea. Decorating cardboard swords with stickers? Fine.

The game can be tailored to a party’s theme, and you’ll find you’re better at this than you think: Pin-the-nose-on-the-snowman or Batman, Batman, Robin are a couple of ideas. You’ll also find that for every variation suitable for a child’s party, you’ll think of at least five variations extremely unsuitable for a child’s party. (See? I told you.) Avoid prizes. You don’t want to hurt the feelings of the kids who lose. At the end of pin-the-nose-on-the-snowman, for example, you can tell them nose placement is a matter of artistic expression. Maybe have a poster of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” around to whip out for the teaching moment.

Plan the party to fall over lunch or snack time, but don’t put out anything too nice or fancy. American five-year-olds are notoriously picky and subsist largely on cheese pizza.

Lastly, the gifts. To open or not to open? Your daughter will want to open them as soon as possible, but this will almost certainly instigate a sharing disaster. The Non-Expert’s advice: Open after the party unless you have a Samantha.

Whether the party is going to be held on neutral ground or in your home, you’ll need to send invitations. If you’re inviting everyone, feel free to use the school mail boxes. It will delight the children and those families who don’t lose the card between the Scholastic book order form and the snack sign-up sheet will attend. If you choose to be selective, you’ll have to use U.S. Mail. Most parent handbooks dictate this, usually right after the lice policy and procedures. I can only assume the juxtaposition is intentional.

Your daughter, you say, is about to turn five. Five is an interesting age because it is when many parents begin to bring their child to your house and leave him or her, returning in two hours when the play date or party is over. Why? Because five is the age when your offspring’s friend-making capacity exceeds yours to an enormous degree. The time of sweet get-togethers with babies in car seats gives way to nightmare visits with parents whose kindergarten application process is completely foreign to you. Not fun. On the other hand, if the child is dropped off, you’re stuck negotiating sharing problems and clean-up solo.

It’s likely that at least a few parents will stick around for the party even if you tell them not to, so now you must think about what food to serve. If you’re of the opinion that this is a kid’s party and the parents don’t need anything, some will think your home is “kid-centric.” Serve things that are sophisticated (mimosas, for example; at least one before the party starts), and you’ll be accused of not having the right priorities. You don’t need to plan a game for the adults. They’ll bring their own: Trivial Pursuit, the New York real estate edition.

After the party, make a list to the best of your ability of which child gave your daughter which gift. You won’t have made a list while the presents were being opened because 1) you couldn’t see anything inside the natural scrum five-year-olds form when one of their number has a present, and 2) you were answering questions about your apartment. You need this list in order to send thank-you notes. Alternatively, you could be a trendsetter and admit that “writing” thank-you notes with a five-year-old in which you write out what your daughter “says” to her friend in quotation marks and she scrawls her name along the bottom is a saccharine substitute for good manners. She’ll learn when she’s older. Give it a break.

In fact, give it all a break. Take your daughter to FAO Schwartz and play on the giant floor piano for an hour. It’ll make her happier than any party and it’ll remind you that there are some nice things about raising children in New York.


TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane