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The Misplaced Shame

This story takes place nearly two decades ago, but it still makes me uncomfortable to think about it, and I still remember it well, despite being five at the time. I don’t remember the theme or location of my sixth birthday party, but the guests were (as was typical for my family) my cousins, a few of my parents’ friends kids I’d grown up with, a couple neighbor kids, and a small bunch of kids from my new kindergarten class that I’d become close with.

The invitations went out to my friends at school (maybe 5 or 6 kids from a class of 60), and a few days later I received a phone call from a girl in my class I didn’t know very well. We had never played together outside of school, or even really in school, or on the playground, and we never really spoke. We didn’t dislike each other, but we just had different groups of friends, which is what makes the whole thing so strange.

I remember her voice being quiet and unsure, and she asked if she could come to my birthday party. I was completely taken aback, because even at a young age it seemed to me inappropriate (although I didn’t know the right word) to invite yourself to a party. She said her mom said she should just call me and ask if she could come, which is clearly where things had gone wrong. I can think of a million ways the awkward little situation could have been my fault. I could have passed out the invitations in class, in front of other kids (I’m almost positive they were mailed), I could have invited the majority of the class and excluded this girl (I didn’t), I could have been good friends with her and excluded her anyway (nope…) As a little girl then and a bigger one now, I am baffled as to why the mother thought that this course of action would be good for either of us.

It’s clear to me now that the girl probably overheard me and my friends talking about the party, which for adults would have been the height of rudeness but for a few five year-olds at playtime seems pretty normal.

I put the phone down for a minute and described the situation to my Mom, who also seemed taken aback, and I can’t remember exactly what she told me to say but it may have involved letting the girl know if someone else couldn’t come. Probably not the best response, but I don’t think either of us really knew what to do. After I hung up, I got a miniature (and at that point, unnecessary) lecture from my mother about the etiquette of inviting one’s self to a party.

At five I was perplexed, but at 24 it sort of makes me sad, and I’m not sure why. I feel, though, that the violation in etiquette belonged to the other girl’s mother. Not only had her instructions to her daughter been potentially damaging to the girl’s sense of etiquette later in life, but she also succeeded in confusing me and making me feel bad for reasons that at the time, I didn’t really understand.

Thank you for letting me get that off my chest! Every so often when the subject of etiquette (especially involving children) comes up, this story comes flooding back to me, filling me with an old, yet somewhat renewed sense of shame.    0105-11


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Dannysgirl January 11, 2011, 9:16 pm

    Jillybean, I respect your point of view. Your situation does sound frustrating. However, I would find it just as frustrating to spend that kind of money and time on a sport to watch my child have 10 seconds of playing time because there are 40 children on a basketball team. Both your scenario and mine are equally bad. The point I am making is that allowing every child who tries out for a team to join and play is no different from the five year-old’s mother encouraging her to invite herself to the party. The child doesn’t learn to accept disappointment. The child thinks Mommy and Daddy will let them do whatever they want, lest their precious feelings get hurt. I do not understand why some posters think the child should have been allowed to attend the party. I’m sorry, but good on the birthday girl’s mom for trying to curb entitlement at a young age!

  • jenna January 11, 2011, 11:36 pm

    “This is a rule of thumb not to be broken. To risk, even slightly, the chance another person might, by your actions, be hurt or offended must never be risked.”

    Clearly Hal has never planned a wedding! 🙂

  • jenna January 11, 2011, 11:43 pm

    Dannysgirl and Jillybean –

    My town’s kids’ soccer teams had two elegant solutions to this rule. For younger kids, all could play regardless of skill, and they simply had more teams to put children on; those teams played against one another in matches and tournaments. All kids got a fair amount of playing time (not to say it was exactly equal – I think the rule was at least 1/2 the game played by each kid on the team, and each team limited to a number of kids that could work within those rules). This might not work for a school with less property but for the town it was fine.

    For the older kids’ teams, all could try out, but only those who made the teams could play. However, if you made one of the teams, you were assured of playing at least half of every game.

    No kid could complain that (s)he’d get better with practice, and it wasn’t fair because not making the team/not playing enough meant there weren’t enough chances to practice, making him/her a worse player…because any kid that signed up at an early enough age would have gotten roughly the same amount of practice until it was time to start trying out.

    It worked pretty well. I didn’t make the team when I tried out, but honestly, I was never a very good soccer player and I didn’t even like it all that much. 🙂

  • RP January 11, 2011, 11:55 pm

    I am trying so hard right now to see why everyone’s saying this poor little 5 year old girl was in the wrong for wanting to come to a party.

    @Asha – No one said she was wrong for wanting to go to a party. It’s wrong to invite yourself to a party and for that most people are saying the girl’s mother is in the wrong.

    But hey, now that you’re not, the shame’s on your lack of kindness and grace…

    @Shunya – OK, you’re just being ridiculous. The OP did not lack kindness or grace. She did exactly what all small children should do in that situation: Ask a parent. In no way should she have been inviting extra people without her parents’ permission. Nor does not inviting whoever asks to come to your party mean that you lack humanity.

    No one in your class should have been invited unless all were invited.

    @Hal – I think that’s an unnecessary extreme. Yes, one shouldn’t announce a party to those who aren’t invited but it doesn’t make sense to not invite someone because they might talk about it to someone else. For one thing, that’s no guarantee that they won’t find out about it. For another, what about the feelings of the birthday boy or girl? Do they not count? Won’t their feelings be hurt to not be able to have any of their friends be at their party?

    Really, that would mean never having a party ever. It’s much simpler, and fairer, to learn and accept that you won’t be invited to every party.

    I do agree with everyone who’s said the OP’s mom should have gotten on the phone with the other girl’s mom. OTOH, perhaps the OP’s mom didn’t realize how awkward the OP felt at the time.

  • Cat January 12, 2011, 12:32 am

    Speaking of old ladies, I knew an older woman (late 60’s, thirty years ago) from work. She called and asked me to go somewhere with her, but I had previously been asked to watch a movie with another coworker (a male/good buddy) at his apartment. “Oh, good!” she replied, “I’ll just come with you and we’ll do that.”

    That still takes me back, especially as my male friend did not like her and had never socialized with her; and, no, I did not take her with me. And now I shall get my parasol and my bustle, and flounce out of here- prim, prissy old maid from the twentieth century that I am.

  • Anonymous January 12, 2011, 9:32 am

    As for the situation at hand–the uninvited girl’s mother was wrong to have her call and ask for an invitation. The OP’s mother was perfectly in the right to not invite this girl, and to explain to her daughter why it’s not appropriate to invite oneself to a party–the arrangements have already been made, etc. However, if she’d had been able (like, if the party was at home or in a park, and there were extra party favours, etc), and the OP had nothing against this girl, it would have been fine (but not required) to include her. Then, the “lecture” could have been “sometimes, self-inviting/extra guests can be a problem, if there’s only X amount of resources planned for X number of people, but in this case, we’re okay, because of Y. However, that doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to invite yourself to other people’s houses.” But then again, maybe that would have been lost on a five-year-old.

    As for the sports-team situation……I think that’s different. When you enroll your child in a “no-cut” sports team or activity, there’s the understanding that that child will be included, and allowed to participate. There’s registration and payment involved, so it’s a business transaction–parent pays, child gets to play. Like Jillybean said, each parent pays the same amount, but the kids don’t get equal playing time…..and, if the parents complain, they’re told to invest in private lessons or coaching for their kids, so they’ll actually get some benefit out of the team that they’ve already paid hundreds of dollars for, plus gas money for driving the kids to games and practices, and don’t forget other hassles that come with the territory–washing uniforms, selling raffle tickets, taking a turn on the snack roster, etc. Now, the best way I can think of to mitigate this problem would be having try-outs and dividing the kids into teams according to ability, so everyone gets to play, and the kids are evenly matched by skill level……and, all the parents get what they signed up, and PAID FOR for their children.

    Anyway, by contrast, a birthday party is a purely social situation–it’s a one-off event, nobody pays any money to attend, and there isn’t any expectation of it being “open to the public” like youth sports teams are. So, that’s why I think it’s okay not to invite the whole class to the birthday party, but it’s NOT okay for sports officials to charge parents hundreds of dollars to sign their kids up for a team, when there’s no guarantee that all the kids will get to play.

  • Michelle P January 12, 2011, 10:21 am

    I agree that the child’s mother should not have had her call. Five year olds don’t know that this isn’t appropriate; they don’t need to be taught that it is. I agree that the child should not have come.

    Howwever, as a parent of an eight year old, I’ve taught her and I wish other parents would learn, not to allow kids to give out invitations to anyone if everyone is not invited in front of them. When my daughter had a party and only wanted to invite a few girls, I gave them to her teacher and asked them to discreetly put them in their backpacks, and the teacher and I both talked to them about not discussing the party if front of the others. I’m sure they did, and other kids’ feelings may have been hurt, but you know, life isn’t fair.

    We have gone too far in our society giving kids whatever they want. Sometimes you don’t get everything you’d like.

  • karma January 12, 2011, 10:55 am

    Having read all these posts, I notice that some people have two sets of etiquette values, one for kids and one for adults. Seems logical, except for one thing:

    How do you suppose grown adults who mind etiquette parameters learn to do so? Do they grow up without proper guidance, then magically wake up one morning at the age of 21 with a full set of etiquette guidelines embedded in them forever?

    I don’t think so. I think adults who use good etiquette were for the most part trained to do so by someone—it could have been their mom or dad, their aunt, or their grandmother. It could have been a schoolteacher, Sunday School instructor, or neighbor. Or perhaps the person realized himself that he had no training, and he sought out books, websites, or columns to guide himself.

    My point is that for many who regularly follow good etiquette in the adult world, it wasn’t accidental or random; someone somewhere began to train them when they were younger, OR they made a conscious decision to pay attention and seek knowledge.

    That’s why I think it’s our job to instruct kids with age appropriate etiquette lessons, even when the lesson is hard, so that they do not grow up to be the adult who:

    *Brings an uninvited guest to a limited seating wedding
    *Shows up with a girlfriend in tow for a guys’ night out
    *Comes for the weekend bringing an unexpected friend along
    *Refuses to come to a shower unless her fiance can come too
    *Brings her kids to an adults-only wedding reception

    Adults who do this…..well, when do you suppose they developed these mindsets?

    There is a way to handle a child’s etiquette violation so that you teach and guide without hurting them. However, ignoring the violation only positively reinforces behavior that will not edify their lives in the long run.

  • Dannysgirl January 12, 2011, 8:14 pm

    Anonymous, you are right that there is a difference between children’s sports and a birthday party. However, I am against “no-cut” sports all together. The idea behind “no-cut” is the same idea behind Hal’s statement that all the students should have been invited to the birthday party, and others’ statements that the mother and daughter hosts should have been magnanimous, and let her come. I am a parent. I cringe at the idea of my son having hurt feelings. I will not shield him from those feelings though. He needs to know that he will not be included in everything. The lessons he will learn in childhood will make him a better man in the future.

  • Mercury January 13, 2011, 3:44 am

    I think this matter is not so much an etiquette issue as it is an issue of compassion. That is why the OP still feels guilty after so many years.

    Etiquette wise, there was no obligation to allow the 5 year old to join the party, especially after she broke the rules of etiquette by calling. Nobody is under any obligation to allow anyone to attend any of their parties. They host, they decide who comes, no matter their age.

    However it would have been most gracious and kind to allow a lonely girl, who was mentioned to be shy, to attend.

    What I considder especially is that this girl was not mentioned anywhere to be bratty, entitled or otherwise spoiled in any way, nor is there any mention of a pattern of inviting oneself to parties. Therefor I think she was just trying to make friends.

    Obviously if there is no room, there is little to be done. However, since the OP did not dislike the girl, what might have resolved this issue without shame for anyone was to offer to have a play-date with her at another time.

    I am all for having an etiquette spine against entitled people, but it should not grow so stiff as to resemble a stick.

  • Anonymous January 13, 2011, 9:24 am

    Okay, Danny’sGirl…..when I said that tryouts for sports teams should be basically “placement tests” for the A team versus the B team, I should have clarified–that’s in the best-case scenario. If there aren’t enough resources for that, then yeah, cutting is fine, with the following caveats:

    1. Hold the tryouts before the parents have paid the money.

    2. Ensure that all the children who legitimately make the team, are given a fair chance to play.

  • Jillybean January 13, 2011, 7:05 pm

    @Dannysgirl – I don’t necessarily support no-cuts either (and fwiw, I don’t actually have any children), though at really young ages, when no one is very good, I do. But, I think if you have a no-cuts system it needs to demonstrate fairness – even if it’s the best players play 2/3 of the game, the others play 1/3 (oh, and btw, the players that aren’t as good never improve if you don’t let them play).

    My experience with this was actually through my niece and her baseball team. She was actually pretty good, and was playing in our local “minor leagues” of little league. Well, one of the coaches thought she was great, and promptly “drafted” her into the majors, where she ended up sitting on a bench, because while she was great in the minors, she hadn’t really refined her skills yet, and wasn’t up to snuff with the kids who were playing in the majors for a couple years already. The result? My sister was out hundreds of dollars in fees and equipment and many hours of time, and ended up with a kid who hated baseball.

    She’s in high school now and is on the varsity hockey team. She’s only a sophomore so she doesn’t get as much playing time as the juniors/seniors, but that’s to be expected – but she is allowed enough playing time to enhance her skills and learn.

    Anyway – sorry to be part of the thread-hijaking.

  • RP January 14, 2011, 1:27 pm

    I think this matter is not so much an etiquette issue as it is an issue of compassion. That is why the OP still feels guilty after so many years.

    @Mercury – But it’s still misplaced guilt. The OP wasn’t the host, her mom was.

    However it would have been most gracious and kind to allow a lonely girl, who was mentioned to be shy, to attend.

    The OP never said she was lonely. She states that she had a different group of friends. The OP also never said she was shy, only that her voice was “quiet and unsure”. She might have been shy in general but she might have just felt awkward asking to come to the party.

    A later play date probably would have been a good solution though I’m not surprised they didn’t think of it at the time. (It’s hard to come up with stuff like that when you feel put on the spot.)

  • Nikki January 20, 2011, 12:44 am

    I have visited this site sporadically for a few years, but never posted until now. I was in a similar situation when I was a kid:

    A classmate and friend invited me to her birthday party sleepover. My best friend, also a classmate, was not invited, as she was not close friends with the birthday girl. When I went to the party, I discovered that my best friend was in fact the *only* classmate who had not been invited.

    Shortly thereafter, my mom ran into my best friend’s mom in the school office, who gave my mom a few unkind words and the cold shoulder. I’m sure her misplaced anger came from hurt feelings and sympathy for her daughter. I wish my mom had never told me about the incident, because I felt horribly guilty that 1) My best friend was not invited 2) I hadn’t done anything about it, and 3) I’d inadvertently caused a “feud” between parents. If this were an after-school TV special, I’d have skipped the party and taken my friend to a movie and ice cream OR asked the birthday girl why she chose to exclude a single classmate. Alas, this is real life & none of those happened.

    I have carried the guilt from this childhood faux pas for 20 years.

    @Jenna – Your 7:01 comment made me feel SO much better about this. Especially when you said “I honestly didn’t realize…and now I do and I’m better for it.”

  • J May 10, 2011, 2:39 pm

    Michelle P,

    OP explicitly said that the invitations were mailed. And I’m a bit confused by your final comment about how we’ve gone too far giving kids everything they want after you’ve said that invitations must be more or less “snuck” to invitees as if the people are only inviting the kids are are actually friends with are doing something wrong by possibly disappointing some children. Seems to me it’s a case of, “this applies to everyone but me/my kid because I am/we are soooooo special!”

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