When poor etiquette ruins a kid’s birthday party

Party etiquette: have we let our manners slide?
Party etiquette: have we let our manners slide? Photo: Getty

The number of birthday parties children attend each year increasingly dominate the lives of their parents. Organising gifts and costumes for such occasions, not to mention the expense and prepararion associated with birthday celebrations for their own offspring, can leave parents feeling less than enthusiastic about recieving yet another invite home from school. 

But is this an acceptable reason to cancel last minute on an invite or just not show up at all?

Over a third of Australian parents budget $500 for their own child's birthday celebration, according to an online survey by the Daily Telegraph. Children's parties have become big-ticket events, meaning not turning up isn't a trivial matter.

When Felicity Mitchell's children turned six and four, she treated them to a combined birthday party, splashing out on a jumping castle and hand-making goodie bags and decorations.

"We were really broke so we saved hard for it," she revealed. "We'd also really drummed it into the kids that birthdays were special, so they were to think carefully about who they invited. We allowed our kids to have one guest for every year of age and so the four-year-old had four and the six-year-old had six. They each invited people who happened to be brother and sister and the family just forgot about the party. You can imagine how disappointed my kids were when one out of four or one out of six didn't turn up, with no explanation."

When Felicity called, they brought the younger child around for the end of the second party. "But the mum kind of laughed and shrugged it off," she said.

"I felt heartbroken for both of the boys and secretly angry that this family didn't value my children enough to even remember a special invitation like that. I thought that maybe they would already have bought the boys presents but they hadn't, and then I wondered if they'd drop one off the next week having seen how small the gathering had been … but they didn't. They really didn't care."

While not turning up might seem inconsequential, if not handled properly, it can have a lasting impact on relationships. "Even ten years later whenever I see them it's the first thing I think about," Felicity confessed.

It can even take a turn for the worst, as we saw in a recent news story when Britsh parent, Julie Lawrence invoiced Derek Nash to recoup costs after his son skipped her son's birthday party. Billing another parent for costs might seem an over-the-top response to a no-show. However, the showdown between Lawrence and Nash highlights what is an area of private angst for many parents. 

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The issue is further complicated by the fact that parents of schoolmates are often mere acquaintances and may not feel much social obligation towards each other. 

Has social etiquette taken a slide?

"A commonly expressed view is that our society exhibits less community-minded and considerate behaviour today than in the past," says Social demographer Mark McCrindle in an excerpt on manners in the 21st century. He believes hectic lifestyles play a role in the brevity of social communication.

Understandably, sickness, arguments between kids or any number of factors can mean you have to cancel.

Belinda Yeates had to cancel on a party when her son was sick. "I didn't feel too bad because that's life," she reported. "The other parent was fine and very understanding. I believe most mothers I know would be the same. Since we had RSVP'd to the invitation I had already bought a card and gift so after he recovered he took this to school for his friend along with an apology note for not being able to make it."

To ensure your cancelling doesn't cause a drama:

  • Give as much notice as you can.
  • Avoid calling at the last moment when the host is busy.
  • Do RSVP by the deadline to enable the host to prepare.
  • Do take a party invite seriously.
  • Don't keep a party invite open as a backstop in case you don't get a better offer.
  • If you've caused inconvenience, make it up to the family with a belated gift or playdate.

Little things count far more than we realise. "Etiquette is kindness and love in action," concludes Maralee McKee, author of Manners that matter for moms. "It teaches us to make modest sacrifices of our time, our agenda, and our momentary wants."