My son is seven, and he has never received an invitation to a birthday party. Kids never knock on the door to ask my son out to play. My son never assumes the phone is for him when it rings, because it never is. A year ago, this was a non-issue. He didn't know any different. Now, however, my five-year-old daughter, Ellika, has blossomed into a teenager. When she runs for the phone, and chats in animated tones with her latest BFF, Kieran's face betrays his longing. While she skips out the door, on her way to a super-fun play-date, my son hugs the dog to hide his tears. Inconsolable tears - the type that used to rip me inside-out when my older sister and her friends would exclude me from their games. Or when my two best friends decided that I couldn't be a member of their club because I was too tall and I didn't speak in Pig Latin. I can tell you about my remembered heartbreaks over a few glasses of wine. I can even laugh about them now. Kieran would need a full vat, and there would be no laughter.
My son and I are connected at the deepest level of our beings. A few months after his birth, I slipped into the insomniac insanity of Post-Partum depression. We had many dark times. Kieran and I learned to cry together, both of us like babies. Somehow, through our journey to hell and back, his heart and my heart began to beat as one. I feel what he feels, with no adult-sized protective mechanisms in place. His every heartache cuts through me, hotly and to the core. On the other hand, I do know my son, and I do understand some of the reasons behind the horrifying social cruelty he is facing. In fact, I'll be the first to admit that my son is an annoying party guest. He can be a lot to handle. If he was not my son - in other words, if I didn't love him so damned much, and if I was actually given the choice - Kieran would likely not be invited to my birthday parties, or over to my house to play, or even to my dinner table, on a regular basis.Dealing With Those All-Too-Public Tantrums
If, as in Kieran's case, the child's behavior is the reason behind the exclusion, it may be that parents do not feel skilled enough to include him or her in the festivities. Jackie DeGroot is a home daycare provider with two young daughters of her own. Over the years, her small daycare has become a refuge for kids who have difficulty managing in larger centres: "I have two boys here right now who don't have friends at school, and couldn't make friends at the large daycare centre either. They like it here because they can play by themselves, or they can play with the younger children who accept them in a way that their peers do not." Her daughters always invite these unpopular children for play-dates and birthday parties. "They are always included because my kids know that I can take care of any issues that arise. I can handle any behavior they throw at me", she says. Before having children, DeGroot worked in residential group homes and detention centres for children and youth in Massachusetts. "I've seen it all in terms of behavior. But I've also learned a lot about these kids, and the kind of things that can really damage their sense of self. I feel it's important to let them know that they are wanted - they are worth an invite." Her daughters are still young, however, and DeGroot wonders if things will change as they grow. "As they get older, they may start to worry more about what their friends think," she reflects. "At that point, I am going to have to let them decide who to play with. I am going to have to let them leave the difficult kids out, if that's what they need to do. That will be very difficult."Is Bad Behavior Justified By Gender?
Carla McLean, a mother of two girls and a school social worker, agrees that the host or hostess needs to get the final say. Her 10-year-old daughter, Alexis, is very concerned about the opinions of her classmates. At home, Alexis spends countless hours playing with Zoe, a girl who lives on the same block. When Alexis created her guest list for her upcoming birthday party, McLean was surprised that Zoe did not make the cut. "At first, I tried to convince Alexis to add Zoe's name. I was upset. I know how this kind of social shunning can affect kids." Her daughter was upset with the decision too, but she still refused to invite Zoe. In the end, Alexis decided to cancel her own party. Late at night, when all the "real talk" happens between McLean and her daughter, Alexis climbed into her mother's bed and admitted that she couldn't invite Zoe because her other friends at school wouldn't come if Zoe was invited. For Alexis, it was easier to have no party than to have a party with Zoe. "My heart went out to her then, and I realized that it had to be her decision. She wanted a party, and she deserved to have a party without anxiety and worry", says McLean. "I told her that she could have her party without inviting Zoe. I knew I had made the right decision when she rolled over and fell into a deep sleep. I still worry about Zoe, but I want my kid to show up for her own birthday party."On the non-receiving end of popularity, I am left to wonder how I can make the right decision for Kieran. What can I say that will help him sleep at night? The truth is, when exposed to sugary food, loud noises, unpredictable schedules, and lots of kids, my otherwise gentle boy transforms into Jungle Boy. At school, he has been known to hug, grab, lick, and even kiss his classmates when exciting things take place. I can count on getting a phone call from his teacher whenever special events are planned - Halloween parties, Christmas concerts, Play Days, field trips, indoor recesses. When in this over-stimulated state, he has no understanding of personal space or the rules of polite conversation. He makes loud noises, repeats the same joke endlessly, breaks toys, and swings or jumps from one precarious object to another precarious object. If this is the version of Kieran that his classmates know best, there's no wonder he's not invited to any social gatherings.
How Important is it for Your Child to be Popular?
Since he started having birthday parties, Kieran has invited every boy in his class and on the street. He hosts play dates almost every weekend. The kids usually come, but they never invite him back. Until this year, it never occurred to him to wonder why. Partially due to emerging maturity, and partially due to his sister's extracurricular activities, Grade Two is becoming Kieran's year of Social Awareness. On any given Saturday afternoon, I kneel down to Ellika and whisper, "Have the most fun ever at the party, sweetheart". She races to the car, balancing a princess gift-bag in her arms, off to the local bowling alley or swimming pool. I close the door and turn around. I close my eyes to allow myself to breathe before the ache. The ache seizes me, always, when I open my eyes and see my boy, face buried in dog, shoulders shaking in silent sobs. He knows now, beyond a doubt, that he is different. He is left out. He is unpopular. Early in November, he asked the dreaded question: "Why doesn't anybody ever invite me to THEIR house?" Where was that chapter in all those parenting books I read? I mean, what is considered a good answer to that ungodly question? Not the one I gave him, I'll tell you that much. My brilliant response was to shrug and hug him until I could meet his eyes without tears in my own. Luanne Moriarty
Written by Luanne Moriarty/The Momoir Project for Hybrid Mom
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