An Invitation to a Birthday Party
My daughter’s twelfth-birthday party was a nightmare, a social train wreck. It was, of course, a sleepover. I still have the photos of the group at breakfast, seated around the dining room table: sluggish, cranky, ready to go home. And I was ready for them to go. There had been moments during the party the night before when I wanted to send them all packing instantly. “Get out,” I wanted to shout. “You’re all mean! You’re all horrible.”
My daughter, Joanna, now sixteen, has long since forgotten that party. It’s ancient history to her; she has moved on with her life. When I reminded her recently of the events of that night, she gave a shrug of acknowledgment and went back to what she was doing. I can’t forget it that easily.
Let me set the scene—time, place, and characters—for the drama. Joanna’s birthday is in late June. That’s a good month for birthdays, close enough to the end of the school year so that most of the kids you might want to invite are still around town. At the same time, late-June birthdays don’t conflict with the inevitable round of end-of-school events. Best of all, the weather is usually good, which means we can hold a swimming party in our backyard, which borders a lake. When Joanna was nine or ten years old all we needed to throw a successful birthday party were some water balloons, a dock for kids to jump off, and of course cake and ice cream. But parties for twelve-year-olds are a lot more complicated than swimming and cake.
My wife, Theresa, and I had a sense of foreboding about the party when we saw Joanna’s guest list. That year our daughter was leaving her public school to go to a private school that offered extensive support for her reading difficulties. Her departure made it inevitable that she was going to lose some friends. Her final social gesture as she left her public school was to invite the entire cool group from her class to her birthday party.
One girl who came to the party was Maria. Maria, like Joanna, was a little different from the mainstream of the class. Her mother was Irish Catholic, her father Korean. They represented an unusual diversity in the town. Maria wasn’t absolutely at the center of the cool group either, but she was eager to be, and we had sensed in the past that Maria felt competitive with Joanna. Therein lies the tale of the birthday party.
Twelve girls arrived over about a forty-minute span: Maria and ten other schoolmates, joined by Joanna’s lifelong friend, Erin-Claire. Erin-Claire is the daughter of dear friends. She has never gone to school with Joanna, but they have known each other since infancy and share a great loyalty. It would be unthinkable for Joanna to have a birthday party without Erin-Claire, and vice versa. E.C., as she is known, occupies a special category in Joanna’s life, that of absolutely trustworthy friend.
Almost as soon as the girls arrived, the political machinations started. There was the usual discomfort and stiffness that afflicts most parties—child and adult—at the start. But there was more than just ice-breaking discomfort here. An invisible divider was up.
The wall crystallized when the girls were shown two adjoining rooms, Joanna’s bedroom and the guest room. Maria immediately began to designate which girls should sleep in which room. Naturally, she picked the four coolest girls and said that they would be with her in the guest room. The girls obediently dropped their sleeping bags and backpacks where Maria told them to.
While Maria was upstairs orchestrating the sleeping arrangements, Joanna was downstairs trying to organize some games. The party was slowly beginning to warm up. Girls were swimming, jumping off the dock, and talking. The water balloons were clearly not going to fly. Twelve-year-olds considered themselves too old for those, it seemed, even though Joanna had wanted them. To her it was a tradition. I worried that my daughter’s tastes weren’t sufficiently sophisticated for this twelve- year-old crowd.
Then word filtered downstairs about Maria’s management of the sleeping arrangements. Joanna immediately felt hurt. She began to feel attacked and aggrieved. She physically moved away from the rest of the group. E.C. sat with her. The rest of the girls were uncomfortable. Clearly no one knew how to take the lead in either stopping Maria or reaching out to Joanna. The in-group, including Maria, who had come outside, gathered together more tightly. Joanna and E.C. became a separate group of two. Joanna cried a bit, displayed some anger, and talked with E.C. She was clearly very sad, and E.C. was being a steadfast friend to her.
This went on for about half an hour or more, but it seemed much longer. I watched the scene with intense dismay and a sense of helplessness. I had heard what Maria was doing, but I hadn’t known how to intervene when I was upstairs. I saw that Maria, for some unhappy reason, felt compelled to take over the sleeping arrangements.
What happened next was quite wonderful. Joanna had insisted that we buy cans of shaving cream when we shopped for the water balloons. She had seen some boys squirting shaving cream all over one another during a celebration in our town and she had been entranced with their freedom—as well as a bit disappointed that girls apparently weren’t allowed to do that sort of thing in public. For her birthday she had wanted the possibility of shaving cream attacks.
Joanna and E.C. began to squirt shaving cream at one another. They started small, working their way up until they were covered from head to toe, hair included. All the other girls, who were hanging out by the edge of the lake, turned to watch and soon signaled that they too wanted to join the action. Joanna and E.C. each picked up a can of shaving cream and began squirting the other girls. I grabbed the camera and snapped pictures. It turned into a free-for-all—and the party was suddenly working. The best thing about it was that all the girls started to seem like girls again, carefree and innocent. Gone, for the moment, was the poisonous political atmosphere. There were only laughing girls covered with shaving cream, creating wild masks and hairdos with the foam all over their heads.
The party proceeded cheerfully for three more hours. The meat-eaters ate hot dogs and hamburgers; the vegetarians ate salad and chips. Things seemed so peaceful that I was unprepared when I heard shouting and weeping coming from the front stairwell. I ran in, and there stood Maria, angry, defiant, and shrieking denials at Joanna: “I didn’t do anything. It’s your problem!” And then Maria burst into a fury of tears.
Apparently, because of her social success with the shaving cream as well as the steadfast support of her friend E.C., Joanna had recovered enough confidence to confront Maria and accuse her of trying to wreck her birthday party.
Theresa took Maria aside to talk with her, and out poured a story of social misery. Maria felt genuinely overwhelmed by Joanna’s accusation and proclaimed herself innocent of any malicious intent. She hadn’t done anything, she sobbed; she had just wanted to be sure that she had friends to sleep next to at the sleep-over. Maybe nobody liked her, maybe she ought to go home right then.
In my mind Maria had been a power-hungry villain who tried to take over the party from a less socially powerful and more vulnerable Joanna. But it turned out that the “villain” was just another insecure middle schooler. Her “victim,” meanwhile, had made a powerful stand of open confrontation.
As Theresa talked to Maria I talked with Joanna, who was accompanied by E.C. (They were inseparable at this point.) Joanna was totally charged up with anger at Maria and even more furious because Maria’s outburst had seemed so manipulative. Joanna wanted a full confession and retraction from Maria.
There was no resolution. Despite our intervention—and we went as far as having them face one another and say they were sorry—Maria and Joanna sulked and avoided each other the rest of the night. The party ground on unhappily with videos, many more chips, and finally the mandatory very late bedtime. The next morning everyone was exhausted and very relieved to be going home. I don’t think that we were the first parents on earth to watch the departing backs of children leaving a birthday party and think, “Thank God we don’t have to do this again until next year.”
Was it so uniquely horrible? Was my daughter damaged? The answer to these questions is no. I took you home with me to this terrible birthday party because this one event allows us to see all of the strands in a child’s social world, the subject of this book. It’s all there: devoted friendships, battles over popularity, parental anguish over social cruelty. These are the themes that we will be returning to again and again in this book. The social lives of children are a complex interplay of the group and the individual, of cliques and status hierarchies, of the sustaining loyalty of a friend to a friend. And the birthday party offers a particularly vivid lesson in the difference between social popularity and true friendship.
All parents experience pain about their children’s social lives. There is no escaping it. A mother agonizes over her child’s social dilemmas. A father immediately assesses whether his son or daughter is well received by a group of children. (And he’s likely to register where his son ranks athletically compared to other boys.) We are social animals, and all of us are able to read the social reactions and strengths of others. Parents beam with pleasure at their child’s successes and writhe with anguish over their failures.
Being a parent means feeling helpless a lot of the time: helpless to give your child the reading skills he wasn’t born to have, helpless to make him the soccer player he would like to be but never will be, helpless to give him a wonderful classroom teacher every year. The list of things that parents cannot do is almost infinite. As a parent, I am intimately acquainted with the knowledge that I cannot bend the universe on behalf of my children, much as I might want to.
As both a parent and a psychologist, I believe that there is no area in which a parent feels more powerless to make a significant difference than in relation to a child’s social life. It’s as if our children are stuck in an endless awful birthday party and we’re watching helplessly from behind a one-way mirror. That “birthday party” might be the toddlers at play in the day care center, Little League, or a random group of children in the neighborhood. Wherever children gather, a complex group dynamic begins to pick up strength. It may turn into a storm or not, but it has power in a child’s life. When a child gets home and says, “He hit me” or “She was mean to me” or “She started a club and didn’t include me,” our most ferocious parental instincts are aroused (I call them “mother grizzly bear feelings”). And yet there is no one to attack.
If another child unexpectedly hits and hurts your child, you want to hit that child back, but you must not. If other children ignore your child, you want to scream, but you probably will not. If your child lacks the ability to negotiate the complex social currents of the group of which she is a part, you want to hand her the skills to do it, but you cannot. We cannot step in and fix it because children have to learn to do that for themselves.
Children fear adult attempts to fix their social lives. When I asked a seventh grade class in New York, “What role should your parents have in your social lives?” one boy said succinctly, “Your parents should have no role in your social life.” Kids fear that our interventions will make things worse; they don’t trust us to catch the subtleties of their interactions. They have a point. The things we try to do often backfire, making things worse for our child. The things we can do—listen sympathetically, stay confident, provide opportunities for our children to connect with others, and remember the power of our own early attachment to and love for our child—feel inadequate. But they are not.
Even remembering this, watching our children suffer socially is very hard to bear. And it does make sense to be concerned or even worried. Research on friendship has found over and over how important peers are to children. Of course, as parents, we already knew this intuitively. And as grown-up children ourselves, we know it from experience. Children need friendship. They need a minimum level of acceptance by the group. They don’t need a dozen close friends or one incredibly close friend, and they don’t need to be the most popular kid in the class. But they need good-enough peer relationships. Without some friendships, children are psychologically at risk.
You have to live with your helplessness as you watch your child negotiate social terrain, knowing the stakes are high. Sometimes that sense of helplessness arises from misunderstanding the nature of child development, of not knowing what is supposed to happen or not trusting in a child’s ability to grow. A physician from Nashville called me four times in one week. He had heard me give a lecture on the social world of children and wanted to talk to me and get a referral for a psychologist in his area “who thought like me.” When I finally made contact with him I asked what he was so worried about. He said his daughter had no friends at school. I said I was sorry to hear that. Did she have any friends at all? He told me she had a wonderful friend in the neighborhood and they hung out together all the time. I said I was relieved to hear that. Then I asked, “How old is your daughter?”
Copyright © 2001 by Michael Thompson, Ph.D., and Catherine O''Neill Grace, with Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.