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How should parents navigate the politics of kids' 'two-tier' birthday parties?

The politics of children’s birthday parties can be quite a contentious topic for parents.

How much should one spend on a present? What kind of parties are appropriate? Should adults be drinking alcohol? What if I don’t… like the kid? 

But on Saturday, it was one dilemma in particular that started a fascinating conversation on parenting forum Mumsnet. And it’s a scenario many mums and dads will be familiar with.

The concerned mum essentially wanted to know whether ‘two-tier’ birthday parties, where a group of kids are invited to a party during the day, and only a select few are then invited to spend the night or stay for the rest of the event, are mean.

“I have never had any parties for my children where a proportion of the invitees are invited for a sleepover, and the rest go home,” she wrote. “My view has always been that these provoke bad feelings in the ones who have to go home, somehow thinking they are ‘second tier’ friends.”

“My poor [son], it seems, has been invited to one of these parties and will be coming home when others at the party are transported back for a sleepover.

“Your views on this? I understand that some parents want to do exactly what their children want, maybe can’t fit all children in their home for a sleepover, etc. but am I being unreasonable to expect parents to do the adult thing and treat all partygoers the same on the day, and perhaps have a sleepover at a different time?”

Immediately, parents started to weigh in, acknowledging that ‘two-tier’ birthday parties are very common. While some said it sounds like “hard work” and is a “crap” idea, others insisted that there are some circumstances where it’s perfectly justified.

Listen: People are now registering gifts for their kids’ birthday parties. Post continues after audio. 

“I think it’s fine as long as the sleepover invitees are the minority,” wrote one mum. “My daughter has been to lots of parties where this has been the form, and quite often [no more than] 2 or 3 were asked to sleep over. It was not a problem.”

Another reiterated, “I wouldn’t give it a second thought! Couldn’t invite more than 2 to our house for a sleepover because of space. If it was EVERY child APART from your son that would be mean but if not I don’t see a problem.”

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“I don’t see the issue,” insisted another. “We all have best friends and just normal friends surely? Unfortunately, life is one big ‘tier’ system. I often as an adult will go out for a meal/have pre-drinks with my best friends then we meet a larger group elsewhere.”

Other parents, however, felt strongly that the premise of the party was blatantly unfair.

“I think it’s mean,” read one response.  “I understand some children have closer friends than others but I think personally I’d do the sleepover part on a different day, as it’s like saying the other 8 are staying but you go home because I don’t like you as much.”

“Parents that arrange these kinds of parties are d*ckheads,” wrote another user, while one parent suggested hosting “two different parties” if you’re thinking of doing something special with a smaller group.

"Am I being unreasonable?" asked the mum. Image via iStock.

When I reached out to some mums, they had varying thoughts on the subject. One mum, who has three daughters, was particularly adamant that these types of parties are unnecessary and unhelpful.

"I remember distinctly [my daughter] coming home when she was in about Year 2 and saying she was invited to a birthday party and also a sleepover but only four girls were invited to the sleepover and she had to keep it a secret. I'm going to be completely blunt: I hated the idea immediately. It made my skin crawl because suddenly instead of a lovely party for a seven or eight year old it was a party of VIPS and the lessers. So you have created less thans and more thans. At school in the lead up secrets had to be kept from those who weren't invited to the whole thing. And of course secrets were never kept and girls ALWAYS found out. I said no the first time one of mine were asked because I thought it was so unnecessary and encouraged more thans and less thans. My girls have attended a few of these over the years because they've been invited to so many."

Many also saw 'two-tier' birthday parties as a gateway to other socially hurtful behaviour, recalling their own painful experiences.

One woman in her early twenties said she remembered going to a sleepover where "the mum lined us up on the wall and then got her daughter out the front to pick what order people slept in".

"So the birthday girl slept in the middle, then she picked two people to sleep next to her, and then two people on either side of that and so on. She literally RANKED us, and I was last."

Of course, 'two-tier' weddings are quite common, where some guests will be invited to the ceremony, but not the reception. But surely the social etiquette around a wedding, which is a far larger scale event than a child's birthday party, warrants a somewhat unique set of rules?

Or are our kids' birthday parties just a microcosm of the behaviour that's acceptable in other parts of our social lives?

How do you feel about 'two-tier' birthday parties? Would you ever have one for your child?

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