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Stephanie Hanrahan and daughter Campbell's birthday party

Dear Parents, Invite Every Child

using birthday parties to foster inclusion

As parents, planning a party for your little one is exciting. You have lists to make, decorations to find, food to prepare. But for some kids at your child’s school, being invited to that party is the bigger deal. It’s a clue to whether or not they’re wanted by their peers. Our mommy blogger Stephanie Hanrahan gives her insight on what it means to her and her daughter that others invite every child to parties and how important it is to foster inclusion.

There’s a rule at my daughter’s school that if you’re going to invite one child from the class to your birthday party, you are required to invite them all.

I am a rule follower, through and through. Especially when it comes to inclusion.

Others are not.

I know my daughter won’t be friends with everyone, but right now the problem is she’s friends with no one. And that has to do with a little part of her that no one can see: autism. She keeps to herself, still prefers to parallel play versus engage with others and sees little interest in gossip or small talk—something her five-year-old peers have already mastered.

Simply put, it’s difficult for her to keep up with the schoolyard social game, and because of that, she’s forgotten.

But she’s still very much aware. And so am I.

I’m aware that my daughter may not be able to talk to another child in a traditional way; heck, she might even tell them to stay away. She may be coined the oddball in class. The one who has breakdowns over simple things falling out of place like her pencil lead breaking, or an unannounced fire drill. I understand she’s difficult to bond with—she’s often talking about things only she finds funny or leaving the math game early. It’s obvious to me that teachers are her preferred friends and because of that she’s never attended a play date.

But I also know this about my darling girl: by not breaking bread with her you’re missing out on the most nonjudgmental, honest, joyful friend I’ve ever had.

I’m sure the above rule is in place to keep children and parents from feeling what I do right now, which is horribly unwanted. I also know there’s a plethora of other reasons why you can’t invite the entire class to a party, such as cost or the venue’s capacity. But I also know a big reason is personal preference.

I remember as a child making a list of my best friends who I wanted to attend my party, and it surely didn’t include everyone in my class. But the problem with lists is that when it comes to children like my daughter—the outliers—they may never be anyone’s first pick. That’s why the rule of inclusion is so sacred to me. It’s not about being left out of one event, it’s about being left out of all of them.

Special needs parenting is often lonely and isolating. As other children join sports teams, or chat in the cafeteria, my child eats alone. I used to be able to make her friends for her, but now she must navigate the social elementary minefield alone. And without the tools to do that, without children willing to add another spot to their list, she will always remain on the outskirts.

Following rules and teaching children to open their arms to everyone starts at the top. It begins with parents willing to do so too. So here’s my plea to all parents everywhere: Include the child who keeps to themselves. The one that’s weird. The one that’s “rude.” Extend an invite to those who are like you, but also those who differ.

You never know the gift you’ll get by simply saying yes to every child.

Stephanie Hanrahan was just your seemingly average housewife until she grew tired of pretending and took an axe to her white picket fence (also known as making her private journal public). Learn how she traded her pretending for a panty liner on Instagram, Facebook, and her blog Tinkles Her Pants, where she chronicles her journey as wife to a husband with chronic illness, mother to special needs kiddos, and a woman who often unravels then finds her footing again.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Hanrahan.