The Issue - Navigating the perils of party politics
With the middle East in disarray, you would think there were enough diplomatic challenges in the world without the political consequences of a child's birthday party to sort out.
It all began when Courtney's mother asked to speak to me in private after school one evening. My heart began to race. Did Courtney's latest assessment reveal an alarming downward trend? Is our Friday spelling test leaving her unable to sleep? Was she traumatised by my lecture on the importance of remembering her PE kit?
"I want you to help me with this," Courtney senior says, brandishing a sheet of paper. It is headed "Courtney's Birthday Party Checklist" and includes several chronologically ordered instructions to help organise it. She points to statement Number 5: three weeks before the party, write and send out the invites. Courtney's mum says she would like the whole of my class to come, but living in a small terraced house means this isn't possible. Her problem lies in deciding whom to invite and - more importantly - whom not to invite.
The fact is, getting it wrong can have far-reaching repercussions in the classroom. What if the uninvited feel aggrieved to the point of retaliation? Will offending Beyonce see Courtney excluded from the in- crowd? What if selecting Samira ahead of Siobhan leads to her getting the evil eye? And then there are other children's birthdays. What will happen to Courtney's fragile self-esteem if she finds herself serially not invited?
If you think that, as a teacher, this is outside your job description, you're right. But ignoring the problem will have a direct impact on the environment of your classroom, so it is something you will have to involve yourself in - the knock-on effects for classroom harmony of a divisive birthday party can be catastrophic.
The best way to deal with the issue is through class discussions. Because prevention is better than cure, teachers should try to do this before rather than after the event, discussing the issues with the children and explaining that limited capacity and the need for manageable numbers mean that no slight is intended to the uninvited.
It is also useful to include birthday party etiquette in your school's Parent Handbook. As with the Pirate's Code (according to Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean), the conventions governing children's party invitations are more guidelines than actual rules, but they might prove useful.
Number rules: a policy of "age-plus-one", sometimes advised by schools, dictates that the number of children invited should be equivalent to the child's birthday, plus one. Courtney will be 8, so could invite nine friends. The downside to this is that 21 classmates will not be invited and Courtney might find herself at the centre of a victimised minority. Multiply by two minus one is more helpful. This means that half the class is uninvited so should not feel excluded, while those who are invited will form too large a group to be persecuted.
Gender-specific parties: inviting either the girls or the boys cuts the numbers down to about half the class. It also helps with party activities; for example, a girls' party might be happy to play One Direction and dance, while a boys' party might prefer to trash the entire house.
Interest-specific parties: these give you a legitimate reason to invite fewer children. For example, you can restrict the occasion to those who are in the same group or association, such as the football team, dance club or the totally-off-the-wall society.
Of course, these rules might not solve the issue of inviting certain problematic children. Courtney's mum is particularly worried about Ramona, who is every child's first choice and every parent's last. This is primarily because the last time Ramona came round to play, Courtney spent four hours at the hospital. You can't give much advice on this issue beyond utilising some suitable behaviour-management techniques that have proved useful in the classroom.
In the end, Courtney's mum decides to take her daughter's four closest friends to McDonald's on the understanding that I will play my trump card. My top tip to put a stop to birthday party-related tears, feuds and tantrums is to offer to celebrate it in class.
"I've brought these in," says Courtney's mum as she hands me three bulging carrier bags. They contain a massive chocolate cake that needs dividing into 30 equal pieces, three litres of blackcurrant squash that needs diluting, a pack of balloons that need inflating, a Party Time 2013 CD that needs playing and a game of Twister that needs a risk assessment. "Have fun, everybody," she says and leaves me to it.
Next week I'm off to help President Obama bring lasting peace to the West Bank. It should be a doddle after this lot.
Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield, England
One for all, and all for one: try this collection of resources on friendship to encourage happy classroom relationships.