A certain amount of childish behavior is to be expected at parties given in celebration of the birthdays of minors. However, Miss Manners would just as soon hope that it not come from the parents.
Some of them she would not trust, even blindfolded, to play pin the tail on the donkey. They are already far too eager and inventive about skewering one another.
Of course, she understands that everything parents do is motivated entirely by the desire to please their children. Can it be their fault that it makes their children happy for them to vie at out-classing other parents, to make a point of excluding certain children, and to encourage forms that foster social irresponsibility?
Only partly, Miss Manners acknowledges.
Children do appear to be born with some scary social inclinations. It is a parental obligation to disabuse them of the idea that they can get away with this.
The chief excuse for the birthday party, one of the most hazardous social forms in existence, is as a laboratory for teaching counterintuitive, and therefore civilized, behavior.
The young host or hostess has the difficult job of pretending that the guests were invited for their company as much as for the packages under their arms, and that they are there to have a good time, rather than to form an audience for whom the birthday child can be the center of attention. All of this being against every natural human inclination, it takes a lot of training.
But there are parents who seem to be training their children, instead, in acquisitiveness and self-centeredness. The forms that have burgeoned put an increasing emphasis on presents, including not just the present-opening ritual, but posting wish lists, and on glorifying and indulging the birthday child, regardless of the effect on guests. A particularly nasty innovation, for example, is to award the host prizes in any competitive games, regardless of performance.
Whatever this training is supposed to prepare them to become, it could not be decent, hospitable, considerate people. Maybe it is to become medieval lords, whose relationships with others consist of extracting tributes and exercising privileges.
In their own future interests, and that of the society on which these people will be unleashed, Miss Manners recommends parents' reining things in. Children being traditionalists, it would be wise for parents in the same neighborhood and school circles to set some limits.
Well-meaning ones have already made some moves toward doing this in regard to the guest list, for example, decreeing that everyone in a child's class be invited. (The less altruistic form, of demanding that all one's own children be invited regardless of acquaintanceship, is a bad one; a Gentle Reader whose parents demanded that said that the result was that the entire family was dropped socially.) Another method is reverting to the old rule of inviting only the number of guests equal to the child's age, thus limiting it to so few that being left out is no distinction.
Care should be taken that parties do not get big enough or expensive enough to put an undue burden on the hosts (and frighten the children). One solution is joint parties for children born in the same month, but then, care has to be taken not to put a burden on guests in supplying multiple presents when they might not be acquainted with all the honorees. An agreement on low-key parties and a low ceiling on present expenditures would help.
If parents replace competition with cooperation, they may find they can also make rules for their own convenience in regard to transportation, for example. If anyone is entitled to have a special day, they are the ones who earn it.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: We had arranged to meet some colleagues for lunch one afternoon during the workweek. While we only had one hour to eat, we waited 15 minutes for one of them to show up. How long should we have waited before ordering without them?
GENTLE READER: Fifteen minutes is the traditional time designated to wait for tardy guests to a formal dinner party.
And if one expects such an event to last for three to three and a half hours, figure the percentage of the time that a 15-minute wait would be, and allow that percentage for an hour's meal. (Miss Manners is not doing the math here, because she figures you would appreciate the opportunity to practice.)
In both cases, what makes chomping down polite is greeting the latecomer with, "We knew you would want us to go ahead without waiting for you, so we did."