It was getting late, and the mothers on the playground were beginning to shift on their feet. Conversation was lagging, and eventually one of the women waved to her son.

"C'mon birthday boy!" she called. "Time to go home!"

As the child jumped down from the monkey bars, landing in a group of guffawing classmates, another woman turned to her in surprise.

"It's his birthday? I didn't know it was his birthday."

My friend detected a note of reproach.

"Yes, he's turning 6."

"I hadn't realized," the woman said musingly.

If it was the boy's birthday, then where, pray, was her son's invitation?

"We're not having a big party this year."

"Ah," said the other woman, who had hosted a rather lavish shindig for her own kindergartener not a month or two earlier.

"That is, we're not having any party to speak of this year, really," the woman added, trailing off too late as both their boys approached.

The truth was that she had decided to give her son an extremely small, almost infinitesimal birthday gathering to which she had invited exactly four children, none of whom attended school with the boy and one of whom was out of town, anyway.

There had been big birthday parties in the past, certainly. The family's house and/or yard had been filled many times with happy shrieking hordes of children and grown-ups standing around with tight, awkward birthday party smiles. There had been pizzas and hotdogs and cakes and those piles of baby carrots that no self-respecting child ever eats at a party but which responsible parents always put out on platters nonetheless. Indeed, over the years, for this child or for his siblings, she and her husband had hosted laser tag parties, paint ball parties, art-project parties, Mad Science parties and parties featuring inflatable moon bounces. They had taken groups of boys and girls to concerts and movies. Many times they had invited entire classes, because that's what you do.

Yet not one of these events had ever been as jolly in reality as it had seemed in prospect; certainly never as fun as a small gathering of good friends. So that was the plan this year, attached to which, she now realized, there was going to be a small social cost.

The birthday boy was looking up at her in confusion.

"You said I am having my party tonight," he said.

"I am having my party tonight," he explained to his friend, who had not been invited.

"Well, kind of," his mother said, feeling like an idiot. She reached down and cuddled the boy's head against her, which gave her the opportunity to make a wry face for the other woman and her child. "Just a few neighborhood friends," she mouthed apologetically.

"Sounds fun!" the woman said brightly, and perhaps even sincerely. Parents who host big birthday bashes have been known to look with scorn on those who do not, and she may have been in their number.

Her son, to his credit, didn't seem bothered by the news. His attention had been drawn back to the monkey bars.

"Neeeawrgh!" he yelled, and flinging his arms out like aircraft wings, he zoomed back to where everyone else was playing.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at