My 4-Year-Old Was Left Out for the First Time—and It Hurt Me More Than I’d Expected

I’ve been a mom for almost five years. I survived sleep training, potty training and the epic pendulum swings of a threenager. I’ve dealt with picky eating habits and navigated through behavior issues. But the one thing I’ve dreaded muddling through wasn’t supposed to occur until late elementary school, maybe middle school. But no, here I am in pre-K, explaining to my daughter why she wasn’t invited to a classmate’s party.

“How come I was left out, Mommy?” she cried at pickup, detailing how her class’s morning meeting was hijacked by all the “invited” kids recounting the fun had at a classmate’s costume party over the weekend.

The truth is I already knew she was left out thanks to the magic dispenser of information known as Facebook. I’d already lost sleep that weekend over how she’d ultimately find out and how she’d react. I debated giving her a heads-up but didn’t want to jump the gun or make things worse. And so, I struggled to answer her question. I wanted my daughter to feel better, not scarred for life. I wanted her to know she didn’t do anything wrong and to not take this personally. But I couldn’t coherently get the words out because technically, my daughter wasn’t the one left out.

Nope, that would be me.

In pre-K, the kids aren’t writing up the guest list. They’re not making deep enough friendships to know who they want around and whose feelings they wouldn’t mind hurting. Right now, that’s all at the discretion of us parents, and usually, the mommies. So while my daughter did bear the brunt of this heartache, I was technically the target.

Being left out is a trigger that catapults me right back to middle school. Thankfully, I was in school during a time when social media was a concept right out of The Jetsons. I’m sure for every party or shopping trip from which I knowingly was excluded, there were dozens of other outings that I still don’t know about to this day (and likely would still sting 20-plus years later if I did suddenly find out). You know FOMO (fear of missing out)? That very specific anxiety only came about because social media now exists to taunt us and throw it in our face when we’re not “cool” enough to hang with a certain crowd.

So I asked myself what was bothering me, beyond the tears my daughter cried? What was hurting me just as much as my daughter trying (and failing) to grasp why she was one of the lone kids in her class not invited? And what was flustering me even more than explaining to my young daughter why not everyone will like you or that not everyone does the right thing light years before she was ready to understand and I was ready to initiate the conversation?

Well, it’s simple—I didn’t understand why we were left out either.

I thought this mom liked me. And because I, too, was baffled, how could I possibly use this experience as a teaching moment when I was taking it all personally? Especially when I’m not so innocent when it comes to including/excluding among my own circle of friends.

You see, over the past year, the gatherings among my group of friends have grown more intimate. We went from inviting everyone we’d ever interacted with to organically shrinking into something smaller, where everyone could comfortably fit at one table and everyone at said table felt connected on a meaningful level. I didn’t even realize this happened until a few that had been invited in the past wondered why they were now, well, left out. And I didn’t know how to respond because it wasn’t intentional.

It turns out what had happened within my group is a very real and necessary thing to do, as I discovered from Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering. I was immediately struck by her profound statement on exclusivity: “You will have begun to gather with purpose when you learn to exclude with purpose. Over-inclusion is a symptom of deeper problems—above all, a confusion about why you are gathering and a lack of commitment to your purpose and your guests.”

So, before you call me a hypocrite, let me say that I still don’t think this rule applies to preschoolers who are not emotionally or intellectually prepared to grasp that less is more. They don’t want intimate connections—they want big, loud, boisterous gatherings filled with a sea of every kid they’ve ever rubbed shoulders with on the playground. I think as parents of young kids, it’s our responsibility to invite everyone or don’t have the party at all…or at the very least, keep it off social media.

Now, going back to Priya Parker and excluding with purpose? That calmed me down and helped me wrap my head around talking to my daughter. Because, I get it—I don’t know this family all that well and I don’t know if this particular mom has deeper relationships with the moms of the classmates that were indeed invited. But I did know that all the kids would talk about this party on Monday. Recently, my daughter missed a birthday party we were invited to and she couldn’t get past being the only one not there, nor wrap her head around not receiving the “awesome” goodie bag everyone’s been raving about for weeks. Because for my daughter, it doesn’t matter if she was invited or not—she really has no concept of that at 4 years old. What she does understand is missing out, no matter why or how it happens. Even though I still want to ugly cry every time I picture my daughter’s sweet face scrunched up in hurt and confusion, I know this is a lesson that had to come sooner rather than later. Maybe sooner than I had hoped. But also maybe I’m envious that I only learned how exclusion can actually be a gift at the ripe old age of 42. It’s a good thing that kids are fast learners—and great at moving on—which is an even better lesson to learn (or perhaps relearn) at any age.