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Can Friendships Withstand Declining an Invitation at Holiday Time?

12/19/2011 11:55 am ET | Updated Feb 18, 2012

Does passive behavior ever get in the way of your being a good parent?

A few years back, when I was a less experienced mother and a more passive friend, my family and I were invited to a Super Bowl party at the home of one of my older daughter's pre-school friends. The school year was in full-swing, but the friendship between the three-year-old girls was just beginning and the invitation was an especially exciting one for my daughter.

When we arrived at the party, spinach and artichoke bread bowl in hand, my daughter's classmate greeted her with a warm embrace and a sweet kiss. They grabbed hands and skipped away and I thought, "Oh, how nice that they are so close."

Ten minutes later, when the two girls frolicked back into the living room still holding hands, I couldn't help but notice a spotty red rash that extended from the little friend's neck, all the way up the side of her face. As I bounced my 12-month-old daughter on my lap, I said to the playmate's mother with concern, "Have you see your daughter's neck? It looks like she might have some sort of rash."

"She has Scarletina," the mom explained, matter-of-factly.

"Scarletina?" I asked, with a surge of confusion. Oh, I knew what Scarletina was -- a rash that sometimes accompanies the strep virus in children. My confusion stemmed from what on earth we were doing at a Super Bowl party with a child who had a raging case of strep.

"Yeah, we took her to the doctor this morning. Don't worry, though. She's on antibiotics."

I'm no doctor, but I knew at that moment that a girl diagnosed with strep in the morning is not a girl who is germ-free by evening. And yet, I stayed at that party. Overwhelmed by confusing thoughts about etiquette vs. hygiene and my daughter's disappointment vs. keeping both her and her sister strep-free, I am ashamed to say that I froze and made what I consider a bad decision to stay. I have often thought back to that night, recalling how un-assertive I was to have not politely excused my family from the party and prioritized my daughters' health and well-being.

When I have told the story to others, they often comment about how inconsiderate the other mom was to have not warned us about her daughter's health status before the party. I must say that I agree, but I also feel like the responsibility for staying was purely my own. As I have developed better skills for asserting the needs and rights of my family members, I know that upon first noticing the rash, I should have said something along the lines of:

"Oh, I wish you would have told me ahead of time. We won't be able to stay. I can't risk the baby getting strep. We would love to re-schedule something for another time when everyone is feeling better."

All's well that ends well, though, right? My kids stayed healthy and I learned a valuable lesson. This week, my task is to put that knowledge to good use, as a similar situation has unfolded. Here is my chance to redeem my passive mistake:

Last Friday, a neighbor with three children similar in age to my own kids invited our family over for a Pizza Night, this coming Friday. We accepted the invitation. The next day, she mentioned that her oldest child was up all night with a stomach virus. The day after that, she texted me that her middle daughter was now also sick. With flashbacks of the Super Bowl playdate in my head, I e-mailed back my sympathy and concern, along with an offer to bring over ginger ale or to run to the store for crackers or chicken soup. I also practiced my best assertiveness skills, by writing the following:

Let's plan to postpone the Pizza Night. I don't want you to have to think about having people over when you have sick kids and I am concerned about my girls catching the stomach bug. We'll look forward to doing it another time or to having you to our house after the holidays.

Good, right? Clear message, no? It took me four years, but I thought I had finally redeemed myself.

An hour later, my neighbor e-mailed back to report that her third child had just gotten sick:

Chris is now sick... My kids have been asking about Friday too. I told them that by Friday, we should be fine. It's still three days away.

Okay, so maybe she didn't get the meaning in my message. Perhaps I was not clear enough. Let me try this again. After all, assertiveness is all about stating your rights and needs directly and even repeatedly, when necessary. This must be one of those "necessary" times. I wrote back:

I hope everyone recovers quickly. It's no fun to be sick, especially during the holidays! My husband and I would feel much better about postponing. We don't want to take the chance of the kids being sick at Christmas.

Can't argue with that, right? Non-offensive. Clear. Direct. I sincerely thought my assertive job was done. But she quickly wrote back:

Since I purchased some perishables already for Friday, let's go ahead and give it a try. I am sure they won't be contagious by then. Let me know.

Now, I'm beginning to feel like I'm being steamrolled. I'm starting to think that not sticking up for my family's health at that Super Bowl playdate really was the easier way. But I'm knee-deep now and I know that if I acquiesce, I'm going to spend the next few days feeling resentful, not to mention unnecessarily subjecting my kids to the stomach flu! So, I e-mail what I hope will be my final refusal of her request:

I am so glad everyone is on the mend! My husband and I have talked about your invitation for Friday and have decided that it is very important not to be making a long holiday car trip with sick children or, worse yet, bringing a virus to his elderly parents. We are not going to be able to bring the kids over until after the holidays.

Have any thoughts on what she said next?

Interestingly, she did not say anything at all. Not a word. The silence, in fact, is almost deafening. Which is how I believe she intends it. After a steady stream of emails and texts, two days have passed without any type of response. I did see her briefly at a school event this morning, but she made sure to stay on her cell phone the entire encounter. Paranoid? Perhaps. But given how often she is normally in contact, I think this officially qualifies as "the silent treatment." Assertiveness meets passive aggression, I suppose.

Despite this current impasse, I now finally understand why naturally assertive people seem so happy. Having to be a broken record about this invitation was a bit trying, but on the whole, I feel practically giddy about having stood up for my family's right not to spend a Pizza Night in StomachVirus-ville. I am not responsible for the perishable items that were purchased five days in advance (as my husband pointed out, we thought it was supposed to be Pizza Night!) and I was consistently honest, clear, and direct in my responses. Instead of feeling guilted into the invitation or resentful about accepting it, I was able to stand firm on our rights to postpone the get-together. Oh, and P.S. I am a wife and a working mother of two, so the silent treatment is sort of like a gift to me.

Only time will tell what my neighbor's next e-mail will say, but my conscience is clear in terms of the decision I have made for my own family's health and the honest way in which I expressed myself. I do look forward to a Pizza Night with our friends another day and hope that our friendship can withstand the forthright honesty that it took me four years to muster.

For more stories, thoughts, and step-by-step guidelines for using assertive strategies to confront passive aggressive behavior, check out The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces, 2nd ed. Follow Signe on Twitter @SigneWhitson, Like her on Facebook, and visit her website at www.signewhitson.com