Reclaiming the Soul of Birthdays
“Your children need your presence far more than your presents.” -Reverend Jesse Jackson
“A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.” -Lucius Seneca
I’ve been thinking a lot about birthdays lately since I just celebrated my own and look forward to the June birthdays of both of our grown sons. Sharing special time together and evolving your family’s unique traditions for holidays and birthdays are important ways to honor and solidify the bonds of love and connection. Numerous studies have shown that consistent family routines and rituals are associated with improved children’s health, academic achievement, adolescents’ sense of personal identity, and stronger marital and parent-child relationships.
That being said–there is no research that says that the more money you spend, the greater the benefit. In fact, often the opposite is true. When we make a child’s birthday party into a complicated, expensive extravaganza, often the deeper purpose–of joy and celebration–gets lost in the shuffle. As I watch parents of young children today, I am struck by how many more expectations they seem to have of themselves. In the not so distant past, the first few birthdays, if not all of them, were small family affairs. Do you know anyone who remembers details of their third birthday?
Nowadays parents are asking for advice, blogging about how much money to spend on their child’s first birthday. Couples are fighting about it because one parent wants the day to be special, and the other worries they can’t really afford hundreds of dollars for each child each year and still save for college. With the hope of lifting some weight off the shoulders of anxious parents, I offer a few simple suggestions:
Take care of your own needs first, and your children will benefit. If you overextend yourself (financially, emotionally, or physically) in order to throw the perfect party, you will very likely be so stressed out that you won’t be able to be present enough to enjoy it. Your child (or anyone else at the party, for that matter) will soak up your stress like a good sponge. How many times have you been at a children’s event where the child being celebrated had a total meltdown? Chances are, that child was not the only one overwhelmed and exhausted.
Think about the deeper purpose of the birthday celebration, and don’t let it get lost in the shuffle. Although certain religious sects specifically prohibit parties and birthday celebrations, most parents around the world honor the day their child was born, with joy and gratitude for each passing year of that child’s health and aliveness. A birthday is supposed to be a celebration of the preciousness of one unique and beloved individual and the gifts he or she bring to the world. As we sing, we are saying, “You are alive! You are special! We love you!”
Sometimes less is more. Does your child really need 20 kids there with 20 gifts? 10? How much can a child take in or process? Often, a small party with only two or three close friends is more likely to create rich memories than a big party with more preparation, commotion, and clean-up. One mom and dad I know took four 10-year-old boys on a short train ride to a nearby town where they had ice cream and rode back. The boys were in heaven!
Birthdays can teach our children about the importance of both giving and receiving. Perhaps more important than the party is what you teach your child about giving back. Make writing thank you notes a fun and creative project with your children. Teach them about making cards and presents for other family members and friends, and how the gift of giving to others is even more important to the world than getting more stuff.
What do you want your child to learn and to remember? Celebrate that.