Advent is upon us, and at our house we’re ankle-deep in nativity books, open-the-door calendars, garlands, and gingerbread house planning. But I’ve had a post in my head for weeks about birthday celebrations, and before I get into Christmas topics I thought I’d throw this one out there.
The thing that pushed me over the edge was this November post by Molly Piper about her son’s sixth birthday party. [If you haven’t checked out Molly’s blog, you should. The daughter-in-law of John Piper, she’s a gifted writer herself and especially powerful on topics of grief and grieving since her daughter’s stillbirth in 2007.] Molly wrote:
“We do birthdays pretty simply. I don’t kill myself over a cake. I let the kid pick what they want to eat, and so it’s usually a simple menu (this year it was mac & cheese with hot dogs in it). I don’t do favor bags. I let my mother-in-law host it at her house (!). We invite a couple families we’re close with, and that’s it. Voila! Kid birthday party! I didn’t grow up with a birthday “party” every year. We had one every few years, and that was good! I don’t personally think that kids should get used to a huge party every year. I know it’s their special day, but making it special with family is sufficient, in my opinion.”
Words after my own heart. Last month our son turned 5, and to celebrate we did the same thing we had done the previous two years… We invited our next-door-neighboors over for pizza, cake and ice cream, singing, balloons and streamers, and a present or two. We embellished it a bit this year with the dinosaur theme our son requested – a dinosaur cake, dinosaur party hats, and Pin the Tail on the Dinosaur. The kids all colored in some cut-out paper dinosaurs at the end. And it was a big hit.
Our next-door neighbors (kids aged 4 to 10) have been our closest family friends since we moved here two plus years ago, and they play stand-in family for us since ours all live cross country. The weekend we moved in, their eldest daughter was turning eight and they were having the first bona fide “Kid Birthday Party” (classmate friend attendees; party favors; etc) for her that they’d ever thrown. Up till then they’d done simple, grandparents-n-cousins, family fun style birthday parties. It was one of the first inklings my husband and I had that we were really going to like this family.
Is there anything wrong with more elaborate, done-up birthday parties for kids? Absolutely not. Is there something magical about the age of 8 as a good year to start introducing something more formal or dressed-up for kids’ birthdays? No. Every family’s different; every kid is different; every parent’s preferences, gifts, and passions are different. I’ve attended numerous lovely parties for 3- and 4- and 5-year olds with my kids that we’ve all enjoyed (and have not seen as over-the-top). So what’s my point?
My point is that I, like Molly, see a societal trend to overdo kids’ birthday parties. It’s wonderful to make kids feel special and celebrated and important – they should know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’re lavishly loved by their parents, the apple of their eye. But as I see it, our culture is far more likely to overdo it on the “you are special” front than to under-do it. Many kids already believe – they receive this message from most every front – that they are the center of the universe, their own and their families. They do not need an extravagant birthday party every year to reinforce this belief.
And I know many moms who feel guilty if they celebrate their children’s birthdays in a (comparatively) limited and low-key way. They feel that they owe their kids, from age 3 up, at least six to eight peers in attendance, an elaborate cake, a pervasive theme, party favors… The works. This is the norm; they see it all around them. If they don’t hit the party store, stock up, and shell out a hundred bucks’ worth of celebration, they feel like their kid is being neglected.
I myself wondered if our son would ask for more than we were doing for his party, as he’s attended at least six birthday parties for friends of his in the past year. I wondered if he’d ask if all his friends could come, if there would be party bags, why we weren’t doing more. He didn’t. And I realized that our own family’s way of making things special – our own emphasis on it being his day with his choice of meal and cake type and theme, our own giving of carefully chosen gifts – truly is sufficient. Simple is actually special and beautiful, in its own way; less really can be more.
In the spirit of last December’s “Real Simple at Christmas time” post, the question here is: what does it mean to keep it real simple with birthdays? To get to the heart of the matter, celebrate well, but avoid excess and unnecessary materialism? What does it mean to affirm a child and commemorate his life while intentionally eschewing an entitlement mindset in our families and our kids? As we grow and evolve as a family and add more kids to our crew, I hope we’ll keep that goal front and center.