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Parenting from the Heart: Rethinking Birthdays

BIRTHDAY PARTIES TODAY tend to loom large in children’s fantasies months ahead of the event. “I’m going to have a Batman party,” a four-year-old will announce right after his last birthday celebration. Children also love exploring exciting party themes (often commercial) like “Iron Man” or “High School Musical” to enliven everyday conversation. Then there’s everyday chatting about who will or won’t be invited. “You can’t come to my birthday party” has become the most popular threat young children use to demand “cooperation” from a playmate.

Parties often turn out to be delightful events with an atmosphere of well-being that allows parents and children to make new connections. However, parents often feel pressured and confused by children’s heightened expectations for birthday celebrations for important reasons. The escalation of party anticipation in recent decades makes hosting children’s parties, or even gift-giving, expensive. In addition, going to parties can take valuable family time, not to mention over-sugaring and tiring everyone involved. Adults are also dismayed when their best intentions result in the birthday child crying or in guest behavior going rambunctious.

The economic uncertainty of our times can provide an excuse for reflecting on feelings and experiences we would like children to associate with their birthdays. Many adults report that their own birthdays bring up difficult emotions: sadness, a sense of dashed expectations, a fear that the way others respond to their birthdays indicates a lack of caring. People sometimes grow up with anxieties about birthdays from their childhood, feelings of being excluded or overwhelmed. In our culture, birthdays have come to symbolize outward displays that indicate our self-worth or our place in our community of family and friends. Growing older usually allows for celebrating anniversaries of one’s birth in a satisfying way.

Why do we focus on the day of a person’s birth? Our aspiration on people’s birthdays is to make them feel cherished and loved. Many parents are helping children think of birthdays in more meaningful ways—a time to spend with a special friend, a day to do something for someone else, an event that makes one feel more mature, a time to entertain friends. Parents can also respond to children’s “birthday talk” with questions. “What makes you feel really happy on your birthday?” “Would you like to find some presents for a child who doesn’t have many toys?” “How about a ‘green’ birthday, with no wrapping paper?” People can encourage children to take joy in the birthdays of friends and family. My grandchildren’s first outburst after helping throw a surprise party for their uncle was, “Let’s do it again!”

Books like On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier express the reality that our births fit into a larger picture. Imagine children in the future thinking of their birthdays as opportunities to express thankfulness to the earth or to their friends and family. Picture them feeling as joyous about other people’s special day as their own. Begin now by expressing gratitude for your child’s birth, for all of you being born in the same family, amidst all the potential of the world today.

Susan Isaacs Kohl is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.