Who’s Coming to Your Child’s Birthday Party?
If given the opportunity, what you would differently about your kids' birthday parties?
Like most kids, I believed birthdays were about cake, ice cream and presents. At least that’s what I thought I remembered. Somehow I forgot about not being invited to the “really cool” kids’ parties, the struggles over whom to invite or not (my mom always insisted I invite some weird kid none of us liked), and whether the cool kids would come to my party.
All of that and more came back to me in my years as a teacher as I witnessed children and families go through the yearly machinations of the birthday dance. I watched as parties became “events,” with destinations or themes for some families, and simple get-togethers for others.
I vividly remember the year when one family planned a big party for their son and none of the 20 children who were invited came. He was a kid who had poor social skills and his parents thought the party could bring him into the social realm. It didn’t, and it was painful.
So what have I learned over the years? Birthdays are stressful. Need they be?
I remember our oldest son’s first birthday well. We were visiting some friends and when we entered their home, the stereo suddenly started to blast the old Three Dog Night song, “Eli’s Coming” (our son’s name is Eli). They served a carrot cake and we enjoyed spending time with close friends. It was a celebration of Eli’s coming into our lives. It stayed that way for a few more years — just us being happy he was here. A little cake, some ice cream and a few presents.
Then came nursery school. What do you do for two hours with 10 4-year-olds on a serious cake and ice cream sugar buzz? Herding cats high on catnip seems to be a good analogy.
As they got older, we got better at harnessing and directing the energy. We created themes and treasure hunts, and played party games. One year I even convinced my wife’s father to bring his horse up from South Carolina to give the children rides.
At some point we made a request for no gifts. This removed the awkward and stressful unwrapping of presents with everyone watching. No one missed that and I’m sure all the other parents were relieved.
When our kids got older the parties became smaller, usually consisting of some outing with a few close friends, such as going to a Durham Bulls game or taking a weekend trip to the beach. I really liked those a lot better. They seemed much closer to those early days of being with a few people who were really glad our boys were here, people whom they loved and who loved them. Gone was the stress of status-seeking, disappointment and “measuring up.” Perhaps those parties didn’t make for great photo ops or create “oohs and aahs,” but we liked them and so did our boys.
It makes me wonder — what are birthday parties for anyway?
Those kindergarten and elementary school parties were fun and, except for the horse, fairly simple. We focused on playing games and doing things together. A few silly hats, the contents of the treasure hunt and cake decorations created the themes.
If given the opportunity, I’d do them all again with a few adjustments. I’d help my sons lose the focus on inviting who was cool or not. I’d eliminate gifts from day one. Mostly, I’d be less stressed-out and spend the time remembering how happy I am that they’re here.
Whitney MacDonald is the director of Creating Men, a mentoring program for fathers and sons. He is the father of two boys and lives in Hillsborough with his wife, Amy, and dog, Stella. Learn more about him at creatingmen.com.