Recently, at my younger son's fourth birthday celebration, something a little distressing happened. As we were all singing "Happy Birthday" to him, his seven-year-old brother loudly inserted his own name at the end of the song. It was one of those moments that can really make a parent cringe. When asked why he did this, all that my elder son could utter was that he got "confused."
Later, when it came time for my younger son to open his gifts, our seven-year-old couldn't understand why there weren't any presents for him.
Was my son's confusion about birthdays and presents really his fault? I've been reflecting on this question ever since, and it's made me think about how my family and my generation of parents handle our kids' birthday parties and the presents that are such a big part of the experience.
When I was growing up, my birthday parties were held at my family's home, as were most of the birthday parties I attended back then. My parents would deck the basement with streamers, balloons, party hats and themed paper cups and plates. My mom always decorated the cake herself, and I can't tell you how excited I was every year to discover her newest creation: a fire engine, a policeman, a marshmallow alien space ship...
If the weather was permitting, there would be some games in the backyard, like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey or freeze tag, and my dad would run those. At the end of the party, everyone would gather around, and I would open my presents in front of all the other kids. Likewise, when it came to other kids' parties, I would sit and watch the birthday boy or girl open up his or her gifts.
What made those parties meaningful was that my mom would usually take me shopping to buy a friend or classmate's gift, and there was something exciting about watching them open up what I had hand-picked for them. Perhaps it's just a failure of memory, but I can't ever recall a receipt being included with the gift. I also can't remember receiving a gift on my sister's birthday or anyone else's so that I wouldn't feel bad. It was her day, and that was it.
Now, birthday parties are more typically outsourced to kids' facilities like Gymboree, Chuck E. Cheese's, Bounce-U and The Little Gym. Cakes are supplied and decorated by Carvel, A&P and Shop Rite. It is expected that gifts are of a certain price range (in our area, usually $25 to $40) and that a receipt should be included for an easy exchange from where it was bought. No longer do children get to watch the birthday boy or girl open the gift from to them. This is partly due to time restrictions at these birthday facilities and also because parents don't want their kids enviously watching another child's bounty of toys. As a result, presents are usually stuffed into large garbage bags and dragged home, where they are opened with just one's immediate family around. A written thank-you note from the parents is usually the only acknowledgment of the gift.
It's easy to fall into this way of handling birthdays and presents. Life is certainly more hectic than it's ever been before, and I have to admit that it's a real temptation to just plunk down a few bucks to reserve birthday time at one of these facilities, especially when so often our kids would prefer to have their birthdays there anyway.
The problem is that by making these easier choices, we are in essence robbing our children (and ourselves) of the real value of birthdays and gift-giving: the recognition that it is an expression of how much we care about the people close to us. How do we care? We bake a homemade cake or take the time to hand-pick a present or make a birthday card from scratch or anything else that speaks of our desire to want to make someone feel special. Otherwise, birthday parties are just relegated to easily concocted, diversionary activities for our kids to pass the time, to stroke their little egos and to collect more unnecessary stuff.
The lesson learned for this parent is to take a little more time and a little more care when it comes to birthday celebrations and gift-giving. Then, maybe next year, for our younger son's birthday, our elder son will be a little less confused. That's my hope, anyway.
Dana H. Glazer is the award-winning director of the feature documentary, "The Evolution of Dad." To learn more about the project, please visit www.evolutionofdad.com.