How Do Birthdays Affect Our Kids?

Listen to the Podcast, Episode 97, on The Imperfect Dad MD Podcast! Or choose from one of your favorite podcast players below.

The role of birthdays has been celebrated as far back as the ancient Egyptians and Greeks.  They initially only celebrated the birth of the gods and goddesses, with the Greeks lighting candles for their respective deities. These celebrations have now transitioned their festivities onto our mortal-selves.  This focus on an individual once a year has great benefits to our self-esteem.  Yet, could there be some downsides to it as well?

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My Birthday History

I grew up in the time when the idea of the extravagant birthday parties at bowling alleys, movie theaters, or other locations was not as practiced as it is today.  I remember having a party at the ice rink one year, a scavenger hunt through the mall another, but most of the time our birthdays were celebrated at home with an ice cream cake and single present wrapped in the Sunday comics (anyone else ever do that?).

Birthdays never seemed to be a huge celebratory focus in my household growing up.  Don’t get me wrong – I never felt ignored or unimportant because of this.  However, it never was something that led to such an over-focus of the individual that it became obsessive.  I also shared a birthday with my twin sister, most likely pulling more away from the solo focus on me.    

How do I think this affected me?  For one, I still don’t care very much about birthdays.  It is not that I dislike them; I simply just don’t really pay attention to them.  When my wife asks what she can do for my birthday, I usually do not have an answer.  Gifts?  Meh.  Cake?  The boys will eat it more than me.  Nice dinner?  Ok that sounds good.  Yet in the end if my birthday ends with us having a typical dinner and I have a handmade card from my kids I am more than content. 

Is this lackluster celebration a problem?  Did it significantly affect my self-esteem growing up and my sense of importance in the world now?  Did it prevent my ego from becoming so self-absorbed that it allowed my sense of empathy to continue to grow?  It is hard to say.  I want to think that it set me up to continue to focus on others before me, but there are so many other experiences in life that have led to that as well.

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Today’s Birthdays and Their Effect on Our Kids

In today’s world, this thought of such a small celebration at home without inviting our whole class or baseball team may seem foreign.  It seems that almost every month we are getting invited to a birthday party at some location, leading to the purchase of various presents, working around each other’s schedules and activities, and hoping that both of our boys can attend to prevent significant disagreement between the two. 

Why have birthdays become so celebrated in today’s generation?  We could call it the commercialization of the birthday (like every other holiday there is).  Maybe we feel like we must step it up for our children because some of us feel like WE didn’t get good enough parties as a kid.  Maybe we utilize it as a social status indicator, doing the party more for ourselves than our kids.  Let’s be honest – our older son does not remember his 1-year-old birthday party.  Yet, we felt the need to invite EVERY friend of ours in the surrounding area over for it.  Was that more for US than him?

Our kids want to feel important on their special day, yet it is possible to overdo it.  It is not uncommon for a child to get upset because a friend can’t come to their party. 

“Do they not like me anymore?” 

“Why can’t they skip their basketball game?”

“Am I not important enough to them?”

There are lot of questions that come up when a birthday party occurs.  Don’t get me started on when a child does not get invited to their friend’s party OR when they don’t get the present they were hoping for.

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What to do as a Parent?

You may be reading everything I have written and be thinking, “Wow, Dr Toffle really does not like birthday parties.  What a Grinch.”  I promise it is not the idea of DISLIKING birthday parties.  However, I think it is important to keep in mind what we are teaching our kids when they occur. 

Yes, our children are extremely important to us, and we want to show them that. Sometimes we feel a large celebration is the way to do this, inviting lots of kids and friends to show them that they are important to them as well.  But what happens when there are no large parties or celebrations later in the year for them?  What happens when they get older and their friends or significant other does not celebrate it the way they are used to?  Does it affect the way they internally interpret someone’s thoughts about them based on the TYPE of celebration they receive? 

As we celebrate our children it is important to teach them WHY we do what we do.  It is important to discuss that different people celebrate birthdays in different ways.  Find out what your child likes about their celebration and determine why they think that way.  If it seems like they are over-focused on the presents they get and not the experience of being with their friends, maybe you need to find a way to remove the need for material items to enjoy it.

One birthday when our older son was younger, he decided that instead of presents that he wanted people to donate diapers at the party to take to one of the shelters in our city.  This was stemmed by a discussion we had after his younger brother was born.  We were talking about HOW MANY diapers his brother went through and expressed that some families just don’t have access to diapers as easily due to financial burdens.  This led to him wanting to do something about it, and the diaper birthday was born.  Now, I will say he was a little sad that he didn’t have many presents to open that day; yet he was very happy to help drop off the diapers on the women’s shelter. 

In the scenario above we utilized a time that is usually more about focusing on oneself and showing how we can use it to help others.  We did not FORCE our son to do this – he wanted to do it on his own.  It was the conversations we had with our son before the birthday party was even planned out that led to the decision.  Now, we have not done a birthday like that since that time as we, again, do not want him to feel like he must do it.  Yet the memories still remain, as do the lessons that both he as a child and we as parents learned.

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Birthdays are great.  Parties are great.  Please do not feel like I am trying to tell you that you should not have a party for your kid.  Our 9-year-old just had a party at a bowling alley and absolutely loved it.  Our 5-year-old has already changed where he wants the venue for his birthday party, which is still 6 months away.  We let him talk about these things, dream about what he will do, etc, but do not over focus on the topic.  As his birthday gets closer, we will discuss the more important topics like who do we invite, why do we invite them, asking for presents, etc.  We will use that time to try to help him understand the importance of these subjects to best of his ability at his age, hoping at least some of it will stick for when he is older. 

Decide what YOU want your child to think and feel about birthdays.

Why are they important?

What message should we get from them?

How should it mold your child for the future?

All these questions and more are vital to help you determine the best way to raise your child in every aspect of their lives.  Using a day that is all about them to reinforce those ideas is a great step to take.

Imperfect Dad MD

Listen to the Podcast Episode 97 on The Imperfect Dad MD Podcast! Or choose from one of your favorite podcast players below.

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