Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Birthdays Gone Wild

From what I can tell, kids’ birthday parties, at least most kids birthday parties here in College Station, are similar to the parties I remember having and attending as a child: party hot spot (bowling alley, swimming pool, gymnastics facility, Chuckie Cheese restaurant, movie theater), pizza and lemonade, cake, presents… You get the picture.

Birthday parties in Ann Arbor (at least for preschoolers), however, were a little different. We went to one birthday party at a bounce house, but the rest of the parties we attended were held at people’s homes or local parks. The parties were laid back and relaxed, and kids entertained themselves in the backyard, in the playroom, or on the jungle gym. The meal, if there was one, usually involved grilling and coolers full of juice boxes and soda. And best of all, EVERY SINGLE party invitation indicated that guests were NOT to bring presents. Until we moved here, Will had never had or been to a birthday party (except his own family birthday celebrations) that involved presents, and you know what? He still thought birthday parties were awesome.

You can imagine Will’s surprise and overwhelming excitement then, when at his first College Station birthday party he realized that the birthday girl was about to open the 20 presents sitting in front of her. It didn’t matter to him that the presents were all dolls and princess dresses and art supplies – he was in awe of the process and I could almost SEE the dream bubbles above his head as he began imagining the huge stash of Transformers and superhero action figures he would surely rake in come October.

As an adult, I prefer present-free (friend) birthday parties for kids. They’re pure, simple, and focused on the birthday boy/girl and their friends instead of on how extravagant and the number of presents. Don’t get me wrong – I love presents, especially buying them for my kids. But I also love the idea of teaching my kids that life is about what we give, not what we get, and the present-free birthday party helped me teach this lesson. (The present-free birthday party also helped me keep the toy/game/doll/stuffed animal chaos under control. And saved me a little money.)

I asked my sister Sara, who lives in Peoria, Illinois, about the present craze, because even though her daughter Lily is only five-months-old, Sara is my go-to for all things preschool-child-related. (Sara taught preschool for four years, and now teaches second grade – I guess she’ll be my go-to for all things second-grade-child-related as well). Sara mentioned that a co-worker of hers tried to start the “no gifts please” trend when her kids were little, but it never caught on and each year her kids were confused and sad because while they brought presents to their friends’ parties, none of their friends brought presents to their parties.

I don’t want to go completely present-free. I think it would be confusing and hurtful for Will, who attends multiple present-filled birthday parties every month, not to receive a single present at his own birthday party. And I don’t want guests to contribute money or toys that Will is supposed to donate to charity. I think it would be awful for Will to grow up hating philanthropy because it robbed him of his birthday presents. So I guess my only choice, at least for now, is to just embrace presents along with presence, and focus on teaching life lessons after we’ve cleaned up the wrapping paper.

Disclaimer: Please don’t take this birthday party/present talk as me thinking AA is “better” than CS, or that our friends in AA are “better” than our friends in CS, because that’s not at all what I think. This way of celebrating preschoolers’ birthdays is just a difference between the two places I’ve lived with kids, and I like one way of doing things better than the other.

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