I doubt I'm the only parent to ever ask that question. In fact, I'd be surprised if there's a parent out there who hasn't privately wondered at least once or twice if they'll be the cause of their child's future therapy bills. The question isn't new, for parents in general, or for me. Now, with my son's second birthday fast approaching, I find myself asking it once more.
Growing up, I never had an issue with the traditional birthday party model. I say "traditional" though, of course, birthday party traditions are as varied as the families that hold them. For me, a traditional birthday party looks like food and snacks, accompanied by games and other loosely organized activities that mainly serve to help burn off the chaotic energy provided by said snacks. And crowning the whole event: the presents. The birthday boy or girl sits in a place where all can see and, one by one, tears into a pile of gifts to a chorus of polite "ooh"s and "aah"s from the onlookers.
And naturally, as a child, I didn't have a problem with this. What kid doesn't like getting presents, or being the center of attention, let alone both at the same time?Clearly, whoever thought of birthday parties was a genius.
It wasn't until I started attending kids' birthday parties as an adult (nothing creepy, I have nephews) that my feelings about this model began to change. It didn't happen all at once. It started as a vague sense of disconnection that I chalked up to me being a bit of an introvert. But gradually, as I spent more time as one of the onlookers in this strange spectator sport, I began to wonder if there was a better way.
Not that my nephews weren't enjoying their birthdays. They were as happy as can be, just like I was at their age. But sitting on the outside of that circle of friends and family, I couldn't help but feel a sense of distance between the birthday boy and the rest of the room - because it was all about the gifts. For me, those gifts represented the love and care and thoughtfulness of people who took the time and effort to say, "Hey - you matter to me." The relationship was the real gift - the wrapped package was just a concrete expression of that relationship.
But as my nephews tore into present after present, I couldn't help but feel that I was intruding on an intimate moment. A moment between them and their stuff. There barely seemed space in that moment for the relationships that make birthdays so special - relationships that had been pushed to a safe distance to make room for the mounting pile of toys and clothes, with names scrawled on gift tags serving as the only tenuous tether between the observers and the moment unfolding before us.
Maybe I'm overstating the case. All I can tell you is that, as my son's first birthday approached, I couldn't shake the feeling that I wanted something more, both for him, and for those who love him enough to come and celebrate him.
Fortunately, my wife felt much the same way I did - otherwise, this story would have a much different ending. But as these things often go, we had a sense of the problem, but no clear picture of a solution. We knew we wanted something different for our son's birthday, but we didn't know what "different" was.
It wasn't until the day of his first birthday party that we stumbled - entirely by accident - into a possible solution. If you've ever planned a first birthday party, then you know…
"Where are we going to have him open presents? Everyone's sitting at tables, and there really isn't a good place in the room."
"Forget a good spot, how are we going to get him to stay in one place?"
"Yeah. You're sure you couldn't have let him nap a little longer? He's so tired."
"Hey, here's a thought - what if we…"
That last was probably my wife. Honestly, I don't remember who came up with the idea. What I remember is what we did.
The next several minutes were spent picking out gifts, one by one, and finding the people each gift was from. Then, sitting or standing near the giver, our son would open the gift they had brought - meaning, of course, his mother and I would open the gift, while he tried to eat the wrapping paper. After opening the gift we thanked the givers, talked about the gift and the thought behind it, then returned to pick out the next present. Eventually, we had travelled through the whole room, every gift had been opened, and a new family tradition had been born.
Did our son enjoy his birthday? He was one. He enjoyed covering his entire face in cupcake frosting, and smiling at people who smiled at him. Did everyone see every gift he opened? Probably not - no comparing gifts and seeing which set of grandparents is the coolest, I suppose. But every person who had brought a gift received a private moment to celebrate their relationship with our son, and I think that was worth it. I can't remember if we had any party favors, but I like to think we sent everyone home with a pretty special gift that day.
Now birthday number two is just around the corner, and we already intend on handling gifts the same way. But as the day approaches, I can't help but wonder if we're on the right track. Last year, I could comfort myself with the knowledge that my son's only memory of that first birthday party will come second-hand through pictures and videos. This next birthday will probably be the same. But we're quickly running out of practice runs - before long, those memories are going to start sticking.
What will he remember? Will he remember a truly meaningful time of cherishing the most important relationships in his life? Or will he just be missing out on the joy of drowning in a pile of gifts while everyone watches? I want him to grow up valuing the people at his parties more than the gifts they bring. But then again, I got to open all of my presents at once, without the hassle of trying to connect with everyone at my party, and here I am all these years later, fretting about whether or not I'm turning my son into some sort of materialist. Am I shaping him into the man I hope he'll become, or am I just ruining his childhood?
I may never know the answer. I think, so long as I keep asking the question, I'm on the right track.
I can only hope that someday, my son will be the one wondering, "Am I ruining my son's childhood?" Because then I'll have a much easier time knowing the answer: you're not. You're a great dad, and he's lucky to have you.
Now, to convince myself…