My son celebrated his fourth birthday recently. He’s now old enough to understand that he’s supposed to answer “four!” every time someone asks him how old he is. He also understands that his birthday is a day where he gets to blow out candles, eat cake, and get lots of presents.
The experience made me think about the special place that birthdays occupy in most cultures as a marker of growing not only physically, but also in terms of the person’s understanding of the world and their place in it.
Birthdays are supposed to be fun but they can also cause a certain degree of anxiety, especially as kids get older and notice what other people have. Somehow, the tractor Lego set you bought your son pales in comparison to the Ninjago/Lamborghini/otherwise-better-than-yours Lego set imported from Denmark that his friend Johnny got for his superhero-themed birthday party, complete with actors dressed up as Spider-Man and Thor.
For parents and children alike, birthdays can become a reason to feel insecure about what others get vis-a-vis ourselves. As a parent and a mental health professional who has been at both ends of this phenomenon, I have some advice to offer:
Birthdays are supposed to be fun but they can also cause a certain degree of anxiety
Help your child increase their awareness. If it’s your tradition to receive gifts, have them acknowledge whom the gift is from before letting them tear open the wrapping paper. Ask them to think about their relationship with the gift-giver.
Say thank you. It’s important for children to learn that they are receiving a gift due to the generosity of the giver as opposed to the idea that they’re “supposed” to get a present for their birthday. Saying thank you is an essential part of this acknowledgment and helps kids get into a good habit. Turn this into a creative project by making “thank you” cards or a fun video together.
Manage pressure to “one-up” someone else’s birthday – or even your own celebration from last year. Separate your needs and anxieties from those of your child when thinking about their birthday party. Focus on what would make them happy instead of what would make you feel like you’re doing “enough” as a parent.
Use your child’s birthday as an opportunity for them to show generosity to others. Maybe they could make room for new toys by donating some of the ones they’ve outgrown. Ask friends if they know of local charities, resources, or hospitals that accept donations.
At the end of the day, a birthday is a celebration of life and growth. Let’s help our children celebrate with joy, gratitude, and generosity.
This article originally appeared on p23 in the November 2014 issue of beijingkids. To view it online for free, click here To find out how you can obtain your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Liz West (Flickr)