Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Keeping Birthdays Simple

It can be terribly tempting to go overboard on our little ones' birthdays. After all, we want them to know and feel how very special they are. These days, so many parents are throwing such elaborate parties for their little ones, we don’t want to feel like Scrooge McDuck. We also don’t want to disappoint the exuberant grandparents, aunts, cousins, and friends who want to show their own affection for our little ones.

Nonetheless, it is my conviction that, especially in the early years, simple is best for children’s birthday celebrations. It’s easier on Mom and Dad and much more enjoyable for the child himself.

Here is what we do to keep things simple for our children’s birthdays:

1. Set a modest budget for presents and stick to it! Additionally, you can request that loved ones stick to one gift—or even make a request in invites for “no presents—just your presence!”

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Here is a wooden xylophone James received from his Grandma. Gifts from Mama and Daddy, godmother, aunt, and grandparents were similarly simple. On the invitation for his party, we asked friends to bring potluck dishes rather than gifts, so they still felt that they were participating, but James was not bogged down with toys, which would likely have overwhelmed him completely.

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2. Preferential Treatment. Let your child choose one special event for the day--or even a small one, like which playground to play at. Shotgun (if he or she is old enough) in the car. The main course for dinner. You get the idea. Nothing says, “You’re special” like having your preferences acquiesced to for one special day of the year.

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James isn’t really able to make many decisions of his own yet (though he has plenty of opinions!), but I did make his favorite breakfast: orange-chocolate chip pancakes. I also made some fresh squeezed orange juice to go with it.

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3. A few simple traditions. Don’t go overboard. Just one or two special things that you can easily do year in and year out with each and every child. The simpler, the sweeter. These are precious childhood memories in the making.

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My children always get to lick the spoon/bowl when I make their birthday cake. Here is James licking the chocolate cream-cheese frosting off the spatula after I iced his cake.

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Brian and I also write birthday letters to our children for their birthdays. We tell them what this past year of loving and guiding them has been like, the traits and virtues we love most about them, and what we are most looking forward to in the year to come. We also share with them our hopes and prayers for their lives. When they are eighteen, we will put all the letters into a special book to give to them when they leave home.

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4. Limit the guest list. Remember that children can be easily overwhelmed—and so can moms and dads of little ones! On James’ birthday, we mainly celebrated as a family (just me, Brian, and the kids), though we did invite our dear downstairs neighbors up to sing “Happy Birthday” and share the cake.

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We also had a small party this weekend. James is blessed to share his birthday with his Grandpa, my father-in-law, who lives just a few hours away. Since their birthday is always right around Memorial Day weekend, it also gives us a convenient long weekend to go visiting. So, we spent Memorial Day in picturesque North Idaho where we were able to celebrate with my in-laws, James' godfather, and a few other dear friends.

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My in-laws got a delicious DQ ice cream cake with a special inscription for the Birthday Buddies. We provided grillables & fixins and beverages, and we asked each guest to bring a side dish to pass. $5 worth of decor from the dollar store brightened the room and completed the preparations.

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We had planned on a barbecue in the park, but were rained out the last minute. James’ godfather generously offered his house as an alternate location, and since the party was so simple, it was no trouble at all to transport the event there. We grilled on the porch, and everyone had a great time chatting, eating, and play Rock Band!

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5. End early. On James’ actual birthday and the day of the party, we worked around our normal schedule. This meant that the party ran from noon-3 and ended promptly so we could get the guest of honor home for his afternoon nap. It can be tempting to party as you would for a different event, but remember that between the attention, the extra faces, and the sugar, your birthday child is likely to need his naps more than ever, and a little downtime for the whole family is the best thing to ensure a Happy Birthday for all.

And, that is all the humble advice I have to offer thus far. Please feel free to chime in with more suggestions of how to make children’s birthdays special yet simple.


  1. It sounds like James had a wonderful birthday! I have tried asking relatives to only get one gift for birthdays and Christmas, but they haven't really respected our wishes on that---we keep trying though. We give one special gift from "Mom and Dad" for birthdays (and Christmas). As for gifts, I prefer wooden toys or keepsake toys instead of throwaway toys that break or end up in garage sales. This gets harder as they get older--(I have an 8yo.4yo. and 2yo.)so for the 8 year old this year, he got a telescope for his birthday. My daughter this year got a box of dress up clothes. We had a great old wooden roll top trunk, replaced the handle with something pretty and I put a few dress up things inside that I had been gathering. (Sarah's silks has the most lovely princess dress--it is beautiful and not a licensed character product) For my oldest when we invite friends to a party, we ask for no gifts, instead I let him pick a charity to donate to. One year we had guests bring books to donate to the children's hospital, this year we had guests bring supplies (collars, leashes, dog treats etc.) to donate to a local dog rescue group. The guests seem to like being able to still bring something so it has worked out very well. I think it is a good lesson for my son and the guests about sharing our birthday blessings. (which is actually how I word the invitation--I say that Jeffrey would like to share his birthday blessings with others by making donations to whatever charity he has chosen that year) I have had parents worried that he wouldn't get gifts from anyone (he gets more than enough from family!), but he really enjoys doing this and picking his charity--and he feels good bringing in his donations and sharing with others. I don't ask for monetary donations, I don't feel right about that, but something where he can bring items to a charity in need. My neighbors have asked for canned goods for the food pantry which I also thought was a great idea. Used clothing is great for the shelters as well and doesn't cost guests anything--we love doing this so hopefully this inspires someone with their parties when children are of the age they want to invite friends. I just may have to write a polite letter to family this year about the one gift limit--problem is we have 11 people buying gifts for them---I don't even want that many! I appreciate their love for our children, but I feel it is just too much--any tips on how to deal with this? I have kindly suggested to them using that money toward swim lessons for the kids etc. and that being their gift (when they have asked for ideas) but they really want to give them a toy to open. With three kids who take good care of their toys and pass them down to each other, we just have too much! Especially with nice wooden toys that last. Again, I appreciate their kindness, but even if they only gave one gift, that is 12 gifts (including mom and dad) multiplied by three kids for every birthday and Christmas! They often give 3 and 4 gifts! Sorry to write so much on this, but it is a point of stress for me as this much excess is not a value I want to teach my children. Help! I suppose I just have to be more firm and not make kind suggestions anymore. Any suggestions? Thank you, Holly Norris

  2. Oh, I just love the birthday letter idea. Do you and your husband write it together or do it seperately? I think we'll just have to start to do that for Caleb! :)

  3. As a child, I always received an age doll from my parents. I think these are a great gift for girls...they help chart the growth over the years, and become a treasured keepsake. I still have all of mine, and hope to pass them down to a little girl someday. If you aren't familiar with them, here's a link! http://www.great-quotes.com/growing_up_girls.htm

  4. Holly - It seems clear that your relatives want your children to have tangible signs of their affection on their birthdays. If you are concerned about the number of presents and the gift-givers are from common groups (such as a single family), you might consider "going in" on a special gift with the relatives that the child can open at the birthday party from "the family" or "the aunts" or whatever it is. This might be a nice way for your children to receive certain more expensive items that they might otherwise not have been able to receive. I like your suggestion of bringing books to donate or food donations. That's a wonderful idea! We might have to do that when we get older, or for a holiday party.

    Btw...if the suggestions of what to do with gifts don't cut it with your gift-givers, then just cultivate graciousness and let God ease your heart. You can always clean house during Advent and Lent and donate what hasn't been used in the intervening months. In the meantime, children thrive on an ever-changing array of toys and tools, so consider it an investment in exploration!

    Jenny - We write our letters seperately and then sit down to read the letters privately to the birthday child before bedtime prayers.

    Val - Funny you should mention the Growing Up Girls! http://applecidermama.blogspot.com/2008/06/sophias-birthday-tradition.html


  5. Trading gently-used toys and books at birthday parties is nice, too -- kids still get presents, and you're being thoughtful of budgets and materials as well.

  6. Bethany, these pictures are so adorable!! I wish I could have been there, he has gotten so big!!! He is looking like a little man!! I cant wait to see you all in a few weeks for the wedding! Give the kids a kiss from Aunt Caiti! :) XOXOXO


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