“I want the biggest, best-est birthday party ever, Mommy!”
Oh no. My mind flashed to last year’s biggest, best-est party. The hand-cut snowflakes in the trees. The backyard full of preschoolers dressed as princesses and pirates. The Frozen cake that was an aesthetic mess even before it melted in the blazing sun. The unsmiling face of my overwhelmed girl who by the end of the party claimed her legs didn’t work and therefore refused to participate in the party games.
“Biggest and best-est, huh? Are you sure about that?”
I wanted to give her a great day. The fifth birthday is kind of a milestone, so if she wanted the biggest and the best-est, I would brace myself and give it my best shot. I started tossing around ideas:
“Princesses and knights?”
“Fairies and pirates?”
“No, no, no…”
She shot down every suggestion and then thoughtfully said, “You know what? I think I just want a family day—a day where our whole family is together and everyone plays what I like to play.”
Precious fourth child. She gets carted around to soccer games and orthodontist appointments all the live long day. Often her requests for a sibling to play with her are met with, “I’m sorry, Lucy, I have to (fill in the blank).”
It was settled then. We declared Lucy’s birthday a family day. My only rule for the day was, “If Lucy asks to play with you, you say yes.” The older three kids were on board and prepared themselves for a day of Snakes and Ladders and Dora Candyland.
We woke early for breakfast and presents—not too many, as I’ve learned that when it comes to preschoolers and presents, less is actually more.
Because there was no party to prepare for, we had the time and space to actually play with the birthday girl.
“Will you play this game with me?”
“Can we go outside?”
“Can we put on a puppet show?”
“Can we do the piñata now?”
“Can we look for bugs with my bug catcher?”
“Um…dang it. Yes.”
(Let it be known that Lucy only attempted to abuse the system once. When she asked Brian to carry her up the stairs and he encouraged her to walk instead, she declared, “It’s my birthday, Dad. The answer is ‘yes.’” You can’t blame a girl for trying.)
Post bug catching, we went to the park with only one item on the agenda: enjoy Lucy. We cheered her on as she rode her bike. We pushed her on the swing. We tried not to catapult her on the teeter-totter.
After lunch we invited her best buddy over for cake—a cake I bought at the store, because I’ve learned my lesson (see failed Frozen cake). There were no party games—just two five year olds carried happily through the hour by the whims of their imaginations. And after Lucy’s guest left, guess what we did? We played with her. We enjoyed her. We ate a simple meal that she requested, and then the day was done.
Hands to the heavens, it was the best birthday ever, and not just because it involved hardly any work for me. Do you know why it was so great? We were fully present. How many times have I not even had a proper conversation with my kids on their birthdays because I was scurrying about in a panicked frenzy, blowing up a gazillion balloons and cleaning the house and making a way-too-big assortment of sugary treats? How many birthdays have I snapped at the birthday girls or boys for getting in my way while I tried to make their birthday the most special of all? Too many. For this birthday, we stripped down the day—no party, no homemade treats, no games (pinata excluded). We gave ourselves the space to be able to bend down, look our daughter in the eyes with our full attention, and say, “yes.”
Am I saying you shouldn’t have elaborate birthday celebrations for your kids? No, not at all. Am I saying I’ll never again throw parties for my children? Tempting, but probably not. But I learned a lesson from my five year old, who in this instance was self-aware beyond her years: often, the best present is the gift of presence. What Lucy wanted more than anything for her birthday was time with us, so she asked for it. And you know what? She was so happy. There were no overwhelmed meltdowns, and she didn’t withdraw like she often does when her surroundings feel like too much. She didn’t miss the fancy cake or the party bags; she never once asked for more “special.” On what could easily be considered the blandest of birthdays, she was in a state of utter bliss. She hugged my neck that night and whispered, “I had the best day, Mama.” It may not have been the biggest day, but it was the best-est in the most unexpected of ways. In the end, that was all she wanted.
Is there a special day coming up for your child? Here’s a suggestion that you are perfectly free to disregard: Scale back your plans. Strip down the hype. Close that Pinterest app, look your child in the eye, and say, “Yes. I’m here. How can I love you well today?” The best present is often the gift of presence, so be fully there, and you may find that’s all the special your child really needs.