Reflections on a Child’s Birthday

Our oldest child celebrated a birthday this week. He received several gifts and had a small party, which is almost exactly what he asked for.

Over the years, we’ve had big parties and small parties. Our children have received many gifts at once and just a few gifts. We’ve had elaborate celebrations and simple ones.

After all of it, here are some things we’ve noticed. They seem to hold true regardless of the age of our children.

It doesn’t matter how many gifts the child receives, he or she will settle on two or three of them and play mostly with those gifts. Our son has two gifts that are far and above the others based on how much he’s played with them thus far – a game and an invisible ink pen set. Everything else has largely been set to the side, though he does have a LEGO kit that he says he’s going to open up this afternoon.

Our conclusion: You’re better off giving your child just a couple of gifts that he or she will really care about than trying to give your child lots of gifts. This is true for birthdays and Christmases. Not only will the child get items he or she really cares about, you’ll save a lot of money and worry.

It doesn’t matter how many kids come to the birthday party, the birthday child will mostly just play with two or three of the guests (unless forced to do otherwise). You might invite fifteen kids to the party, but they’ll mostly pair off and play one-on-one together. The birthday child will pair off with one kid at a time, but will mostly just spend their time with just two or three other kids that rotate throughout the party.

Our conclusion: There’s no reason to invite more than two or three kids. Really. Our “magic number” is three invitees so that our child can pair off with one and the other two can pair off together, then the pairs can rotate throughout the party.

It doesn’t matter how elaborate or simple the party is, the birthday child will have simply fun playing with friends. As far as I can tell, our children have had just as much fun with our backyard parties as any other parties we’ve held. The joy has come from having friends around to play with and a few gifts to open.

Our conclusion: There’s no reason to splurge for a party at all. Make a sheet cake and have the children play in the backyard. If you want, come up with a few simple activities, but even that’s not really necessary.

If you give the child open-ended input into the party, it will usually tend toward the simple. If we just ask our children what kind of birthday party they’d like, they usually mention the cake and the children they want to have there. They don’t mention anything elaborate. I’m firmly convinced that elaborate parties are mostly from the mind of the parents.

Our conclusion: Let your children have input into the party planning and don’t suggest anything. If they come up with something insanely elaborate, temper it a bit. If they come up with something simple and low-cost, roll with it.

“Goodie bags” are almost instantly forgotten. They’re usually filled with junk anyway. If you want to send the guests home with something, do something more thoughtful.

Our conclusion: We’ve found that it works really well to take a group snapshot at the start of the party, print them off during the party, then do a really simple art project with the pictures near the end. You can use popsicle sticks, glue, and a string to make a “framed” photograph that they can take home and hang on their wall with a thumbtack. It’s way cheaper than a “goodie bag” and, from what I’ve seen, it has a good chance of actually being hung up on a bedroom wall and remembered than tossed aside like a goodie bag.

In other words, at almost every turn, the less expensive and simpler road actually works better for a child’s birthday. Have a simple party. Limit the gift count. Don’t bother with goodie bags. Keep it all simple and low-cost and focus on what really matters: experiences and people. Your children will enjoy it more and so will you.

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