Originally published in The Natural Parent Magazine
The importance of family traditions. Family rituals and traditions bring us together; they connect us and become part of each family’s identity. Birthday celebrations are amongst the most important traditions for most families. Birthdays and other family rituals and celebrations offer us a chance to step out of the mundane and focus on sharing joy and celebration together. They offer moments of heightened meaning, birthdays punctuate our life’s journey. They offer a time to stop and reflect, to honour the year that’s been and pour positive wishes into the year to come. Each family celebrates differently, strengthening the family’s identity, while the habit of marking birthdays in one way or another crosses the divide of many different races and cultures.
As parents, we cherish that moment of witnessing our child in the centre of the circle, the centre of attention at a time that’s universally agreed to be a time to focus our positive intentions on the birthday child. As everyone gathers around, intently watching our child as they make their wish, blow out the candles and then beam with happiness as those they know and love clap and cheer. What a magic moment!
An opportunity to strengthen your child’s self-esteem. Children can really thrive when it’s their turn to be the special birthday person; their turn to be celebrated. The concentrated loving attention can boost their feelings of being significance, loved, seen, cared for and cherished. Some families take the opportunity to express to the birthday person what it is that each person likes and loves about them, either in a card, around the table at meal time or as part of the day’s festivities.
Each birthday is another page in the book of your child’s life. Your child’s positive self-identity and sense of belonging builds through special memories that everyone shares and enjoys together. For instance, a cherished childhood memory for me relates to a particular birthday cake that my mother always made for me. One year my mother made me a surprise ice-cream cake, which I thought was the most amazing thing ever! After that it became a tradition. As one of nine siblings, having a cake that was different from all others made me feel special and gave deeper meaning to my birthdays. You can make sure the important experiences surrounding birthdays live on through the re-telling of cute and funny stories and occasionally taking out the old photos or videos.
There’s a fine line between excitement and meltdown for kids! Birthdays can be a time of so much fun, excitement and so many emotions! “Fish swim, birds fly, people feel” (Haim Ginott). Because children are both very emotional and very sensitive little people, there’s a fine line between excitement and meltdown. There’s only so much adrenalin any one person can cope with in any one day, then add to the mix sugary food and the sheer exhaustion of all that is going on.
Expect the lows to accompany the highs! As much as we want the day to be a big success, as parents we need to expect the highs and the lows. When things go wrong and the nearly inevitable meltdown happens, remember that what your child most needs may be your empathy and understanding. Reasoning often prolongs disappointments, but reflective listening “oh dear, you are so upset” can soothe frazzled children. Empathy is love in action, when children see that we understand their feelings, those same feelings tend to dissolve and the big happy smiles tend to burst through again.
Don’t forget about the child whose birthday it is not! It’s important to stay connected to the other sibling/s. Don’t let them get lost on the side-lines of all the busyness. Otherwise, at the most inopportune moment, perhaps just as the candles are being lit, you may realise that your child, whose birthday it is not, is under their covers feeling very upset. Make sure they’re involved, perhaps they can do some wrapping for pass the parcel, perhaps make a birthday card. Remember to share the excitement with them as well: “Are you excited about aunty, uncle and your cousins all coming for the birthday party?”
Birthdays are not all just fun, games and happiness. Birthdays can be potentially emotionally stirring for lots of reasons that aren’t always recognised, or at least not spoken out loud. When there’s been a recent death or estrangement in the family or circle of friends, birthdays are among the challenges and milestones that can touch on fresh wounds of loss. The family can benefit from this being mentioned, perhaps within the privacy of the family: “Let’s take a minute to think about grandma …” Perhaps invite participation from your child: “What would you like to say to grandma today?” Your little one is likely to come out with a line that brings everyone to tears of laughter with their cuteness and poignancy: “Grandma I wish you were here today, I especially miss your …. home-made cookies! Your cookies are so much better than mum’s!” When parents have separated, this can bring up emotions on the day.
Birthdays are the anniversary of the birth. Birthdays are also the anniversary of the mother’s labour and the birth. It can be good to bring an acknowledgement of the mother who gave birth in to the day at some point. Particularly, if it’s the first birthday, speaking a few words can be very healing.
A time for connection, a time for healing, a time for sharing. Despite the stress, the organising, the planning, the hosting and all the busyness, birthdays can bring very special and precious moments that add to your family’s storehouse of valued memories. Celebrating birthdays can deepen meaning in our lives and create an opportunity to share our special moments with the closest people in our lives.