Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, said in her thirties that her childhood birthdays were always dismal. That she remembered them being sad well into her adulthood shows the significance that birthdays can have in a person’s life. I hope my children will have better memories of their birthdays.
Three out of the four birthdays in our little family takes place in the fall. Both of my daughters just enjoyed their birthdays with friends, family, goodies, and presents and it was so much fun to see them enjoy their days in different ways because of their differing ages. As I was planning and thinking about their birthdays this last year, I realized how important it was to use that day to help them feel and understand our love for them. Birthdays can be significantly much more than cake and ice cream (though those help too!).
I thought I would share some of the intentional, loving ways our extended family and we have used birthdays to help share our love with loved ones. We certainly don’t use all of them every year, but all have been successfully enjoyed.
1. Make it about love, not about getting things
I am pretty sure that birthdays will always involve gifts (and dessert!) in our family, but the reason those things are significant is because of what they represent – love. I think talking to your children about why they get presents on that day in a way that expresses love and appreciation for who they are as a person will also help them view the presents in a better way (in comparison to the greedy way most of us tend towards when young!). All of the below are simply ways that may or may not be able to help you convey that in your family or friend circle. For me, birthdays aren’t a time to show of your mad cooking skills or decorating savvy to friends…it isn’t a time to show your spiritual side by “giving” a Spartan day for said child. It isn’t a time to care more about your comfort and convenience, but rather it is about figuring out how to share love to a loved one within the energy and financial means you currently have.
2. Let them pick the meal plan for the day
While I try to consider all family members when meal planning on a weekly basis, I am certainly not taking a poll each day. So, giving a child (or spouse!) complete freedom to plan out their birthday meal(s) is a wonderful gift. My mother did that for me, and I had a fun time figuring out what to ask for (and…being a typical kid, it wasn’t always the healthiest options!). If the whole day is too involved, just letting them plan the dinner is nice too. Elena (our 6-year-old) has a “birthday soup” that we make for her on her birthday. It makes a fun tradition for all of us.
This can be easily translated into making a favorite dish for a friend too!
3. Use the “You are Special” plate
Both of our parents had a “you are special” red plate that was given to the birthday person to eat off of for the day. I remember being especially thrilled about it in my younger years.
4. Do a favorite activity
One year we took Elena to the Zoo before her family birthday party. It was a wonderful way to spend her birthday, and it made that birthday experience very special. While that may not work out every year, I think it is fun to plan special activities like that when you can. When I was older child, I didn’t always have parties (I think we did birthday parties every other year for most of my childhood). But on the “off” year, I was allowed to invite one (or two) friends to come hang out with me for the day, and we generally went out and did something fun (which could be as simple as going out window shopping). Party or not, I always looked forward to my birthday.
5. Tell them why you love them, and how you’ve seen them mature this last year
My husband’s family had a tradition of sharing at the birthday dinner what ways they saw that person grow and mature the last year, and what they appreciated about that person. My husband’s mother wasn’t very into doing anything elaborate for birthdays, especially once her family grew to seven children, but having this simple, yet meaningful conversation is one of the most significant things I’ve seen happen on a birthday. (We’ve tried to carry on this tradition as well in our family. It made my dad cry when we did this at a family birthday lunch for him.)
This can be translated into writing meaningful birthday cards for friends and family too.
6. Don’t forget the cake!
My children, not eating dessert on a constant basis, find their birthday dessert especially exciting. Once Elena turned three, I started drawing her out on what she’d like her birthday dessert to be. We’ve done donuts (this last year) and cake pops, coconut flour cake, a butterfly cake with mini cupcakes, etc. For my little girl, Aria, who just turned two, we noticed that she got really excited about cake when she saw it in the store. So when I made her her own cake, she was beyond excited. She literally could not wait to dig into it. In the end, she mostly ate the ice cream and the frosting, but it was the excitement that counted.
This has been such an exciting thing for Elena; she was rather devastated last year when I didn’t have a cake for my birthday. I think she thought I would be crushed without one! I had to explain that it wasn’t a big deal to me, which was why we didn’t get one for me (and I didn’t feel like making one for myself!)
A childhood friend always had pie, as that was his favorite. It certainly doesn’t have to be cake! And I don’t know a single friend who would complain if you showed up with a slice of birthday cake, a plate of cookies, or lemon bars as a food gift on their birthday!
7. Plan well
Nothing takes the fun out of birthdays than a stressed out mommy! I try to plan ahead enough that I am not too stressed making a cake, or making an elaborate meal. I want to be able to enjoy the day with my child, and being a pleasant person to be with certainly helps them enjoy the day too! Sometimes it can be stressful doing last minute details for a party, but I’ve just tried to go with the flow and forget about my pride when needed. For example, Elena’s butterfly cake was sort of an experiment that went wrong. It was very cute frosted up, but it had seriously the weirdest texture…ever. I served it anyways because she liked it regardless, and it would have disappointed her not to have a cake. “Hi. I am a food blogger, and here is a slice of rubber cake!” Yup, lost some pride that day, but it wasn’t about me. 😉
8. Give meaningful gifts instead of quantity
I don’t necessarily think giving your children (or spouse) the most gifts possible is going to bless them the most. I try to get things that I know my children will really appreciate, but also are useful as well as fun things to own. I love buying books for them, and clothes, and yes, toys too. (Should I mention that we’ve given gifts that were practically schoolbooks? Let’s just call them educational instead! But our oldest loves school, so she views it as a gift too. ) Our gifts aren’t necessarily very spend-y, but we try to pick them with care too. And we aren’t above giving our children gifts picked up from a thrift shop either. 😉
In the end, there are endless ways to express love. These are some of the ways we’ve found to express ours. It gave me such a thrill to see my youngest at her last birthday party realize that the whole party was for her I’d love for you all to share your birthday traditions!
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Great ideas! I always let the kids pick their meals too, and it’s fun to see what they choose. I try, although I’m a little behind, to write them a “birthday letter” each year, kind of like what you describe. These will be special for them to read one day. Last year was the first year I read one aloud to my oldest; mostly I just do them as a record for them and us to remember what they were like at each age.
Our kids wake up to a collage that includes pictures from all their past years and some current ones. We try to have pictures that include the different family members and special friends. We always have a great time looking through the photos with the birthday kid and remembering/retelling the stories captured in their collage!
That is such a great idea! Though it would make me cry. 🙂 Pictures do that to me.
Love this. Thank you for sharing.
We have special cinnamon rolls (only for birthdays. We include Jesus’ birthday too).
The person gets to pick out their birthday dinner and type of cake.
We also just started sharing things we love about the birthday person this past year and we are definitely going to keep this tradition. My Mom just came into town close to her birthday and we decided to show her how we celebrate (cinnamon rolls and all! She picked out her dinner and her cake.) It was so fun to make her day special cause she always did that for our birthdays. As we went around the table to share why she was special, there were no dry eyes. It was very special to us and especially to her. =0)
Yummy! That is a great idea too!
My mother always made our birthdays special. She cooked our favorite dish, early on she would bake our favorite cake until work became more demanding & then she would order a cake with our name on it – in our favorite colors, she would get the perfect present (we were not rich in money but in love) because she always listened to our day to day chatter, & then there was the birthday card. It was a commercial card but there was always a personal note of how much we meant to her & how special her life is because we were born. She truly celebrated our birthdays – I miss her more than words could ever express.
Haha! I love your story about “Hi, I’m a food blogger and here’s a slice of rubber cake!” I feel like I screw up my son’s birthday cake every year and defame the whole idea of a “real food cake” to my extended family! It’s refreshing to know that even the pros screw up once in awhile! 🙂
This cake was seriously like rubber. WEIRD and embarrassing. LOL
My parents always let us pick out a special birthday breakfast. I always loved it and would think about it for weeks. Amusingly, I always thought my sister wasted her choices on mediocore options, they were never what I’d have picked!
For my granddaughter’s 9th birthday this year, her parents blew up balloons – lots of them – and covered her bedroom floor with them while she slept. When she woke up, she was in a sea of balloons! Another tradition we had when my children were growing up was to serve them their favorite breakfast in bed on their birthday. Thanks for the great ideas!
We usually don’t have a big party with lots of other people, but we try to make each family member’s birthday special each year by honoring them. I let my husband and my son pick out their favorite dessert. My husband loves a very basic chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream icing. My son loves a chocolate & pumpkin marble cake. My daughter, however, loves decorating the end product more than actually picking a specific type or flavor of food. So, she gets to help me ice & decorate the cake, cupcakes, etc.
I also love books, and so do my children!, so I usually get at least one book for them, or let family members pick a book or two for them for both birthdays & Christmas. Sometimes they are school books that they’ll be using in future phonics or reading lessons, but they still get super excited about each one. Usually after all the gifts have been opened, the first thing they ask is for us to read one of their new books. 😀
I’m also not above giving things that I found at a thrift store, garage sale, or that were hand-me-downs from friends or extended family members. I found some great Lego & Matchbox car sets at a neighborhood garage sale recently that will be birthday & Christmas presents for our son. 😀
My friend Abby fills her little ones’ rooms with balloons before they wake … http://omamas.com/2012/10/19/one-of-my-favorite-memories-ever/
It’s sort of glorious! And an idea I am going to adopt for our next family birthday.
Great ideas! I have also just started doing a birthday interview book, with questions and photos in a scrapbook; should be fascinating to see how my 3 and 5 year old daughters’ responses change over the years….and lovely for them to have when they are all grown up!
I love that idea. What questions do you ask?
I need a little help! My daughter’s birthday is on Christmas. I would love some great ideas on how to still make it a special day for her. Thanks.
We do a birthday tree for our little girl born on Christmas Eve. It is decorated with only birthday like ornaments and trimmings. We put her presents and cards around her tree (only wrapped in birthday wrapping paper, of course!). She loves it!
I should have said a “separate” birthday tree in another room. We still have our regular Christmas tree. Best of luck!