What my daughter’s 3 year old birthday taught me

Last month our daughter Reese turned three. We decided that we would take advantage of her being young enough to think that hanging out with only her family for an entire day was still cool. We thought we would take the opportunity to capitalize on family time, experience, and try to keep it fairly low key yet fun.

The day started off at a donut shop and ended at the place with the yummiest pizza and best prizes.. that’s right, the one and only, Chuck E. Cheese. Actually in all honesty (they did not pay me to say this), I was pleasantly surprised by the prices and even the pizza. I guess when you go into a place expecting to pay hundreds of dollars to win a tootsie pop and eat melted cheese on a piece of cardboard, it can really only go up from there. So there is my first lesson: the lower you set your expectations the higher chance they have of being exceeded. But seriously, as pleasantly surprised as we were and as enjoyable as the day was, there was this moment that stopped me on the inside, in the midst of the chaos. With the smell of cheese pizza filling our nostrils, the sound of ski balls crashing and motorcycles racing, the bright lights flashing and the presents around the table crowding us in, I kept hearing my daughter essentially say “is it time for the next thing yet?”

I couldn’t really blame her. Sensory overload was in full affect for us all. But that’s when the somewhat lighthearted yet striking thought occurred to me, “well this kind of flies in the face of what we try to teach her every other day of life.” Places like Chuck E. Cheese make it hard to practice things like slowing down, enjoying, and appreciating. I’m not here to bash Chuck E. Cheese, or Disney Land, or Christmas Day. However, it did open my eyes in a fresh way to the cycle that celebrations and vacations can be. It’s often something like the hype, the high, the crash, and the confusion.

So how do we bridge this gap between a day filled with confetti and the inevitable normalcy of the next day? How do we teach our kids, and our own selves, to grapple with all of life’s “day afters.”  How can we expect our kids to not aggressively rip through their presents and quickly move onto the next when we’ve set up the entire day to say it’s all about you? How can we expect them to not be met with disappointment and confusion when they wake up the very next day to hear the opposite message of stop whining, life isn’t all about you? 

To be clear, I don’t regret what we did that day. I wouldn’t change a single thing about where we went or what we did. It was a really fun and memorable day. In fact, Reese has continued to talk about how her birthday was “her favorite one yet!” Especially because she got to meet “the real Chuck. E Cheese!” Which is obviously saying a lot considering her long and experienced life. But of course, like most things in life, this is not really about Chuck E. Cheese. It’s about how we help our kids process the days of  all-you-can-eat-cake and the days of all-you-must-eat-veggies.

So here are 5 lessons I want to store up and take with me to the next birthday:

  1. Tell them what you want them to know

    This may seem like a silly point to make but I think sometimes we forget the simple power behind actually vocalizing things. At least I do. Words mean nothing without actions. But words build a foundation of understanding underneath the actions. So in the years to come, my hope is that after we bombard our kids’ room with a beautiful rendition of the birthday song, we take the time to actually tell them what Lewis birthday’s mean to us . We want to help them navigate the excitingly out-of-ordinary day ahead of them by simply talking to them about it. While this doesn’t buy any melt down free guarantees, it reiterates the values and expectations that are the same even on the mundanely ordinary days.

  2. Remind them thankfulness is a part of the day

    One of Reese’s crash-symptoms was that she was “unable” to talk to her family on the phone at the end of the day. The ones who had taken time to wish her a happy birthday and many who sent her gifts. I get that she was mostly just an exhausted kid after a fun day. And let’s be honest, even as adults, trying to find adequate ways on special days to say thank you can feel daunting and tiring. So as a take away, instead of trying to force thank-yous, we want to carve out time for them. Hopefully this creates the space for gratefulness to become more genuine and thought-out on their own. And also for giving thanks to become as much an expected part of this whole birthday gig as cake is. This might mean calling a few people to thank before bed. It might mean Face Timing the next day. Or it might mean sending a thank you note a few days later. Whatever it may look like, we hope that carving out time to say “thank you” is a reminder that ultimately it is people that make special days, so special.

  3. Explain who it’s about and who it’s for

    I think it’s good to say “this day is about you!” And then to take it a step further and say “and you are made up of a lot of other people!” Just like the day itself took a lot of other people to make it what it was, our kids’ lives take a lot of other people to make them who they are. So it’s a non-exclusive mix of being about them and for others, too. Then we can strive to help them see this as a happy thing and not a dutiful thing; “isn’t it fun that the people who love you all get to enjoy celebrating you together? Let’s think about the best ways we can make it special for them too!

  4. Define deserve

    A super easy leap (or maybe baby step) to make is thinking that the more we are given things, the more we deserve them.  I think the human heart takes what we have been given and subtly makes it into something we ourselves got. “Given” implies a free gift and “got” implies an earned reward. Suddenly the parties and presents and pizza become a birthday right. When our kids think their rights are being withheld they become upset. And when they think their rights are being applied, well, they become indifferent. After all, it was something they deserved.

  5. Emphasize worth

    I think there is an important difference in the message “you are deserving” and “you are valuable.” True value doesn’t incite entitlement but beckons honor. Birthdays are a unique opportunity to shower our kids in honor and affirmation and encouragement. This could look like everyone in the family taking a turn to say one thing they love about the birthday boy or girl. It could also look like all thanking God during prayer time for one specific thing He is doing in that person. Or having friends write down a word that has marked their life over the past year and giving it to them to keep. Whatever creative and meaningful ways praise their person-hood.

    Whether it’s a surprise slumber party or small family dinner the goal is to say to our kids that we delight in celebrating them simply because they are delightful. And that is what we hope our kids remember… even more than getting to meet “the real Chuck E. Cheese!”


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