written for The PJ Library August e-newsletter
One of the challenges of parenting is getting to know our children as individuals, and giving them what they really need, as opposed to what we think they need, or what their friends need. When we get it right, we get to see the very best of our children emerge. I was reminded of this challenge recently, while planning my daughter Ella’s sixth birthday party. Fortunately, a preview copy of the PJ Library book The World’s Birthday arrived just in time to offer some much-needed guidance.
Ella’s birthday falls at the end of July, and since she turned 2, we’ve celebrated her birthday by sharing a Carvel cake with family at my mother’s beach house. During preschool, birthday parties were pretty much off her radar. This changed when Ella started kindergarten; suddenly invitations began pouring in. There were monthly, and sometimes weekly, celebrations at swim clubs, rock climbing gyms and children’s museums. One month into the school year, Ella was reevaluating her birthday tradition, and asking whether she, too, might have a party for her next birthday. “Whatever you want,” I told her, “it’s your birthday.” By November, she was already drawing up guest lists, and speculating about possible venues. (I ruled out inviting the entire class to the Delaware shore.)
Halfway through the year, however, the thrill of birthday parties began to wear off a little bit. Ella is shy by nature, and most at ease playing with her sister or one or two close friends. When I asked her if she would mind missing one of her classmate’s parties to come pick up her bubbe at the airport, she said, in a relieved voice, “Mind? I didn’t even want to go!”
I, too, had mixed feelings about these grand events. While I was enormously grateful to the parents who made sure to exclude no one by inviting the whole class, I wasn’t entirely at ease with the idea of 5 and 6 year olds getting showered with, and often tearing through, piles and piles of presents. Nor did I love the tradition of the obligatory goodie-bag, which resulted in Ella’s returning home with foods that we don’t usually permit, or made-in-China plastic toys that self-destruct and wind up in the landfill. (And yes, I am fully aware that I sound like the birthday version of Scrooge.) So when Ella’s talk of her own party tapered off for a while, I was relieved.
But as her July birthday approached, the conversation emerged once again, and we began to talk more seriously about her party. “Maybe we should invite the whole class,” I offered, “so no one feels left out.” “And if we are,” I added, “we’ll really need to go somewhere bigger than our house – would you like to go to the town reservoir? The Y?” Ella shook her head. “I just don’t know what I want,” she said, exasperated.
At just about this time, we read a copy of The World’s Birthday, by Barbara Diamond Goldin. It’s the story of a little boy named Daniel who decides to throw a birthday party for the world on Rosh Hashanah. While at first he isn’t sure how to plan a suitable party for such a big and important guest of honor, by the end of the story he settles on a perfect celebration. A cake, some candles, and a handmade card. Ella’s eyes lingered on the closing illustration of Daniel and his family gathered under a tree in the backyard, singing happy birthday. “This is a really nice party,” she sighed.
I realized that just as Daniel struggled to make a party that was fitting for the earth, we needed to plan a party that was “just right” for Ella and our family. After careful discussion, Ella determined that she did not want a large crowd, but something cozy and intimate, right at home. We settled on six guests (the same number as her age) and three of her favorite activities – baking cookies, doing an art project, and going to the playground across the street. I made a terribly flat chocolate cake that she and her sister decorated, and we sat on picnic blankets, singing “Happy Birthday” and opening presents – all things she loved, because they were all from close friends who knew her well.
Moments before the party ended, Ella assessed the goodie bags (which consisted of the 2 projects – cookie necklaces and sparkly collages – and 3 organic lollipops) and said, “they need something else.” Before I had a chance to launch into my speech about junk food, Ella continued “I want to write a little note for every one.” She sat down and quickly scribbed six personalized notes, telling each friend (including her little sister) that she loved them.
And believe it or not (I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t been there) when the guests had left, and we were cleaning up, Ella looked upat me and said “You know what’s the best part of a birthday party?”
“What?” I asked.
“Being with good friends.”
I know I have many mistakes left to make as a mother, but this time, I think I got it right.
The PJ Library™ program sends Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis to families with children through age seven. Created by The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, The PJ Library is funded nationally in partnership with The Harold Grinspoon Foundation and local philanthropists/organizations. To learn more, go to www.pjlibrary.org