Sunday, October 4, 2009

Where Were These Kinds of Birthday Parties When I Was a Kid?

Just over a week ago, my son, William, turned four years old. Birthdays are always a special time, especially when it's a small child's. I'm a forty-year-old, married father of three. My own birthdays aren't that exciting for me. Each one means I'm one year closer to that unfortunate day when I don a pair of Bermuda shorts, throw on some black dress socks with an IZOD shirt, grab a metal detector, and delusionally think to myself, "Oh yeah,... I look good." Nowadays, all I want for my birthday is a nap, the chance to watch what I want on television for one day, and the knowledge that my prostate is okay. I usually don't even remember it's my birthday until I enter the kitchen the morning of to find my beautiful wife greeting me with a cup of coffee, a soft kiss, and a pleasant, "Happy Birthday, Honey." Then, I proceed to dish out kisses, hugs, and expressions of appreciation for the hand-drawn cards the kids have made me. All the while, I pray under my breath that the two younger ones won't ask me to tell them what the scribbling on the front of their cards are pictures of. One year, I seriously hurt some feelings by suggesting that a picture intended to be me and my son playing baseball was, instead, a portrait of two blobs of Jello fighting for space in the same bowl.

But, as I said, kids' birthdays are much different. A child's birthday usually ranks second only to Christmas in terms of excitement and anticipation. William is certainly no different. For several months leading up to his fourth birthday, he asked almost daily, "Daddy, is today my birthday?" Each time following up his question with the same request: "Daddy, when I turn four, can I have a skateboard?" Fortunately, my relentless bargain-hunting wife found just the perfect sized skateboard on one of her consignment sale safaris. I wrapped it the night before William's birthday and left it on the kitchen table. Meredith and I couldn't wait to see the look on his face the next day when he ripped into his special gift. The moment certainly didn't disappoint. William was so ecstatic that he even let his sister play with his other birthday gift (an almost unheard of gesture in Kids Who Can't Yet Read world ). My little buddy beamed with pride as he coasted up and down the driveway, still dressed in his choo-choo train jammies and wearing his studly, one-size-too-big, Spiderman skateboard helmet. All day long, the skateboard never left his side. If William wasn't riding it, then he was confidently carrying it under his arm, helmet still on, strutting like an old pro who'd just kicked some serious butt at the Munchkinland X-Games.

Of course, the highlight of William's birthday was his party. We reserved one of those places with all the jumpy things. The kind where you pay, take off the kids' shoes, and then let 'em run wild. The kids love it. They don't even notice the floor burns from all the sliding until you get them home and put them in the bath. They even like the overpriced cardboard-like pizza. Heck, when you're a four-year-old, life just doesn't get any better than running and jumping on giant, inflatable, jungle animals.

Which brings me to my question: Where the heck were these kinds of birthday parties when I was a kid? Oh sure, we had parties; but the birthday parties I went to normally consisted of cake and ice cream at someone's house, a couple of goofy party games, and some poor kid going home crying because he inadvertently wound up with a cut-out donkey tail tacked to his ass while playing an otherwise uneventful game of pin the tail on the donkey. Try passing that off as a birthday party today and you're liable to find yourself labeled the lamest parents in the subdivision (your only rival being the dad who still wears his 'Frankie Say Relax' T-shirt to the community pool and the Mom down the street who hands out fruit at Halloween). Today, a child's birthday party requires serious event planning. Instead of hosting one in your own backyard, parents are expected to rent out inflatable amusement parks or places with giant, dancing mice who cause the birthday boy or girl's younger siblings to have nightmares for at least two weeks. And if that weren't enough, moms and dads are also expected to provide gift bags for every child that attends the party. When did this start? I never got a gift bag when I went to one of my friends' birthday parties. No, in my day, we went bearing gifts and got nothing in return. Instead, we just watched the birthday boy or girl tear into their booty. All the while, we sat giftless off to the side, sucking the last remnants of Betty Crocker icing off of our paper plates and trying to act nice so that we wouldn't get our butts spanked for being rude when we got home. Now everyone who comes to the party has to get something. What is this, communism?

Oh well, what are you gonna do? I guess the most important thing is that William had a great day. As a dad, that's my job: to make sure that my kids' birthdays are memorable. The truth is, it doesn't take a jumpy place or an expensive party. As Meredith's consignment sale magic shows year after year, it doesn't require the newest, most expensive, or state of the art gifts. All it requires is being there and making your little boy or girl feel like the day is just as big a deal to you as it is to them. My kids' birthdays aren't about making sure they have the nicest or newest stuff. It's about reminding them that they are one of the most precious blessings in their daddy's life (along with their mother and siblings). Happy Birthday, William. We look forward to your fifth birthday next year. I just hope it doesn't get here too fast. And while we're on the subject, tell your sister and brother to stop growing up so fast too. I've still got plenty of room in my office for more of those hand-drawn cards.

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