Parent Perspective: A Different Kind of Birthday Party

Most of the posts I read on Facebook are unmemorable. But one post that I read over a year ago, stuck with me. A graduate school friend wrote an update about his son’s birthday party. A tale of generosity and values, it really struck a chord with me. I asked him and his wife to share the story with our Zoobean families here. They’re not bloggers, but they are admirable parents that brought the joy of giving to their son…on his own birthday. 

Does this story inspire you like it does me?


Most parents love watching their children fervently rip open their gifts on birthdays, but not this one.  In 2012, I watched my then four-year-old son, James, innocently open numerous birthday gifts in an unconscious, hypnotic state, not appreciating the present covered in carefully picked wrapping paper and a beautiful bow.  Before I could even shout out the words “thank Nana for the [insert toy name]” he had moved on for the high of having another wrapped gift to ravage through.  This practice went on for quite a while until the final gift was revealed and thrown aside and a frown overcame James’ face followed by “that’s it?”

I admit James does not want for much.  I have a hard time mustering up a wish list for all holidays.  Between two sets of grandparents who find great joy in giving to their grandchildren and the regular shopping I do week-to-week, there’s not much my children need.  I admit that I too love receiving gifts, but the second you stop appreciating everything you have, is the time to stop and reevaluate.

Fast forward to the following year and I didn’t want the pattern to repeat.  I sat James down for a talk about what he truly desired for his birthday. After about 10 seconds he had a straightforward and reasonable answer: “a Wii game.”

James and I continued to discuss how fortunate we were to have a beautiful home, a plethora of toys and most importantly our health.  At that moment I knew it was time to educate my intelligent son that so many people — including children — are not as lucky.  

I did this in an age-appropriate, James-appropriate fashion.  I asked James how he would feel about asking the guests of his fifth birthday celebration to bring presents for children not as fortunate as him.  James had many well-thought-out questions: What will the presents be?  Who will they go to?  And, most importantly to him, will I still get my Wii game??

We had a long talk, in four-year-old time, about children who are sick and are spending their birthdays and holidays in a Hospital.  I was cautious to not be too specific, knowing James was only four years old and could only understand/digest so much.

James showed profound empathy… and pure excitement to be able to help.  It was important for James to be on board with this idea.  This was NOT a punishment, but a gift for him to experience.  In return for his positive attitude and inclination to help others, my husband and I would reward him with two Wii games of his choice after the party.  He was more than satisfied with this gift.  He was getting everything he desired and truly appreciated.

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On the adorable invitation to his party was this message: "In Lieu of gifts, please feel free to bring a new baby rattle, book or bubbles to be donated to the Children’s National Medical Center.  ** All gifts will be donated **

Being a mom of three boys, I know firsthand how many birthday gifts are bought for friends.  While at Target, I find myself in the appropriate boy or girl section picking any random gift between $15-$25.  I find this so wasteful for all involved.  To stop parents from feeling the need to spend the “proper amount” I listed the most asked for, inexpensive items from the hospital’s website.

My husband and I knew James was not ready to take the gifts to the hospital and see the children, because it would have been a little too much for his brain to process.  However, he was ecstatic the day he helped daddy load the toys in the car.  He knew he was helping and you could see the pure joy on his face.

By no means am I preaching that every child should do this. There are so many wonderful ways to help others.  I try to teach my boys the importance of small and big gestures.  Holding the door for someone, saying thank you or just trying to be aware of others around you… which can be extremely difficult for little ones.

This was the right time and right act of kindness for James at that moment.  My hopes for my sons are the following:

  1. Knowing there are things in the universe that are bigger than you.
  2. Helping others can be the greatest gift to yourself.
  3. Enjoying the opportunities you have to open your own gifts, but remember to pause, digest and most of all APPRECIATE these opportunities.

Because if you don’t, the meaning is lost.

Posted by Corinne and Zach Boisi, guests of the Zoobean blog.