Each birthday that rolls around in my house brings along a range of feelings. Excitement, anticipation and plenty of preparation, for gifts, cards and gatherings. And of course, there is expectation. Already, at age 3, my kids have expectations for birthdays. They’re not huge, but they are there.
There is no doubting that our children are our greatest teachers. And while I questioned the meaning of birthdays pre-kids, I have been thinking it through increasingly, now that I’ve gone through my own birth experience and have children of my own:
How do these birthday expectations get created? What should we expect on our birthdays? And how can we model positive expectations for our little ones?
As with most children, I loved birthdays as a child. They were magical, exciting and filled with treats. Yet, while there was so much good, upon reflection, and with age and wisdom, I am able to see that my expectations for big and expensive, were high. And these unrealistic expectations followed me for years, often resulting in disappointment.
I’ve come to realize that there are certain points that I want to model for my children around birthdays to help strengthen intrinsic values, and move us away from a solely material celebration. The intention is not to remove all things fun and bold – our children deserve to have suitable indulgences.
However, what study after study on child and adult psychology shows, is that fostering intrinsic value helps us be better, happier people. When our lives are less focused on the material realm, we are less likely to search for quick hits of happiness through material goods or praise from others. 
Finding ways to call on recognition, gratitude and generosity, and connectionwill help not only create positive memories but also helps harness expectation in a positive way.
In my professional practice, as a birth and postpartum doula, I regularly witness the magic of new life entering our world. However a birth unfolds, birthing women are filled with deep power, resilience and primal beauty. And the new baby, that grew from tiny specks, emerged fully formed, filled with a strong voice and innate reflexes.
Our birthdays need to bring us back to that moment. Celebrating life (and the creators of our own lives) is meaningful and necessary – it gives us all a closer realization of our life’s purpose and brings us back to our innate good. As we age, life seems to fly by at warp speed (there’s nothing that does it like being a parent). There is huge value in marking the magic of our life’s beginning and acknowledging how it’s unfolded in days and years.
How do we realistically encourage recognition?
- Continuing birthday rituals, in realistic ways, such as cake and singing Happy Birthday. We truly don’t need to plan a big birthday bash, for our children, every year. The reality is that those events are not sustainable – they require a lot of effort and can be exhausting to plan and execute for each family member. Whether it’s a big or small event, repetitive rituals “have the power to make food seem tastier” and our experiences more memorable and impactful . The smells of cakes baking, tunes being sung and laughter ringing leave positive imprints on our lives.
- Thoughtful material goods and/or experiences. Acknowledging our children doesn’t mean we need to over indulge our children or loved ones, with big, material gifts. In fact, studies have shown that people tend to be less happy with material goods over time and significantly happier with experiences. “This is because we adapt to physical things, so even the nicest car or newest phone becomes commonplace after enough time, while memories tend to get fonder over time.” 
- So, alongside that toy that your little one has been pining after – because acknowledging our children’s wants on a significant day, is special, add in a trip to a museum, gallery or a date to a movie, café or restaurant. Here is a link to some more awesome experiential gifts: wellnessmama.com/62144/give-experiences/
Gratitude and Generosity
Birthdays are an opportune time to express gratitude towards ourselves and others, for what has been achieved over a lifetime. It’s a time to reflect on how to move forward with our year and express thanks to what we’ve been offered so far. Just because our children are small, does not mean this is not possible. It has been shown that gratitude has a significant impact on our mind frames, causing us to be happier, regardless of our age. And setting the foundations of expressing gratitude, will help lay a framework for our children to continue to be happier people as they grow. 
How do we realistically model gratitude and generosity?
- Spoken and/or written words that acknowledge the person’s life. Even though our little infants aren’t expressing their love back to us verbally, expressing our own love and gratitude through words is powerful. Our words have a great impact on our children at any age, weaving into their neurological and subsequently physical framework. Plus, reflecting back on written cards or mementos, as our children age adds layers to the meaning of their lives, and strengthens our relationship with them.
- Giving back on your birthday. Giving back is an amazing way to express gratitude for what our life has brought us. Generosity has the ability to reroute our brains, making us feel better about ourselves and about life, in turn helping us improve our health. It helps establish meaning in our lives, connection with our community and helps our children broaden their self awareness beyond our own lives. Choosing a favourite charity to donate to each year, offering a treat to friends, or using a service like Eco Age are ways to incorporate generosity into our little one’s birthdays.
- Celebrating life and expressing the gratitude throughout the year. While birthdays are a great time to focus gratitude and generosity, the more we do something, the more it is ingrained in the fabric of our being. Some people choose the same day each month to express gratitude (i.e. my twins are born on the 12th, so each 12th of the month we would do something small but special). This also helps navigate away from a build up of expectation for the one birthday of the year.
Like the day of birth, birthday rituals often include family, friends and connection. These days bring us back to our roots and celebrations are times that we want to share with people we love. Added to this, rituals that emphasize bigger group relationships help take the focus solely off of the individual and “in doing so, they show a child her place in society, and reassure her that there is a network of support available to her there.”
How do we realistically model connection?
- Include family, friends and loved ones in birthday rituals. Again, celebrations don’t need to involve a party with a huge amount of people, as this can add stress to the event. However, including loved ones, in person, via phone, e-chats or cards on the day or around the birthday helps encourage an awareness that our children are part of a bigger tribe of support and love.
- Acknowledging the value of other people’s birthdays. Extending the special value of birthdays beyond ourselves also helps broaden our sense of belonging. Talking about why birth and life is special and why the people in our life matter helps us find greater self worth and a more selfless existence.
There is nothing wrong with expectation, in and of itself. It’s when expectation enters excess and purely material realm that disappointment follows. By getting to those intrinsic values, we can help create birthdays that forge lifelong memories and skills to excel in the world. As Anne Michelsen writes, in Green Child Magazine, “Even if the child doesn’t grasp the deeper meaning right away, the seeds are being sown. In the meantime, the ritual offers elements that appeal to the child’s senses and his or her sense of belonging.”
Each birthday that comes our way helps us establish a framework for our children and our families, to create habits and expectations that everyone respects and honours, and set us up for happier birthdays and happier beginnings to our new year.
Kate is a Birth and Postpartum Doula, Childbirth Educator, Infant Sleep Educator and Yoga Instructor, currently living in Toronto, ON. When she’s not supporting new families on their parenting journey, she is running after her wonderfully active 2-year-old twins. She loves exploring the ravines of the city, drinking green tea and green smoothies (in large mugs), and the colour purple.