Our yard was filled with giggling 8 year old girls on Saturday. They were here to celebrate our oldest daughter’s birthday. Most of the party was spent deciphering codes, unscrambling letters, and figuring out riddles to find hidden clues in the yard so that they could solve The Mystery of the Missing Birthday Cake, Nancy Drew style. When they finally found the cake, we lit the candles, sang the song, and passed out pieces of homemade goodness. And then the girls raced to play in the tree fort or the basement or anywhere the pack was going.
The birthday girl came rushing up to me to ask if it was time to open presents. I might have looked surprised for a moment because, to be honest, I had forgotten all about the presents. I was so caught up in everything else that opening presents hadn’t even crossed my mind.
So, we gathered everyone outside, and they handed her their gifts, one by one. She was showered with homemade cards and typical party gifts: legos and books, stuffed animals and bracelets.
Then she opened a gift from a friend she’s known since she was three. It was a jar, painted and adorned with buttons and duct tape, ribbons and strange eyes. Inside the jar was a homemade headband, made from a sock. The friend revealed that she was wearing a matching one. And then there was a key, with the words, “The key to friendship” attached to it.
“Interesting,” I thought.
Later that night, after the wrapping paper had been picked up, the cake crumbs swept, the decorations taken down, we tucked our tired kiddos into bed. I snuggled our three year old while I listened to a conversation happening in our girls’ room. My husband asked our daughter what her favourite part of her party was.
She replied, “When my friends gave me my presents.”
I sighed. We had such fun afternoon, and she’s focused on the presents? How will I raise her to not be materialistic, I wondered. I know other kids who ask that their friends donate to a charity instead of bringing them gifts. Or they have Twoonie parties where each guest brings $2. But she has never consented to those parties for herself.
My husband had a similar reaction, but, because he was actually in the conversation (not just eavesdropping), he said his thoughts out loud. He said something a bit snarky like, “So having your friends here to play with you all afternoon wasn’t important, it was just about the gifts?” (Hey, we all have our moments of not filtering our thoughts!).
She was offended, and didn’t hesitate to let him know. “You don’t understand what I’m saying, Dad!” Then she explained that it’s the moment of the gift giving that she likes.
And in that moment, something occurred to me. It’s not about acquiring more stuff for her; it’s about how she feels loved. I made a mental note to tell my husband later that I think her love language is receiving gifts.
As I emptied the dishwasher after the kids were asleep, it occurred to me that when I suggest she has a party with no gifts (in my attempt to get her to focus on relationships instead of stuff), what I am doing is cheating her out of a way that she experiences love.
Before I could tell my husband all of my insights, he told me that he had realized the same thing in that conversation. And then he told another story…
When he was tucking her in a bit later, he asked her what gift had meant the most to her that day. She thought for a minute. And then, do you know what she said? The homemade gift. The one that I had thought was a bit odd. It meant the most, she said, because her friend had made it for her.
My heart melted right then.
And I then I learned something about myself.
If my daughter had made something similar for a friend, do you know what I would have done? I would have gone out and bought a “real” gift for the birthday kid. Not because I think she needs more stuff, but because, let’s be honest, I wouldn’t want us to be judged by the other parents.
As I thought about it that night, I was so glad that this girl’s mom didn't add anything to the gift.
She let her daughter give what she wanted to give. She let her daughter express her creativity. She let her daughter be a true friend and offer a piece of her time and herself to another. And in so doing, she taught her daughter (and reminded me) that you can give something to another without spending money.
How many birthday gifts have I bought for my kids to take to a party when they weren’t even with me to pick the gift out? (Too many to count).
And how many times have I told my kids that it’s not about the stuff, it’s about the relationship, all the while acting like it’s really about the stuff. Meanwhile, my daughter gets what gifts are all about far more deeply than I do.