We asked him, "Why are you so happy?"
"Because today it's everybody's birthday," he said before skipping off.
Curious, we approached the housemother to find out what he meant. She was baking a cake. We got the sense there was some sort of celebration going on. We asked, "Is it that boy's birthday?"
"No," she said. "Today is everybody's birthday."
A birthday party unlike any other
By this time, our confusion must have been as apparent as the boy's elation. The housemother seemed amused at the naive foreigners and kindly explained. These kids were orphans, she said. Most had been left on the doorstep in the night and had never met their parents. They didn't know their birthdays.
The orphanage still wants them to celebrate, though. So, every year, they asked the children write down a special date on a slip of paper and place it in a box. Together, they held a draw. The date selected would become everyone's birthday for the year. On that day – the day we happened to visit, that year – they would have a giant celebration.
Despite the lack of presents in the room – the orphanage couldn't afford any – there were no tears. Instead, there was music, song, dance and laughter. Most importantly, there were some of the happiest kids we have ever seen.
This birthday celebration was completely unlike anything we had seen. When we were young, we attended a few birthday parties with over-the-top loot bags, hired clowns and a mountain of gifts. We recently read a news article about a group of seven-year-olds in Minnesota who were picked up in a stretch limo and transported to a friend's party.
Page 1 of 3 - Learn why children's parties don't have to be over-the-top on page 2.
More and more, we hear about children's birthdays turning into lavish and extravagant affairs. What we don't necessarily hear about are happier kids. According to Tim Kasser, author of The High Price of Materialism, that's because attaching happiness to material goods can be detrimental to a young person's self-esteem.
Advertising often makes promises security, happiness or social status in exchange for buying a product. When people – both children and adults – start trying to fill voids with material goods this can lead to further feelings of insecurity. One study conducted by marketing professors Nguyen Chaplin and Deborah Roedder found that heightened materialistic values related directly to "a severe drop in self-esteem that occurs around 12 and 13 years of age."
They advised that priming kids to feel more confident at earlier ages might help stave off this effect. Birthdays are a great time to instill these values that focus on experience over possessions, or to encourage young people to be grateful and share part of their gifts; in doing so, they just might be able to make their birthday wishes come true.
A birthday party that makes you feel good about yourself
Take Galen Woods: At 12 years old, he decided to forego birthday gifts in order to raise money for charity instead. He planned a party outdoors in a park near his home. This huge space was the perfect place for him to invite as many people as he could think of. Together, they played football and capture the flag for the entire afternoon.
"We ended up laughing so hard that people fell on the ground" he says. "In the end, I was able to donate $400, which made me feel both great and proud."
That's a feeling a new toy, a stretch limo or a hired clown could never achieve.
The birthday celebration we attended in Bangkok had none of these material goods. Yet, the joy on every child's face was apparent. If we start changing our values, we too can realize that that kind of happiness doesn't come in a neatly wrapped box.
Page 2 of 3 - Learn tips on throwing your child a birthday that leaves them feeling good about themselves on page 3.
Tips for Parents:
1. Cut the competition: Talk to other parents in your community about toning down over-the-top birthday parties. Try not to let celebrations turn into parental one-upmanship.
2. Give experience: Rather than giving gifts, try giving coupons letting your kids "Skip Vegetables and Still Get Dessert," or arrange a family getaway to a destination of your child's choice.
3. Presence, not presents: Rather than giving gifts, ask birthday party attendees to give a donation to charity. This will shift the focus of the party away from material presents.
Learn more ways to nurture passion and compassion for others in your child.
Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of Free The Children, the world's largest network of children helping children through education. Their latest book, The World Needs Your Kid, is coauthored with journalist Shelley Page and focuses on raising socially conscious kids who care and contribute.
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