family building wholehearted living

A Less Entitled, More Wholehearted Approach to Kids Birthdays

All three kids stared up at the presents I’d wrapped and set on the fridge—ready and waiting for our middle child’s birthday the next day.

“Four presents!” our oldest exclaimed. “That’s more presents than I’ve ever had in my LIFE!”

A part of me balked at that—he’s certainly had more than four presents in his eight years of life! But another part of me smiled at the element of truth in those words.

Yes, we’re fairly minimal in our gift giving. Yes, our parties are usually low-key, no-gift affairs—when we do one at all. But what I care even more about is the way we frame birthdays in our family conversations.

A birthday isn’t about being celebrated by others; it’s about using the day to celebrate your life.

I grew up waiting for others to celebrate me on my birthday. I’d wake up wondering, Will my friends decorate my locker? 

As I got older it became, Will my roommates make a cake? 

Then, Will my husband get me flowers? 

And finally, Will the baby take a good nap? (That’s all a mom really wants, anyway.)

Eventually I realized it was taxing waiting on others to celebrate me and that with a simple mind shift, I could enjoy my birthdays (and Valentine’s and Mother’s Day) a lot more.

So now I’m trying to pass this approach on to my kids: In our family, we use our birthdays to celebrate the big, small, scary, joyful, chaotic, calm, happy lives we’re living. What we DO on a birthday doesn’t matter as much as who we spend it with. What we’re given doesn’t matter as much as what we’ve been blessed with.

Here are a few thoughts for anyone who might not instantly connect with this approach to kids birthdays:

1. But What About Making My Kid Feel Special?

Any chance to make a child feel cherished is a beautiful thing, so go ahead and take it! But you also have 364 additional days a year to help your child feel appreciated, valued, and deeply loved. Let’s make those days count too. {42 Ways to Make Your Kids Feel Absolutely Loved}

2. But I Want to Be a Family that Celebrates

I do too! I absolutely want to be a family whose year is filled with traditions and who celebrates the smallest victories. (Oooh, that reminds me of The Secrets of Happy Families. Such a good book.) But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I think dwelling too much on birthday celebrations can set kids up for an entitled attitude and a lifetime of underwhelming holidays.

I want to empower my kids with a different perspective. I want them to fill their hearts with gratitude and find that they’ll always be satisfied.

3. But I Still Really, Really Love Birthdays

If that’s who you are, then by all means, carry on. 🙂 I know women who are amazing at making people in their lives feel showered with love on their birthdays. Keep it up! And if you’re a mom who thrives on giving her child an incredible day or who finds immense joy in planning a festive party—I get that! But I do hope you’ll open a conversation with your kids about starting with gratitude and spilling over from there.

Here’s to celebrating the lives we’re living, parents and kids alike.

If you have a second, let me know how birthdays are going in your house and if this perspective connects with you!

48 Comments

  • Reply
    Amy
    May 11, 2017 at 7:16 pm

    Love this concept! How do you teach your littles to celebrate their own lives? We’re approaching my girl’s 3rd, and we’ve tried to take a low-key, mindful approach so far. Curious what this looks like in practice for them.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      May 11, 2017 at 8:51 pm

      Great point, Amy! I think what you’re already doing is the perfect groundwork. Loy-key and mindful, like you said. Then as they grow you just layer on more narrative. My youngest just turned 4, and she definitely doesn’t get what I’m talking about yet. 🙂 But her brothers are 7 and 8, and I think they get it a lot more. And I also think it’s important to lead (over time) by example even more than with our words / lectures. 🙂 Every Mother’s Day, Valentine’s, and on my own birthday I make an extra effort to talk about the things I love about my life and our family—and in general to just be content with the day. I’m not perfect at it by any means, but I’m hoping that in the end, this shines through.

      Best of luck to us both, Amy!!

      • Reply
        Alicia
        May 13, 2017 at 7:56 am

        Hi Erica. Would you please give at least 2 examples of what you do for the kids?

      • Reply
        Melissa
        October 1, 2017 at 10:03 am

        Yes, examples of how you model this to the children in their bdays and your own celebrations would be so helpful! Love thit idea. Thanks you!

  • Reply
    Heather
    May 11, 2017 at 8:01 pm

    We don’t do big birthdays either. My kids get a meal of their choosing and an activity that we can do as a family. We celebrate together. We reminisce on when they were younger. They love their birthdays!

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      May 11, 2017 at 8:53 pm

      That’s so sweet! I love that you said we reminisce about when they were younger. A birthday is the perfect day to bring out family photo books or just share memories around the table. Thanks for reading, Heather!

  • Reply
    yettie
    May 11, 2017 at 8:48 pm

    I love it. I grew up being celebrated by my family on my birthday and married a man who’s experience was the opposite. I definitely want my kids to feel celebrated and loved on their birthdays but I also want to teach them the art of celebrating themselves.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      May 11, 2017 at 8:52 pm

      Well said, Yettie. My experience has been so similar, and I have to say, it’s not an easy adjustment to make when spouses are on the opposite end of this spectrum! Hopefully we can help our kids find more middle ground. 🙂

  • Reply
    Ellie
    May 11, 2017 at 8:55 pm

    I love this idea. I really resonate with what you said about how taxing it is to wait on others to celebrate you. Shifting your mindset to thankfulness and gratitude is much more freeing. I’m really going to ponder this. We do birthdays pretty simple with my kids who are 12, 10 and 7 but we haven’t consciously talked about this and I haven’t really thought about what we are teaching them. Thank you for your insight.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      May 12, 2017 at 9:49 pm

      Freeing is the perfect way to describe it, Ellie! Thanks so much for reading!

  • Reply
    M
    May 12, 2017 at 4:32 am

    We struggle with this topic. Our small, but loyal, extended family seems to think bigger is better. Ever birthday – and holiday- we ask for only what our child needs at that time. Apparently socks, new bath towels or sneakers for camp are borning gifts. Money for her piggy bank is “something she can’t actually open on her birthday.” We are a family of three with a large dog in 1,300 square feet. While we aren’t extreme minimalists, we believe less is more, don’t be wasteful, and reuse and hand down whenever we can. It is always an issue when we try to get others to respect the way we live. But, with another baby birthday right around the corner, we will try again, be optimistic, and see what happens.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      May 12, 2017 at 11:29 am

      Yeah, that IS hard. I think what it comes back to is that we can only control ourselves, not others. So although we may express our views or desires, others may choose to do differently, and we just have to leave them room to do so. I say enjoy the gifts for a while and pass them on to someone else once you’re done using them! 😉 I’m with ya, though… It’s a tricky balance, with extended family.

  • Reply
    Lori
    May 12, 2017 at 5:20 am

    My daughter’s 16th birthday is around the corner. I have always had parties for them when they were younger but have tried to tone it down in recent years. I have been pondering how to celebrate this one as she is too busy for the sleepover she wants to have, her brother will be in class that evening and that leaves me. I was thinking of inviting some of her friends over for cake but I think her and I will celebrate it together and we will discuss gratitude and not worrying about others as you say. She will have a party in the summer when things are quieter and that in itself will probably make a more relaxed and enjoyable party. Thanks for the great timing of this article.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      May 12, 2017 at 11:27 am

      So glad it came at a good time! I think an ebb and flow is healthy. Some years are more extravagant; others are simple… But what ties them together is (hopefully) an emphasis on how blessed we are no matter what type of celebrations happen that year. <3

    • Reply
      Janice
      September 26, 2017 at 11:30 am

      Love the concept of celebrating life & teaching mindfulness, simple joys.. I just happened to wonder if your daughter & maybe a few friends might have fun making cookies and spending an hour or so with some elderly at a local senior center or home.. finding out how they maybe spent their birthdays as children, or their most memorable tradition, favorite one or whatnot.. It might be an eye opening experience and enlightening day! Celebrating life, with gratitude, filled with sharing & love. My kids are grown now, but I often wish I did more of this type of thing over the years.
      Happy Birthday to those celebrating! Enjoy your special day, celebrating YOU! 🙂

  • Reply
    Cindy
    May 12, 2017 at 9:56 am

    This fits so well into my goals for my family. A scripture guides what I try to teach my children, and I think the concepts it teaches are relevant whether a person is religious or not. 2 Tim 1:7 states “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” We focus a lot on the concept of personal responsibility. Our conversations are often about their innate power and not giving it away to other people. I think this is a big problem nowadays. When we expect other people to celebrate us, or show us how appreciated we are, or make us feel loved, etc. we are giving them power over our emotional well being, which is really not fair to us or them! We are living in a state of fear, whether consciously or not, and our emotional stability can be undermined by unmet expectations, that often aren’t communicated to others. It can be tricky to teach to small children, but simple conversations about their feelings and how they choose to react to those feelings, modeling gratitude, complimenting them on attributes like kindness and making good choices rather than physical attributes- all help them build a more solid foundation emotionally. I love your tips about keeping birthdays simple, and hope our children can have special birthdays whether they are surrounded by people, or alone at college, because they are grounded in knowing who they are and that their life is meaningful regardless of whether a large celebration is attached.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      May 12, 2017 at 11:25 am

      Wow, Cindy, I am so inspired by this! It could be an entire post of its own! I too am passionate about helping my kids learn emotional intelligence and to be aware of where they’re placing their worth. And I do love that verse as well—always have. Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Reply
    Kira | A Better Life Lived
    May 14, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    Hi Erica,
    I think it’s a great idea to teach kids to celebrate their lives and everything they love, but I also think it’s great to celebrate them. We’re never extravagant, but I absolutely love using birthdays as a special reminder to everyone of how important they are to me and how much I love them, and that they’re getting to celebrate another year on Earth. So your message does resonate with me, but I guess we approach it from both angles. We also teach gratitude for non material things like health, family, and love. And we put a very low emphasis on gifts and more about making the day special, like with a theme or activity for something they love. (Although we struggle as well like a previous comment with getting others to tone it down!)
    I don’t think it breeds entitlement or an expectation to be celebrated, just makes them feel loved. In my extended family even, we do celebrate each other, from beginning
    of life til end. We use birthdays to serve as a reminder that although we may not always say or show it enough as we grow and move through life, they still mean the world to us.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      May 14, 2017 at 5:50 pm

      I think that’s beautiful, Kira. Well said! And what a blessing that you belong to an extended family that loves to celebrate. <3 Thanks for your thoughtful comment—it was the perfect note to add to this discussion!

  • Reply
    Lake Lili
    May 14, 2017 at 7:36 pm

    We do huge parties for my only kiddo’s birthday. On his birthday we invite all of his friend, their parents, siblings, grand parents, houseguests… whom every is around, for a big BBQ. We specifically say no gifts (and although some still arrive its not a plastic nightmare). The kids bring their bikes and they ride, run through the woods, and generally indulge in wild child behaviour. Some years we are able to have a bonfire – this year though the snow pile was still 15-ft high over the fire pit. For us birthdays are all about celebrating a milestone with friends. The evening ends with big slabs of homemade cake… and no alcohol keeps it friendly and fairly inexpensive.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      May 14, 2017 at 10:07 pm

      Aw, I love the sound of this. I think if I lived in your neighborhood, I’d invite myself over! Thanks for reading!

  • Reply
    Karla
    May 15, 2017 at 2:38 am

    My now 18 year old rarely had a party. She is an only child. My brother never married so she has no cousins or extended family. There have been a handful of parties, but most of the time her birthday has been with a few close friends ( framily actually). As for me, a single mom due to a divorce when she was 7, I have waited for others to take my child shopping or planning. Not looking for anything big, just a dinner or lunch I didn’t have to plan cook & clean up.
    I’d take off work & head to the ocean for me time then back to the Mom world. This year was the best of my 53 birthdays. I volunteered with Habitat. For 6 hours, I hung drywall. Being able to use my time and ability to contribute to giving another something I have been blessed with, warmed my heart. A quiet night at the movies with my girl topped it off.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      May 15, 2017 at 5:17 pm

      What a beautiful thing—celebrating your 53 years by giving some of yourself away in service! Thanks for that idea, Karla! (Oh and a movie to top it off—a very good decision. 🙂 🙂

  • Reply
    Kristin
    May 15, 2017 at 9:00 am

    Wonderful post. I am all for reframing and use this tool often in my life, but I have never ever thought about birthdays. You really have nailed it on the head for me – birthdays and holidays can be such a disappointment as I wait for other people to make it great. But reframing and seeing it a little differently makes total sense. Its only recently that I have started to minimize my life and started to focus on intention – and that has meant less presents for the kids and smaller celebrations. My older kids at first were not impressed, because they were used to something different, and I felt awful at first. But now about 4 years on, everything is a lot less hyped. There is no disappointed kid anymore. And as my three year old doesn’t know any different her birthdays are a joy for everyone as she is sooo excited over the smallest gestures.

    We usually decorate to surprise the birthday child, but this year my daughter asked if she could join us – and the memories we made together were so lovely – this is the start of a new tradition.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      May 15, 2017 at 5:16 pm

      Honestly, I’m just relieved to hear that I’m not the only person who has set herself up for some holiday disappointment by having mislaid expectations! And I love your story because you consciously made some changes—which shows us that it IS possible, no matter how you’ve celebrated in the past, to ease into a different style of celebrations. <3 Thanks, Kristin!

  • Reply
    Leigh W.
    May 15, 2017 at 2:50 pm

    I always loved the way you handled birthdays back when we were neighbors, Erica, and I’ve reflected on it often over the years!

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      May 15, 2017 at 5:14 pm

      That brings back sweet memories of having cupcakes at Ryder Park! Miss you, girl! <3 <3 Hope you and the fam are doing well!

  • Reply
    Carolyn
    May 16, 2017 at 11:45 am

    Hi – my twins are now 18 and I am eternally proud of the way they show their gratefulness for anything they receive. Birthday or otherwise. When they were 5 they wanted to do “happy birthday ” with their dad, papa and grandma before school and I was yet to make a cake. I put a candle into two apples and presented these for blowing out and singing to. They loved it. It was the celebration with family that mattered.

  • Reply
    PENNy
    May 17, 2017 at 2:57 am

    I like the old saying give them “something they want” (eg; latest toy) “something they need” (eg; new clothes) and “something they can read”
    for their birthday- 3 presents and a cake what more could you want!

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      May 17, 2017 at 1:21 pm

      Yes! I try to keep that in mind for Christmas—What a great idea to apply it to birthdays!

  • Reply
    Patricia
    May 18, 2017 at 7:11 am

    I am reading this as an empty nester parent and early childhood professional. First as one of seven children growing up with depression era parents, your birthday was the one day you got the attention. all of the other days it was sharing, taking turns, listening to your siblings, and doing what the majority was doing. On your birthday it was your day. We received a homemade cake, dinner of our choice at home, and a few presents.
    Then as a mother of two sons, I did indulge in a few parties but not every year. cake and a few presents were included. Yet it is still a day of attention. I feel like it is ok to be celebrated one day of the year. Your birthday is something no one can take from you it is yours forever!

  • Reply
    Lei Lani
    May 18, 2017 at 8:39 pm

    When I was growing up, my mother taught us that it was a tradition to thank your parents on your birthday. My brother and I have very close birthdays, so we would share one cake (alternating years for whose birthday is would be enjoyed on). Once I moved out, I would send my mother flowers on my birthday, usually with a card with my name and my brother’s name on it. Thinking back, I realize my mother instilled the idea of presence over presents.

  • Reply
    Jenniffer Zachary
    May 21, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    Our kids always get the dinner of their choice an activity they like and a homemade dessert of their choosing as well. Not so much about gifting grandparents usually give the kids money and they can buy things for themselves and a lot of times they end up purchasing something for the others to enjoy as well.

  • Reply
    Claire
    June 1, 2017 at 5:42 am

    I agree with you on this. It’s not about the huge extravagant party, they can just be additional pressure that we put on ourselves and our kids and it’s not about the huge amount of presents that usually will end up cast aside for the next best thing. It’s about love and celebrating a special day with those closest to you. Start that understanding early and it will continue.

  • Reply
    Cynthia
    June 6, 2017 at 10:10 pm

    I love this article and your idea of teaching children the concept of gratitude and life on purpose movement. I for one also celebrate mine and my families birthdays either quietly or on low-key parties, usually requesting my guests to donate a small amount to a Charity of my choice in exchange of presents. The world has gone crazy with all that’s happening today and there is so much fear and distrust among us. But as Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘Let us not lose hope in humanity’. Thank you for reminding us of what matters.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      June 7, 2017 at 3:16 pm

      Beautiful, Cynthia! Thanks for sharing that quote with me. I love it.

  • Reply
    Kristie
    June 7, 2017 at 8:54 am

    Love this post!!! AND that is coming from a mom who loves to throw parties. In our we don’t usually give a lot of gifts, maybe one now and then now that we live far away from Grandparents. I really like the idea of each person doing what they love. We try to make the day special by having candles and singing at every meal. And when I make their favorite dinner, we go around the table saying something we love about that person. It’s like we use that day to be grateful for them. But I like the empowering them to make it special and not to wait for others to do it. I’m going to keep with planning themed parties because I love to serve my family. And it makes me happy. I know I’m a little crazy, but I don’t think they are acting entitled. We usually love an excuse to throw a party and gather with those we love. But I think it’s good to be mindful of those things. Thanks for sharing!!!

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      June 7, 2017 at 3:18 pm

      I love people like you who are gatherers—masters of real hospitality. You keep at it! (Also, can we be friends?! 😉 ) And I love that you’re also so conscious of making it a gratitude celebration as well. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

  • Reply
    Another Birthday - La Charmed Life
    August 22, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    […] now that I’m nearing forty?  Erica Layne of “The Life on Purpose” offered a post about helping kids have a less entitled, more wholehearted birthday.  She shared that, “A […]

  • Reply
    Gina
    September 25, 2017 at 10:02 pm

    We’ve not really had major birthday parties at our house (only 1yo & 3yo birthday party so far). Birthdays for my eldest is having a requested cake brought to her daycare, wearing her fav dress, birthday song, some simple goody bags for her friends, and eating the cake with her friends. Every child does just about the same so I can imagine how she would feel if we skipped all that…
    At home, we may have a small little cake after our regular dinner, a gift or two. Occasionally, birthdays are out in a simple restaurant.
    I don’t buy toys for her very often, I usually tell her we can reserve that particular toy for her birthday or for Christmas.
    However, my parent-in-laws and their daughter have a habit of buying lots of toys or sticker/colouring books or clothes or shoes for both my kids. When my sil & her family comes for a visit, staying with us (I live with my in-laws), they go out shopping very often during their stay. This is the time that my kids will get multiple items almost daily.
    I’ve had trouble explaining to my eldest that buying toys on a daily basis is just not normal, out loud to my sil’s husband.
    I’m just hoping I’ve done enough to help “neutralise” that feeling of entitlement my kids might develope… 😔

  • Reply
    Mae
    September 26, 2017 at 9:37 am

    My daughter just turned 10 and her party was held at home, simple decorations a simple cake and a few friends. Two of her closest friends spent the night. We always make sure to tell friends presents are not recquired to attend we prefer to celebrate and have fun and play games, rather than focus on presents, which we know not everyone can buy and we do not want anyone to feel that cannot come hangout with our daughter because they cannot bring a gift. Her friendships mean so much more than what presents they bring her. Now my husband and I will get our children a gift, and their grandparents will as well, but it’s more things they need rather than stuff they want. I love throwing parties and have a great time setting things up, but also talking to my daughter and reflecting back on her years of life so far. Fun is the theme of our parties, fun and friends!

  • Reply
    Lisa
    September 29, 2017 at 5:25 am

    I am really grateful for this wonderful post. I hate to admit that my 7 year old daughter has been indulged over the years, although we do practice gratitude too.
    This year she got 42 presents for her birthday, which is ridiculous. We spent the day with family at a theme park and had a fabulous time.
    Since then I have woken up and become more mindful. I noticed that she was starting to act entitled ( not surprisingly) and I want her to appreciate what she does have in life.
    We have started by donating some toys to charity and will look for a community project to become involved with. Christmas and birthdays will be massively scaled down and I’m going to use this article as inspiration. We will celebrate her and everything that makes her beautiful and unique in a variety of ways that will not involve overwhelming her with material
    gifts that she will soon tire of.
    We are about making memories in our family, it’s almost a motto and I have come to realise that it’s celebrating together that creates the most beautiful and cherished memories and not what we are given.

  • Reply
    Bare Cubs
    September 30, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    This topic has definitely been on our minds as of late.
    It’s hard when you grew up a certain way so your instincts can stear you in a certain direction, but this just feels right.

  • Reply
    Paulina
    September 30, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    I have two girls, soon 6 and 4. Actually the older ones birhday is coming up and i want to thank you for this article. I was thinking and couldnt make my mind up for how to celebrate it. Make a party or keep it more simple. I think its leaning towards the later one.

    I have a little birthday tradition, every birthday i write my girls a letter where i describe them in that age, how they were, what they liked, what theyve said, what they did that made me proud or happy, what fun memories we made that year, what i wish for them and so on. When they turn 18 this will be their birthday gift, all the letters.

    Ive also made email accounts for them, to where i occasionaly send pictures, memories, funny things they said and so on. Theyll receive the password and knowledge of the account as another 18years birthday gift. 🙂 I like surprsing the ones i love

  • Reply
    Jessica Adams
    October 2, 2017 at 8:25 am

    This is a great article! My kids were getting so many gifts that I just stopped giving them a gift since they would get so many toys from other family members. I told them that having a party was their gift. There were just too many toys and not enough room or appreciation for all the gifts they received. That is what led me to write my children’s books about The Underground Toy Society.

    • Reply
      Jessica Adams
      October 2, 2017 at 8:26 am

      That is so adorable and a great idea to write a letter to them each year! I wish I would have thought about that!

  • Reply
    Holly
    October 10, 2017 at 9:41 am

    We have such a big family that even our low key birthdays end up being huge. Family is very important to me, and my husband and I both have large families, many of who live in the same city. So even if we just invite family over for cake, everyone brings a present and it ends up being 20+ people who bring 6 presents. I’ve started encouraging people to give my older kids (9&7) experiences instead of toys. A swim pass, a coupon for an ice cream date, a movie ticket… This that they can have a memory of instead of things to take up space

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      October 11, 2017 at 10:47 am

      That’s a great way of handling the presents issue, Holly! And I’m all for big family birthday parties if you have the kind of family you guys do. (Our families happen to be out of state.) Enjoy ’em!

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