I was tired of tripping over toys! My four kids had so many. Some they had outgrown but nostalgia had prevented them from passing the toys along. Some were only played with when I held it up and said “are we done with this toy yet?” followed by a chorus of “oh, no, that’s our favorite.” I tried to be sneaky and scoop forgotten toys into an unmarked cardboard box. Just when I was sure those toys had been permanently forgotten, I would hear “has anyone seen my…?”
Since my plans for downsizing were continually foiled, I redirected my energy to prevent further accumulation. Each birthday we amassed more from relatives and friends. It was like the toys had babies to mark the days I had babies. Only I reproduced one baby at a time. The toys multiplied like rabbits.
One day I announced that this year Dad and I would not be giving them presents, but instead they could have a Birthday Experience of their choice. Everyone froze. Then came the exclamations of “what!!!!???” and scowls with furrowed brows. I quickly moved on to explain the Birthday Experience as their choice of celebration or activity that our immediately family would happily do together. I waited a moment to let the idea take root and bloom into praise of my genius idea, but the tight lips and narrow eyes remained. So I further stated that they still would get presents from extended family. Only then did their bodies relax with a relieved sigh.
Six weeks later the first family birthday of the year came. Caroline, the six-turning-seven year old, thought about the birthday parties she had attended and remembered several where the children had bounced on inflatable slides and obstacle courses in a large two-roomed gymnasium. Other kids got this experience for their birthday so she wanted this, too. I reserved our time slot for a glow in the dark open bounce time and had a great time! Even though we didn’t pay the extra $150 for the party room with the inflatable birthday throne and paper crown, Caroline felt sufficiently celebrated. The first birthday experience of the year was a success and now the other three children were busily brainstorming the possibilities for their own Birthday Experiences.
Molly, the five-turning-six year old, remembered that she had enjoyed roller skating when she was four years old and wanted to do it again. I looked back on that day, too, and remembered her shuffling around the rink like a preschool pro not being bothered at all that Dad and I couldn’t skate with her since we were helping the other three children when we weren’t falling down ourselves.
The day before we had planned to go roller skating, Molly found me in the kitchen and announced that she wanted to go to Chuck E. Cheese because Caroline thought it would be a good idea. I blurted out “Oh, no. We are going to go roller skating. This is YOUR experience, not Caroline’s!”
The next day we laced up and shuffled our inexperienced selves onto the rink. After managing one loop around with my two older girls hanging on me, I came back to see Molly limp on the rink floor crying. Apparently two years of growth can do a number on one’s center of gravity. As I skated up to her she screamed through her tears, “I told you I wanted to go to Chuck E. Cheese!”
So we turned in our skates after having been there for about 15 minutes and headed off to Chuck E. Cheese where we did, indeed, see Molly have a happy birthday, her smile widening with each gold coin plunked into a slot.
A week later Evelyn, the eight-turning-nine year old, had her birthday. She is a “go big or go home” child. Her Birthday Experience was no different. She wanted to spend the night in a hotel since she had never been in one before. I booked a hotel 10 minutes away with a pool, huge fluffy beds, and a weight room. There was also a television which was a treat since we only have internet at home. Evelyn even invited everyone to eat from the vending machine–her treat–since she insisted that was part of being in a hotel.
After providing the hotel Birthday Experience, which was exponentially more expensive and time consuming than Chuck E. Cheese or bouncy inflatables, I was a little nervous about what Nathaniel, the ten-turning-eleven year old, would choose two months later on his birthday. Would he choose something even more over the top? Would he ask to see the Grand Canyon or go skydiving?
One day he announced that he wanted unlimited screen time for a whole day for the whole family. His experience also included food (if you can call it that). He wanted sugary cereal: “you know, Mom, the kinds you NEVER buy…Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs, Trix, Froot Loops.” That choice dispelled my financial fears. You couldn’t get much cheaper than four boxes of sugary cereal.
The kids ate all 59 servings of sugary cereal that day (minus the crunchy rainbow of artificially-colored processed grains that bounced all over the floor after a bowl had been poured too quickly and minus the non-marshmallows from the Lucky Charms that were passed over by Caroline). The kids enjoyed their lazy day. An unforeseen bonus: It was QUIET! My husband and I got to play a game and watch a movie together UNINTERUPTED!
What originally began as a tricky ploy to prevent our house from gaining more toys resulted in a gain of a different kind. First of all, we gained family memories. Most of the family time we have together is centered on holidays or vacations. Any other family activities usually get tossed away using the excuse that we do not have time. Tying the family experiences to birthdays forced us to plan time together that we normally wouldn’t have.
Each kid gained an experience of leadership and independence by picking the activity. Usually my husband and I are the leaders and the boss. Since both of us are firstborns this comes naturally to us. I could see each child’s confidence build as we lived their dream day.
We also gained a window into our children’s souls. What do they like to do? Things they’ve done before? New things? Do they want to be out with people or stay in? Are they swayed and motivated by what others have or suggest? Or do they bravely step out to do the unknown?
The next round of birthdays begins soon in our house. The children are already looking forward to choosing an experience again. Not only do they say that to my face, but I’ve even caught them proudly telling their friends that they don’t get presents from Mom and Dad but they get a Birthday Experience. This year my husband and I will jump in on the fun and choose our Birthday Experience, too. I look forward to gaining more- more time together, more memories, more experiences, more of each of us contributing our individual personalities into our family fun.