Life lessons from a birthday party

What you can learn from a child's birthday celebration

Wilfredo Lee/AP/File
In life, as in birthdays, the company matters more than the material gains.

Last night, we had a small birthday party for just a couple of our daughter’s friends to celebrate her birthday. We held the party at a park and had a simple treasure hunt and a couple of party games – a very simple and pleasant birthday party.

At the party, she only received two presents. In comparison to that, we had given her five (or so) presents at home earlier in the week, along with a gift from her grandparents.

When she opened just the two presents, she really enjoyed opening them and within just a little while had played with both gifts (one was a ring toss game and the other was an art kit).

When she opened the six presents at home, she really enjoyed opening the first two or three of them, but after that it was pure diminishing returns. Even more interesting, she has more or less chosen two preferred presents (a doll and a game) and has scarcely looked at the other ones.

The experiences for these two situations were very different, but the biggest change was simply the number of presents. Two gifts worked out far better than six.

Here are a few thoughts on that experience (that go beyond just a girl’s birthday party).

No one needs a giant pile of presents. In the end, we’re drawn to just a few of them. This is obviously true for my daughter, but it’s also true for my other children – and, frankly, true for me, too. At Christmas, I usually end up really enjoying just one or two of the gifts I receive, even if I receive several and even if they each might appeal to me greatly if I received them alone.

You only have so much time and attention. I have tons of different hobbies that I’m interested in, but in reality I simply don’t have time for all of them. I only have so much time and attention, and convincing myself that I have more than I have is simply a mistake.

Figure out how you’re going to use that time and attention. At this point, I really have two hobbies: reading (when I’m alone) and board and card games (with friends and family). I participate in online forums related to both hobbies and I engage in them as often as I can. Given the free time that I have, these two things fill it up quite quickly.

Don’t waste a dime on other areas. I’d love to have time to take up golf again, but I realize that I actually have the time for golf roughly once a year. Thus, it would be completely nonsensical to invest in a bag of golf clubs. I’ve really walked away from many hobbies over the past several years, both to save money and to give myself adequate time to enjoy hobbies that are more important to me.

Give something besides presents. When I think of Christmas, I don’t think of gifts. I think of sitting around and talking to my family and enjoying their company. When I asked my daughter this morning what she remembered about her party, she didn’t remember the presents. She remembered the scavenger hunt and riding on the merry-go-round with her best friend. The best things we receive in life are rarely wrapped up with a pretty bow.

Instead of giving your child or your spouse several presents, get them one or two that are really well thought out. They don’t have to be expensive. They simply have to be something that truly appeals to the recipient. They’ll get far more value and joy out of one gift that really matches their interests than multiple gifts that do not.

In a few months, my son turns six. Rather than giving him several presents, we’re going to instead think carefully about what he’s passionate about and get him just two or three that match those interests well. This allows us to think more about the ones he does receive, allows him to enjoy all of his presents instead of just selecting a few favorites, and saves our pocketbooks as well.

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