What Does Your Child Think a Birthday Means?
Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson
Development & Learning
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Every child loves a birthday celebration. But did you know that birthdays mean different things to kids at different ages? And what a birthday means to your child might affect how you celebrate it.
A fascinating study of about 100 children ages 3 to 9 found that children are differently able to understand the importance of birthdays. Younger children believe that a birthday celebration is necessary for a person to age. If the celebration is skipped, the child believes he remains the same age as before, even though the anniversary of his birth has passed. And if a birthday celebration is repeated, the child may believe he ages a year at each celebration, so he can progress from age 3 to age 4 to age 5 in the span of a few days.
In addition, younger children believe that, in order for a birthday celebration to be “official” and to count in moving the child ahead, age-wise, it must contain all the elements the child has come to associate with birthday parties. This is why, if you have a piñata or a bouncy house one year, your child might insist on repeating those elements the next year.
Younger children believe that a person can grow younger, physically, by naming for herself a younger age. The whole package of growing up, growing older, and assigning a number to an age is mixed up in young children’s minds. By the time children reach the age of 8 or 9, they have sorted everything out. They understand that age progresses even if a birthday celebration is skipped or is somehow untraditional.
What’s the birthday take-away? Especially if your child is younger than 7 or 8, keep in mind these guidelines:
- Children are likely to be upset if their birthday party doesn’t include what they believe a “real” birthday party should include. This means that you should be careful about what is included in a young child’s party, since you’ll likely be expected to include it again in future years. It also means that you tamper with the birthday party formula at your peril!
- Take children’s beliefs about aging and birthdays seriously. Avoid making jokes about your child’s age since a child will take jokes at face value and believe them. Wait for your child to grow into middle childhood to play around with the meaning of birthdays.
- Realize that young children don’t yet understand the whole idea of aging and growing into a different state of maturity. The whole idea of transforming into an adult seems not only impossible but frightening to a young child. Keep birthdays childlike and avoid making them the reason for new responsibilities.
Most of all, don’t skip your child’s birthday! To a young child, a skipped birthday is the same as not growing up at all.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.