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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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.