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Birthday Gifts

I had a birthday a few days ago, and I celebrated in lots of ways--I went to dinner with my family over the weekend, my husband brought home chocolate cake and champagne one evening, and I got to open presents yet another morning. None of these things actually happened on my birthday, though, and this is why: I chose to make a full dinner and breakfast for a homeless shelter (called Hotel de Zink) that my church was hosting. This meant that when I got off of work that night, instead of strolling home and relaxing I ran around like a mad woman, shopping and assembling casseroles and figuring out how many servings of granola bars and yogurt were enough.

WHY would I do such a thing on my birthday, of all days? The one day where you'd think I should catch a break and take it easy? Modeling. Now you might think it was me modeling for the kiddos, but actually it's a bit the other way around. I find myself trying to feel as good on my birthday as the kids feel on theirs. And that came about by way of an unexpected epiphany a few years ago, by way of Parents magazine.

My epiphany came about because of an article I read in Parents on the "charity birthday party" (read one such article here). It's a trendy sort of thing, for parents to throw parties for their kids where instead of gifts they asked for a donation to a particular charity. There were several ideas on the nuts and bolts of it, some charities that had been chosen, as well as theories and reasons behind why families were making this choice.

As I read that article, I had a deep "ah-ha!" moment that stuck with me. I realized that the older I got, the more birthdays had become a time of reflection for me. What have I done since I first came to this earth? How have I contributed to make it better? How have I made a difference? When my children get older, I assume that they will also have this time of reflection. And what better gift from us than the ability to reflect back on how they had directly contributed to their community and the world around them?

Our entire approach to birthdays changed. The first charity party was for their 4th birthday. It was the Dr. Dolittle party (we always do a book theme--more on that another time). I wanted the kids to understand that instead of presents for themselves, they would be getting presents for others, and I wanted them to understand this on a very real and physical level. So the charity I chose for that year was our local no-kill animal shelter (a perfect thematic match!). Directly after our party, we packed up all the donations of dog toys and animal food and checks and took them immediately to the shelter. The kids handed everything over to the people working there, and got an enthusiastic impromptu tour by a grateful staff. The kids got to see exactly where their gifts were going, and how they were helping the animals there. They were almost as excited about things as the puppies they got to play with, we didn't have one moment of regret over not getting presents from their friends (they still get gifts from family), and we set up a lasting family tradition.

Since then we have donated to the local children's hospital (my choice), and once again to the animal shelter (their choice). Now that they're a little older and more aware of what's going on, I let them choose the charity. My rules for the moment are that it be something local and tangible, and that we can deliver together as a family. This way they get the immediate reward of taking the donations in and have a visceral understanding of where the donations are going. As they get older, I will open the field and let them choose whatever charities they value, be it close to home or abroad. I will have the chance to teach them how to research charities, choose those that truly serve, and learn how much of an impact each of them can make as an individual.

And when my kids are in their mid-40s, my hope is that when they wake up on their birthday and take a moment to reflect, they'll associate their day of birth with good deeds, and see how their light has shined on this world. Just as I saw my own tiny light shine, however briefly, on mine.

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