Being the Birthday Boy!

We threw a party for J’s 4th birthday this past Sunday, and it brought out some interesting dynamics in his and his brother’s relationship.

We arrived home with the boys at the end of January two years ago, and J’s birthday (according to his birth certificate, which was created months before we adopted him, based on someone’s guess of his age) occurred just a few weeks into our getting accustomed to being a family, and whatever celebration we may have managed was low-key, at best. By September, when S had his first birthday in America, we were able to throw a real party, and he had about a dozen friends over, we did a Superman theme, and he had a great time.

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By the following February, J was aware of birthdays, and we did a fun cake (Thomas the Engine, at his train-obsessed request), and we invited over one family with four kids who know our boys well, so it was a very intimate gathering. He got the birthday song, and presents, but it was not a real party.

Last September, S had his second official birthday party, celebrating turning 6, and he had his new kindergarten friends over for a Star Wars themed party. J joined in the fun, but to this point, for both of them, birthday parties with a lot of guests meant S being at the center of attention, which he loves, no matter what the circumstances!

So, this February rolled around, and, with J turning 4 (supposedly – he’s so clearly in the middle of being three!), and being more involved with his friends at school, we finally held a real party for him, inviting the kids from his class and one former classmate. I was aiming for 3-4 guests, and we ended up with 5 guests plus one older sib, and one younger sib (the latter only 1-yr-old, so not really an active participant in the party). J again requested a Thomas the Engine cake, so I got a second try at the cake I made for him last year. My plan for keeping kids amused included train-inspired artwork, read a train story, sing a few train songs, and then do the cake/ice cream routine. The backup was Thomas the Engine videos, which did get pulled out at the end of the party.

Poor J! He was clearly confused by the whole thing. For one thing, his birthday fell on Saturday, and so we did his school celebration on Friday, which made him upset, because he thought that meant he wouldn’t get a real party at home. I was on hospital duty, so couldn’t take the morning off, but Dad joined the class and read Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”. We have the Hebrew version of the book, which he brought in, and one of the teachers, who taught S last year, and who is Israeli, read the Hebrew along with Dad, page by page, which must have been lovely! He said it was great. I’m so disappointed that I didn’t remind him to bring our video camera and have someone record it.

Sunday came, and the party was at 2pm. We scrambled to get the house together, and the guests started to arrive. J hid in the sofa cushion, and wouldn’t greet his guests as they came in. I had them sit down at a large stable and color some Thomas coloring pages that I had printed out. J was smiling, but kept hiding, and couldn’t be coaxed out to join the party, until finally the last child had arrived. Even then, he just looked a bit bewildered, although not unhappy.

The one organized plan that I managed to get at lest some of the kids to participate in was “Pin (tape) the bell on the train”. It worked OK, with each kid, one-by-one, taking a break from his/her coloring, and taking a turn. It was totally non-competitive – I think kids just like the idea of being blind-folded!

Now, when you have a houseful of 3-4 year olds, you have to be ready to throw your pre-arranged plans out the window, and follow their flow. As our preschool says, the’s a balance between adult-facilitated activities, and child-directed randomness (that’s a major paraphrase on my part!). Anyway, we had bought 7 helium balloons, which I hadn’t actually managed to distribute around the house as planned, and they were floating in a tied-together bunch at the other end of the room we were all in. The kids caught sight of them, and immediately wanted them, so we distributed a balloon to each kid, BUT – we had 5 guest + 1 older sibling (remember, I’m not counting the incredibly cute 1-year-old) + our two boys, J & S. That totals 8 kids, and there were 7 balloons.

Problem.

So, I took S aside and asked him to be a big boy and go without a balloon, and we’d get him one later, after the party. He was not happy…

The kids all ended up with their balloons tied around their wrists, marching around the house, and jumping up & down, with lots of joyful yelling. J was still having trouble getting into the swing of the party – he just seemed unable to comprehend that this was in any way about him! Then he caught site of the book that I had set aside to read to them later, with hopes of calming things down – “The Little Red Caboose” – one of the Golden Book series. He asked me to read it, so I called everyone’s attention, and we read the book. It was kind of magical how quiet they all got, and I had such a lovely audience for this silly little tale. I had thought we had more train stories around the house, but I hadn’t been able to find any but this one. At any rate, it did seem to accomplish the job of getting J more into the spirit of the party and engaging with his guests – always nice as a 3/4-year old to be able to get what you ask for to help give you back a sense of control and power. So then, for the next 30 minutes or so, the kids played with toys, and I set out the art project, which was supposed to be a train on tracks under a tunnel, all pre-constructed of foam sheets, but which I hadn’t gotten around to preparing, so I just put out the foam, and stickers, and let them do what they wanted (lesson for next time – kids don’t really care if the themes consistent throughout the party; they just want to have fun).

It was at this point that I noticed that S wasn’t with us, and I went to find him. I found him upstairs in his room, crying quietly on his bed. I sat down and asked him what the matter was, and he sobbed “I want a balloon, and it’s not fair that I have to be a big boy and not get one!”

He had a great point. And I, as an older sibling myself, felt all his pain and jealousy so deeply, I almost lost it myself, and could easily have joined him in a tear-fest. I don’t know if he might have handled it better if I had withheld a balloon from the other older sibling guest who was there (who is a classmate in S’s karate class). Somehow, I doubt it, and the worst case would have been that we’d the. He two crying older boys. I stand by the decision to give balloons to all the guests, on the principle that we, the hosts, always need to forgo a little of our own pleasure to make sure our guests have a good time. But, S was not happy with this lesson in graciousness. Although, even in his unhappiness, I think he did get it. He wasn’t angry, or throwing a tantrum. He was just sad. So, I held him for awhile, and then he told me that he just wanted to stay upstairs by himself for awhile. I asked him if he wanted me to stay with him, but he declined my offer. And, I could hear the natives getting restless downstairs.

It was time for cake & ice cream.

Candles were lit, song was sung, J dutifully blew out the flames, and everyone was served. In the middle of sugar consumption, S finally rejoined us, and had his sugar-fix, which helped put him back in a better mood.

And, kids were again milling about and playing with various toys, with about 25 minutes left of the allotted party time. I had hoped we might play a follow-the-leader type of game, through the house, with J leading as the “train’s” engine, but, by this time, I was feeling exhausted. I resorted to the backup plan – DVD player – put on the Thomas videos, which kept everyone happy and quiet until parents arrived and guests were ready to go.

And I’m left with the following impressions:

  1. I managed to keep 5 preschoolers reasonably entertained and busy for 2 hrs (1 1/2, if you don’t count the video time); J’s teachers herd twice as many kids for twice as long, and do it every day! I don’t know how they keep their sanity.
  2. the age-old problem of managing sibling rivalry…Cain & Abel set a precedent that we all, as parents, try to avoid, but it’s difficult. Obviously, fratricide is unlikely, but the reality is that the younger sibling has to come into their own, and, to some unavoidable degree, will displace the older, who has grown accustomed to running the show. And it’s all the more interesting to view this transition with the perspective of having lived it myself, as the older sib. It makes me wonder how my younger sister experienced this with her own two boys? I should ask her…

I’d be interested in any thoughts that you may have… Advice? Experience?

2 thoughts on “Being the Birthday Boy!

  1. A couple thoughts: the sadness is only part about the balloon (I'm guessing); it's also part about jealousy that J was so much the center of attention. We see that in our family when L is the focus – we know E won't handle it well. So we prime her in advance, which you'll be able to do next time. Okay, so – regarding the balloon, what's done is done. You can't go back in time to get him a balloon when everyone else got one, but you can go over-the-top when you manage it after the party. You could take him for a special field trip to the grocery store to get his own, or you could write a storybook about balloons together, or you can plan some future balloon-based craft project. Make the "apology" not about the balloon, but about him getting quality time with you, since what he needs most (I'm guessing still) is reassurance and acknowledgement.
    Re: train books, do you know the Engineer Ari series? They're sweet. And do you know about the PJ Library program? You should get on their mailing list if you're not already – it's through them that we got our first Engineer Ari book.

    1. Janaki says:

      Interestingly, S was completely over this by the time the party was over – I was ready to take him to the store for his replacement balloon, but he didn't need it by then. Of course, it wasn't about the balloon, but definitely about the loss of being the center of attention. It's always been around him, and he's having to face the idea of making room for his brother. It's hard, but he'll figure it out.

      I think it's such an interesting thing, especially after raising an only-child; one tends to think that it's possible to give each child "equal treatment" but it's just not possible. Oldest kids get a certain degree of attention which is substantively different from those who follow, and the "baby" gets a special kind of attention, that the oldest misses out on.

      I think my own sense of challenge is to help them each acknowledge the uniqueness of their "position", and celebrate that, rather than work to make things "fair". Just my take on things…

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