Every Tuesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
We’re in the midst of birthday-extravaganza in my household right now, and we kicked off the festivities with a little party for my almost-five-year-old and her friends. On the surface, it seemed like a simple event: hosted at our house as basically a fancier play-date featuring ice cream and tutus. By the party’s end, most of the girls were wearing the tutus on their faces and pretending to be raging lions. As parents streamed in to pick up their children, they witnessed an energetic, happy group. Success!
But for most of these kids, it was their first drop-off birthday party, and for some, the first time at our house. My elder daughter, the girl du jour, is old enough to express a lot of opinions about her party and the larger structure of her life. I’m hearing a lot of “It’s my decision” these days, and I get to remind her that we can choose badly too, that all choices carry consequences, and that our series of choices ultimately form our characters. Heavy stuff when she’s just trying to determine a party theme. We finally went with unicorn/mermaid/princess/Doc McStuffins mishmash, and they mostly played lion tamer.
Clearly, choices aren’t easy for children either, though I sometimes think of them that way through the haze of distant adult nostalgia. She asked for ice cream and bagels as her snacks, and helped me make invitations and decorate the house. Birthdays are, by their nature, a celebration of individuality and the life of the honoree. I tried to persuade my younger child that her big sister is the gift to us on her birthday, because we get to share in the gift of her life; this is not a persuasive argument for a toddler wondering where her own presents are. Eight months away. Sorry kid.
Yet as much as I love birthday parties and the ways that they rejoice in each life as a unique gift, I found my daughter and I in a lot of conversations about the responsibilities of the host, too. Yes, it’s her party, but that means she is the central connector for friends who don’t necessarily know each other, and who aren’t nearly as comfortable in our space. It’s our job as the hosts to help them feel comfortable, not because we can force people to have fun, but because being a good friend and a good Christian means welcoming the stranger and showing love to those who feel like outsiders. For the kid hanging out alone on the deck, a party can be a scary, alienating experience, and it’s the duty of the hosts to attend to all the guests, not just the easy ones.
I am painfully aware of this alienation, having spent my childhood at huge family functions where I knew few people well and felt overwhelmed and unsupported in the crowd. I am naturally introverted and was, as a child, shy, too. But no one then gave me strategies or tools to mingle in group settings, and I felt self-conscious and awkward. If I’m honest, I still do. It’s hard for me to throw parties and to be around large groups of people (where “large” means more than three other people), and I’m still most comfortable with my husband and children. The vantage point of maturity—both emotional and spiritual—shows me that those experiences can lead me to withdraw or to show love to others who might feel like outsiders.
I want my daughter to make choices about her party, to enjoy it and delight in the fun and relative carefree days of turning five. I also want her to learn hospitality and a servant’s heart, where self-will and self-pleasure must defer to loving others. And when I look at the long picture of my life and the lives I pray that my children will enjoy, there are lots of fun birthday parties and delightful friends to share those with, but there is also a clear sense of holy vocation. Even—or especially—a celebration of the self should always reflect back to the Creator, with the party honoring her birth glorifying the one who gave us all her life to appreciate. I hope that she and I both grow in hospitality and love throughout our lives, and I hope that we never forget, no matter our childhoods, that God always reaches out to the stranger.