Birthday Bashing

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I used to look forward to my son's birthday, but the event isn't nearly as much fun as it once was. The boy has caught on.

First birthdays are the best. One-year-olds have no idea what a birthday is, and no expectations mean no disappointments. You don't have to deck the walls with balloons and crepe-paper streamers. You aren't required to let a mob of unruly party guests drool ice cream, cake frosting, and assorted kid-juices all over your house. Nor must you chaperone them to one of those numbingly cute theme-pizzerias for the ugliest afternoon of your life.

Heck, when you get right down to it, you don't even have to shell out for birthday presents, because your yearling doesn't know what those are, either.

Should you feel compelled to observe the tradition, however, you can buy the kid a vacuum cleaner, a VCR, or a new refrigerator; slap some brightly colored ribbons on it; sing a few lively choruses of "Happy Birthday"; and go to bed confident that, by morning, Junior will have no memory whatsoever of his lavish "gift," the gala bash thrown in his honor ... or you, for that matter. Not only that, you'll be the proud owner of a band-new household appliance you never would have purchased for yourself.

Second birthdays are almost as nice. At that age, kids are just beginning to get the idea that there's something special about the occasion, but the concept of automatic gift-getting continues to elude them.

And since most 2-year-olds have yet to master the art of counting, one fabulous gift is just as exciting as a thousand. Even better, paper-bag puppets qualify as fabulous gifts.

If the birthday babe has developed an early knack for numbers, you can still save big dough by creating the optical illusion that he's being showered with treasures. It's easy. Just hand the child a paper-bag puppet, distract him ("Look! A squirrel!" works every time), snatch the puppet away, regain his attention, and give it to him again. After a few hours of this, any 2-year-old in the world would consider you generous to a fault.

Regrettably, such deceptions don't work as well by the time Year Three rolls around. Thanks to his blabbermouth pals, the little man is now hip to the benefits to be wrung from this, his own, personal holiday. He knows how to count, he's aware that birthdays mean more stuff, and he expects the guest list to include every kid he ever met not only to guarantee a heavy payload of gifts, but also to show them all the neat, new plastic junk he owns and they don't.

Although these discoveries take a good deal of fun out of the proceedings, parents continue to have an advantage because even the sharpest 3-year-olds aren't real bright. It's tricky, but if you make a huge fuss over whatever horribly lame or practical gift it is you're trying to palm off on them, most youngsters this age can be convinced they've struck the mother lode.

"WOW! Look what you got! I don't believe it! A whole bag of socks! Ooooooh, you're so lucky. You must be a very special boy to get a whole bag of socks for your birthday! Gosh, do you think I could borrow a pair of those wonderful socks one day?"

Don't worry about overdoing it. You can't. It will be another five or six months before your offspring will begin to suspect that you're untrustworthy, and at least one year before he's absolutely certain of it.

My son, alas, has long since reached the age where he approaches the big day like a seasoned pro. Now a full-fledged material boy, he knows there will be a party and that he'll bag several tons of merchandise whether he's good, naughty, or suddenly gets the urge to become a serial killer.

He can spot fake grown-up excitement faster than he can locate the toy section in a department store.

He's fully prepared to make Mommy and Daddy's life miserable if they don't deliver exactly what he's ordered.

And anyone who shows up at the festivities with a vacuum cleaner, a paper-bag puppet, or a bag of socks is begging to be struck from the "God bless" list at the end of the nightly prayers.

Ah, well. He's my son, it's his birthday, and I wouldn't dream of cheating him out of it.

Not until he starts demanding to celebrate at a theme-pizzeria, anyway.

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