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A Birthday With A Difference

Normally birthdays in our household are a pretty big affair. This is entirely because of me. I come from a family that makes a big deal out of birthdays. My mother would be really excited as our (me and my brother’s) birthdays got closer. There’d be talk about making our favorite foods. We’d generally go out to our favorite restaurant for dinner. There’d be new clothes. We always had a few friends over. We were lucky that my maternal grandparents, uncle and aunt lived in the same neighborhood as we did, so family members would call and visit as well. We did the whole cake cutting, chips, samosa and games deal when we were younger. As we grew older, the birthdays were scaled down to family and a few close friends. The day was celebrated though and we were always made to feel special.

In complete contrast my husband’s family does not acknowledge birthdays at all. I doubt he’s had a single birthday party when he was a child. All that changed when we married, of course. I started to make a big deal out of his day. I’d bake a cake, cook his favorite food, buy presents, take him out to dinner, insist he dress up. Initially he wasn’t a big fan of my methods. Over a period of time, though he’s started to enjoy the attention.

When DD came along it was fantastic. Here, I had my very own princess to fuss over, to dress up and to celebrate to my heart’s content. Things in our household would start buzzing a month in advance. There’d be multiple outfits for the big day, every year I’d pick out a different venue, a theme to make her birthday memorable. We celebrated her first birthday at the local children’s museum. We rented the place out after hours and had a 100 people over to celebrate the occasion.

Teaching children to give by Meera Ganesh

One year, we had her birthday party at the park, a couple of years we rented out a venue that had inflatables for the kids to play on. When she grew a little older, I took her and her friends (all girls) for a manicure-pedicure. A couple of years ago, she picked out a restaurant and we treated her closest friends and their families to dinner. In addition to the elaborate parties we were throwing we were also celebrating at her preschool (initially) and school with custom baked cookies and pizza parties for 20+ kids.

Teaching children to give by Meera Ganesh

A lot of time, effort and money went into all of these birthday parties. I didn’t grudge a single moment or penny that we spent since we have only the one child and I knew starting out, that lavish birthday parties and elaborate frilly dresses would not be a forever thing.

I was going to be able to do these things until she reached a certain age and then I’d have to defer to her choices.
However, as the years went by we started suffering from a paucity of time. Between school, extracurricular activities and all our work and personal commitments, I had started to feel impatient when it came to dealing with all the nitty gritty details that went into making a successful birthday.

Also evident to me over the years, has been the fact that my child is part of a very entitled generation. She’s known luxury from the day she was born. We live abroad and are comfortably middle class so she does not get an opportunity to see how the less privileged live. We have fostered compassion, empathy and generosity towards the less fortunate members of society but it’s one thing to do this in theory and another to practice it.

In the last 2 or 3 years, both my husband and I have realized the increasing importance of teaching our daughter to give. We have insisted she donate some of her books to the local library, give away her toys and clothes to the local homeless shelter. More and more we started to feel that it was time to practice the empathy and compassion we were preaching.

Now, growing up, as much fuss as was made about our birthdays, my parents were equally committed to community service. For years I have seen my mom bring together volunteers to cook and feed children at the local orphanage. She would spend many a Saturday reading to the terminally ill at the hospital or simply sitting with them. She used to regularly volunteer at the local blind school. My father has freely offered financial help to students on many an occasion. All of this happened despite the fact that growing up, we were not rich. We were okay financially but we had debts, we were frugal in the way we lived. However, if an opportunity came along where my parents could help someone financially or otherwise, they’d be the first ones to do it.

Teaching children to give by Meera Ganesh

The nice thing too, about living in the US is there are multiple opportunities to “give”. You will see canned food drives, children fund raising for their schools, people fundraising for their favorite charities, toy drives etc. all the time. This country makes teaching children to give very easy by being philanthropic by nature.

Donating money is always the easiest thing to do since it requires the least involvement. This year, as our daughter turned 11, I wanted to kick things up a notch. I wanted the daughter to give of herself, instead of her possessions.

I have had the opportunity to volunteer with a local Food Bank through my workplace. It’s a wonderful state subsidized organization that is almost completely run by volunteers. They request that volunteers donate 2-4 hours of their time packing all the food they receive from the state and the local grocery stores so they can be distributed to families in need.

The coordinator at the food bank will always start a session by talking about how many people go hungry every day (it is 1 in 5 children in the state we live in). He/She will also tell us about the places the packed food is distributed to. These include public schools like the one my daughter attends, homeless shelters, residences of senior citizens (since a majority of them live alone and have no family to care for them), local offices (a lot of people at the places we work at do not eat 3 meals a day so their children can eat their share). It is shocking that in a first world country like the US, so many people go hungry every day.

So for our daughter’s birthday this year, she and I went to the Food Bank to pack food (her dad didn’t join us since he was battling a bad cold and the Food Bank requested he not come if he was sick). The Food Bank allows children as young as 6 years to volunteer. At the Food Bank, the daughter was given a set of responsibilities – fitting all the food we packed into carton boxes, taping the boxes and taking them to be weighed.

She was put at a table separate from mine and for 2 hours I saw her every so often but she was busy and so was I so we didn’t get a chance to talk. She seemed to be taking her responsibilities seriously, though, and she worked without a break for a couple of hours. More importantly, she worked without whining or complaining (some of the less likeable tween attributes that she’s now acquired)

We each packed 36lbs of food that day, enough to feed a family of 4 three meals a day for 3 days. Most importantly, it jarred my daughter’s world when she found out that some of her school mates probably don’t have access to breakfast, lunch or dinner on a regular basis. She has since expressed interest in going back and volunteering at the Food Bank again.

Not only that, she even lead a sock drive at her school earlier this month. The 5th grade collected 232 pairs of children’s socks that we plan to donate to the local homeless shelter this weekend. I’d like to believe that this is just the beginning. This attitude towards giving – of her time, her physical effort, will only grow from this point on.

I am mom to a quickly growing 11 year old. I have lived abroad for over 15 years and I struggle daily with the challenges that parenting and straddling 2 different cultures throws at me. I am an avid reader, a huge fan of the movies (Bollywood, especially) and a somewhat sporadic writer. I blog at MM’s musings.