What Children Know

How we learn about fantasy and reality

The All-Important Annual Birthday Party

Young children may have different ideas about its purpose.

When I was a child, a birthday party most often took place in the home. We played musical chairs, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, sang “Happy Birthday,” ate cake, opened presents, and then wrapped things up, so to speak. Not so nowadays. Each year parents seem more driven to come up with unique party themes and bigger and better ways of celebrating their child’s birthday, from renting moonwalks to employing magicians. Rarely do we stop to consider why we have birthday parties in the first place. Or perhaps more importantly, what do our children think about all this? Do they even understand what is being celebrated? What do young children understand about birthdays and birthday parties?

In a wonderful book by Vivian Gussen Paley, a group of children are discussing the aging process. One boy, Frederick, tells Ms. Paley, “My mother doesn’t have no more birthdays.” Ms. Paley queries, ”Do you mean she doesn’t have a birthday party?” “No,” Frederick responds, “She really doesn’t have a birthday. How I know is no one comes to her birthday and also she doesn’t make the cake." (p.3, V.G.Paley, 1988, Bad guys don’t have birthdays). 

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What this conversation hints at is the intriguing possibility that young children might believe that birthday parties actually cause them to get older. Have you ever tried to propose to your young child that perhaps you could skip the party this year? Or perhaps you have been unable to hold the party because you were on vacation or had another important family event at that time. If so, you have experienced your child’s distress. And chances are, if you thought about it, you may have assumed that he or she was most distressed for fear of not receiving presents, or not eating cake, or not seeing friends. What I will suggest instead is that a more basic fear may underlie this reaction — a fear that if the party is not held, the child might not age! 

A colleague’s nephew was to turn 6 on August 6th. On the day of his birthday, he and his family were out of the country, so instead of a full-fledged party they simply had a cake, he blew out the candles, and they promised him a party when they returned home. Upon their return home, the family began planning the party and discussing the details. At one point in the conversation the child turned to his parents and announced that, since he had already turned 6 on August 6th, he would be turning 7 at his party. As with the child in the book by Paley quoted above, this child clearly seemed to believe that birthday parties play a causal role in the aging process. Two cognitive developmental studies support this possibility. 

In one study, Klavir and Leiser (2002) posed two scenarios to 4- to 9-year-old Israeli children. In one, the mother of a boy who didn’t have a party tried to make up for it by having multiple parties “again and again until he is older than anyone else” and then asked children to indicate if that was a “good idea.” Among 4-year-olds, 83% responded affirmatively, whereas approximately half of 5-year-olds and a third of the 7-year-olds did. In a second scenario they investigated whether age could be decreased. Here they presented a story of an 80-year-old man who hoped to get younger by next celebrating his 79th birthday, and the next year his 78th, and so on, and asked whether children thought that was a good idea. Children seemed more reluctant to agree that this was a “good idea,” with only 38% of 4-year-olds and 36% of 5-year-olds making such a claim. They conclude from these findings that not until age 7 do most children believe that it is impossible to increase age by having additional birthday parties.

We have also studied this question in my lab at the University of Texas. We told children three stories about children who were each 2 years old and who were about to celebrate their third birthday. One child had a party on his birthday. Another child, due to various circumstances, did not have a party. The third child, due to various other circumstances, had two parties. Children were asked to indicate how old each child would be. Our results revealed that a significant number of children between the ages of 3 and 5 believed that the birthday party itself actually causes aging! Many children said that the child who didn’t have a party would remain 3, and many responded that the child who had two parties would actually become 5 years old! Children, like adults, are driven to seek explanations for personal, meaningful events. To children, the annual experience of the seemingly sudden change from one age to another is of great significance. Yet there is no obvious physical cause, as there is with other sorts of changes. Thus, children may grab onto the event that regularly co-occurs with this age change – the party – and assign it a causal role.

In conclusion, if, to a 4-year-old, the purpose of the birthday party is to make him or her 5, then whether you simply stay and home and eat cake or arrange a safari to Africa, it makes no difference. It’s the party that counts. Which is how it should be anyway.

Jacqueline Woolley, Ph. D., is a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.

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