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July 04, 2019 Thursday 03:53:24 PM IST

Happy Birthday-Celebrations Make Children Happy, Understand Goodness of Life

3rd Eye

Surely, you as a parent and spouse celebrate happy birthdays and wedding anniversaries. There are, besides, religious and secular festival days. There are two possible approaches to these: observing them as they generally are, as most people do. The second is to handle these ceremonies creatively and educationally. Between the two approaches lies a world of possible enrichment.

Most people associate parenting with a mountain of routine chores. Of course, parenting does involve enormous labour. It is taken for granted, because it is free from rewards and also because it is basic. No one thanks gravity or oxygen; yet it is gravity that makes movement possible,and oxygen that keeps moving creatures alive.

Parenting can be, if we so choose, a sphere of creativity. Wherever life is present, scope for creativity too is. The choice between being creative and being mechanical is exercised by individuals. Mechanical parenting is burdensome. Creative parenting is joyous and futuristically exciting. Drudgery is alien to it.

Let’s be specific and illustrative. Your child’s birth anniversary is approaching. At this stage you have two options: to celebrate it or not to celebrate it on the basis either that every day is a birthday - each day we live and die, how else would we have a new day? - or that the extravagance this entails is unjustifiable in a country where millions of children languish in deprivation. 

Idea of happiness

Let us assume that you decide to celebrate your child’s birthday. In that event you have two further options: to go about as per current trends and norms, or to do it your own way. In case of the latter, a question will arise. What is your idea of happiness? That is because celebration is also a statement on how one understands happiness. Most parents do not realize that each time they celebrate a ‘happy birthday’ they are educating their children, willy-nilly, on what happiness means.

Parents are keen to do their ‘best’ in celebrating the birthdays of their children. The ‘best’ is defined in monetary terms, not in imaginative terms. This stands on a serious misunderstanding quite widespread today. The ‘best’ is necessarily outside one’s own house. So, go out and celebrate! This is a fad that parents continue to reinforce out of ‘good’ intentions.

As a rule, everything in life is given to us as a raw material. They are the medium through which we express, or reveal, ourselves. In this process of self-revelation,we grow. To reveal is to grow. This self-revelation must not be confused with self-exhibition, which is self-degrading. There is nothing, including parenting, that a human being does which does not involve this self-revelation and self-making. To ‘do’ is to grow and to become. Nothing that falls short of this is ‘doing’ in the human sense of the term. Work without self-growth and self-expression is slavery. The one thing parents should not do is to serve as slaves. Aristotle wrote on work as follows in Politics:

“Of all the works of art,those are the most excellent wherein chance has the least to do, and those are the meanest which deprave the body, those the most servile in which bodily strength alone is chiefly wanted, those most illiberal which require least skill…”

Alas, in our current idea and practice of parenting, it is ‘bodily strength’ that is chiefly employed. Thosewho have the means,complement it with financial strength. Aristotle’s idea of the noblest work as that in which chance plays the least role merits attention. In Greek thought, reason is counterpointed to chance. Whatever excludes the rational approach is ruled by chance. Parenting, seen in this light, needs to be, and can be, more than ‘hit or miss’. The understanding with which parenting is practised is decisive.

Work, whether it is in respect of parenting or of managing other aspects of life, is essentially artistic. An artist can make no progress in his work if he has no idea of what he wants to accomplish. Greatness lies in bridging the gap between this vision and achievement. If a work of art corresponds to the sublimity of the vison of the artist, it moves into the zone of greatness.

Those who have no vision of their own, stay imitating others. They may wish for great things, but by hitching themselves to the commonplace, they frustrate their wishes. They end up being mediocre in the art of living.

Let’s return to the birthday ‘bash’ - what a terrible expression! - of your child. Suppose your child is above five years of age and she has begun to understand, howsoever vaguely, some basic things. How about proceeding as follows?

Sensible planning

A fortnight before her happy birthday, you discuss with your daughter how she wants her birthday celebrated. Very likely she would see the day in terms of people bringing her gifts. She could also mention her preferences about the food to be served. Then you could do the following.

-Discuss the idea of gifts, not only in terms of receiving but also in terms of giving. If found appropriate, this could lead to making some mention of being a gift, starting with the idea that she has come into your life as a ‘gift’ from God (if you believe that to be the case). You can also mention that ‘gifts’ are also of the non-material kind. That life is full of gifts, in the sense of talents and opportunities. We need to welcome and use them fully and joyfully. And so on… 

-Tell her that, while food is important and enjoyable, and it will indeed be taken care of, a more valuable thing would be for her to offer to those who come to greet her something on her own: recite a rhyme, narrate a short story or episode, an account of how her birthday was celebrated the previous year, and so on. This will help to keep your child at the centre of the day’s celebration, which is often not the case.

-Talk to her about happy birthday as a celebration of the goodness of life. Life is good! To celebrate the goodness of life is to honour that fact all through the year. One can be good every day of the year. Then celebrations of birthdays become happier, year after year!

Well, you could object that a child is too tender to understand all this. I agree.  So, what are we to do?

Just persevere. That’s what you would do, if you believe in what you do. If you persevere in this, you would see your child growing in awareness and understanding, year after year. That alone makes sure that each birth anniversary is indeed new, and not the 7th or 10th or 15th carbon copies of the same mode of celebration. One aspect of creativity is freshness. Creativity has the uncanny knack to invest even the commonplace with freshness and originality. You are truly a wise and rational parent if, each time the birth anniversary of your child is celebrated, she experiences it as something new.

Calibration of growth

A wise parent ensures that celebrations of happy birthdays become, without making much ado about it, a calibration of the growth and awareness of the child.  In comparison, what a drab thing it is to have birthdays celebrated the same way on the same commonplace understanding, with scales of spending alone varying according to material circumstances!

I offer below an illustration from the Bible, which is the source of my reflections above.

The Jews used to observe a festival called the Passover. It commemorated an important event in Jewish history pertaining to their liberation from the land of slavery, the details of which are not immediately material to us. Every Jew made it a point to commemorate this event by observing the festival of Passover. Jesus took up this ceremony and gave it a profound re-interpretation. He unveiled a new horizon of meaning and scope through it. It became the Lord’s Supper, which celebrates a newer and deeper liberation: a liberation from the old, which is also a celebration of the realization of something new.

Ceremonies are more important and necessary today than they were in the past because we live in an atomised and atomising society. At the same time, ceremonies are at risk of being reduced to their mechanisms to the exclusion of their meanings, in this age of consumerism. The purpose of all ceremonies is to deepen relationships and to sharpen awareness about the essence of life. Each time you celebrate, you are also making a statement on who you are. You too, as a parent, can grow in stature through all that you celebrate, including celebrations of ceremonies. Failure to do so is to be party to reinforcing the idea creeping upon us that parents are some sort of glorified ATMs. 

Dr. Valson Thampu

Former Principal of St. Stephen's College, New Delhi

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