For a happy birthday, keep it simple

Source: The Sunday Tmes,  May 8, 2011

Fancy parties spoil children as pleasures become routine and don’t evoke happiness

By Lee Wei Ling
In last Sunday’s Lifestyle, there was a full-page feature on the birthday parties parents throw for their children nowadays.
Quite a few parents now employ party planning companies specialising in children’s birthday parties. These companies claim that such parties are no longer ‘rich man’s events’, and even some HDB residents employ their services.
Balloon sculpting and face painting cost between $350 and $800 per party, which usually runs over two to three hours, depending on the number of activities.
Parents today spend more than they did before. Lifestyle reported that the average birthday party package cost $300 in 2007. Now parents can expect to spend upwards of $2,000.
I remember the birthday ‘parties’ my brothers and I had as children. There were no guests. There would just be mother and us three children. We never asked why father was not with us. We knew he had more important things to do.
All we would have was one birthday cake, with one candle and tiny porcelain animals that corresponded to the animal of our year of birth.
For me it was porcelain horses, since I was born in the Year of the Horse. For Hsien Yang it was roosters and chicks, for he was born in the Year of the Rooster. The porcelain animals are still at home in a display cabinet that belonged to my mother. Hsien Loong was born in the Year of the Dragon, but none of us can remember what Mama used to represent a Chinese dragon.
The only presents we received were from Mama herself, and the presents always consisted of books. We were content with these little ‘special events’ once a year for each of us.
Even in our kindergarten days, some parents used to arrange for their children to have birthday parties at school, complete with gifts for their classmates. Some parents still do that. I know because one of my doctor friends who has five children has to buy gifts for all of her kids’ classmates in kindergarten on their birthdays. Kindergarten parties now seem to be the norm, as are elaborate birthday parties at home.
My brothers and I were the odd ones out. We did not have any birthday celebrations at our kindergartens. But we did not feel deprived nor did we complain. Perhaps implicitly we understood why our father would turn up at our kindergarten ‘graduation’ in white and white, yet did not have time for our birthdays.
By the time we began primary school, even the cake and small ‘special event’ at home ceased. We did not feel deprived – not even when our cousins invited us to birthday parties at their homes, complete with magic shows, door gifts, and not just cakes but also ice cream, popsicles, candies and jellies.
Birthday presents also became passe by the time we hit primary school. Mama explained that there were 365 days in the year, and only one of those days was our birthday. Wouldn’t non-birthday presents be better, she reasoned, as they would come as a surprise and could occur on any of the other 364 days in the year. We were convinced – and indeed, she did buy us books more than once a year.
As we became teenagers and adults, and now into late middle age, birthdays remained non-events for my brothers and me. But some time in the early 1980s, Hsien Yang began organising birthday parties for our parents. At first, he did the cooking himself. Later, he would get chefs to come to cook up a gourmet dinner at his home. Yang, a good cook himself, made sure his kitchen met the highest standards the chefs required.
In the past six years, starting when I hit 50, a small group of friends would sometimes cajole and persuade me to go out for a fancy meal on my birthday. My family seldom remembers my birthday, and I’m old enough now to prefer to forget about it too. Still, I am pleased to receive e-mail or SMS birthday greetings from patients, friends and my father’s security officers. As asocial as I am, it is nice to know there are people who view me with goodwill.
But I digress. Old memories diverted me from a lesson I wished to impart. There is no doubt that Singapore has advanced economically, and many parents want to give their children the pleasures they themselves did not have in their childhood. But when the pleasures become routine and common, they no longer evoke happiness.
My readers may be anticipating at this point my customary lecture on the merits of a spartan lifestyle. I won’t lecture or preach. But I do think my parents were right in bringing me up to disdain material pleasures. I am happy to enjoy them on the rare occasions I am offered these pleasures – for example, a gourmet dinner a friend insisted on throwing for me on my 50th birthday. But I won’t miss these pleasures if times are hard.
Many of our young adults below 35 seem to feel they are entitled to an easy life. They are footloose and fancy-free, believing the world is their oyster. They are probably not very different from others of their age in other developed countries. But I wonder how they will react when misfortune or disaster strikes. Will they have the necessary resilience?
I am not sure, but I don’t worry too much. I have no children of my own. If I had, I would have brought them up the same way my parents brought me up.
Just one cake, decorated with porcelain animals, plus a book present – a ‘special treat’ that always remained ‘special’ precisely because we were never spoilt with excess.