My daughter just turned 1, and my son is about to turn 3, so I’m only at the starting line of the Olympic sport that kid birthday parties in America have become. (Just read this Swiss mom’s observations of our culture for a fresh perspective.) As a new mother, I have been thinking a lot about what I want birthdays to look like in our family.

My peers and favorite mentor moms counsel: Begin in the way you want to go.

What does that mean for birthdays? My husband and I have polled older, wiser parents and had some deep discussions about our own official family birthday policy. Would we throw parties? How big would they be? Who would be invited? How many gifts would we give our kids? We knew that whatever we did for our first, we would have to, or want to, do for the rest. Could the bar we set with our first child be reached later with more kids, less income and less time?

American parents face the problem of curbing excess. In parts of Africa, kids go hungry and may only have one or two treasured toys. Here, we face childhood obesity and rooms filled with toys that are never used. We may laugh at these conundrums, or feel guilty about them, but they are real problems — first-world or no.

Birthdays are a great opportunity to teach kids how to be thankful for what they have: health, family and friends. And it’s fine to toss in a few new gifts. But we want kids who say thank you for something as simple as a dinosaur balloon from the dollar store. And to be honest, the problem is us. We adore our kids, and it’s tempting to show our love by showering them with over-the-top parties, countless drive-through meals and impulse buys at Target.

Here are a few ideas that I hope will help parents tame the birthday party insanity and teach kids some hard-won life lessons, worth more than what a credit card can buy.

Go ahead, blow it out for the first birthday. My theory is that the first birthday is all about mom and dad. Maybe it’s because my husband returned from a deployment right before our son turned 1 and we had a lot to celebrate, but I think it’s perfectly fine to go big for this one. We invite family and friends (my daughter had about 40 guests recently for hers), serve a meal and grown-up beverages, sing, eat cupcakes and open presents. For both kids, we tied 12 balloons to 12 pictures from their first year for a celebratory display on the buffet. I usually buy a new outfit for the child and one for myself — why not? You can’t spoil a 1-year-old.

Find some way to dial it down after that. One family we know only does parties for the milestone numbers; 5, 10, 16. In between are quiet family dinners, where the child gets a favorite meal and some gifts. This is a tradition we would like to adopt. Another family we know does parties with friends for odd-year birthdays and family celebrations in even years. A third strategy is to have a small gathering with friends. The number of guests can be determined by the child’s age (three for a 3-year-old, seven for a 7-year-old). All of these ideas can help manage expectations and keep things from getting out of hand.

Go retro. Bring back the party games from your youth, such as musical chairs and Simon says. What about a tea party with dolls? Or a scavenger hunt in the backyard? Try an art project. In a world of endless bounce houses, these tactics are sure to seem novel.

Clear out excess toys before birthdays and holidays. Are your kids’ play rooms and bedrooms calm places where their imaginations can run free? Or when they run, do they crash into play kitchens and mountains of stuffed animals? However you want to do it, find some way to get a grip on the toy situation before new ones arrive. Maybe set aside a third of the toys for future rotation — if the kids never miss them, they can be sold or donated later. Or ask the kids to choose some toys to purge.

Use online wish lists. Creating wish lists can take some of the surprise and challenge out of gift giving, but I think they’re especially helpful for family and friends who live far away or are busy. Even if people don’t buy specific items from the list, they can get the idea that your child is really into ladybugs or trucks. As the kids get older, you can work on the list together and teach them the difference between what they need, what they kinda want and what they really want.

Give kids things they need. Presents used to be practical necessities: socks, books, soccer balls. Reclaim these ideas. Things are special if you say they are. Try footie pajamas with a special print, or a book about a favorite subject. Put a bunch of art supplies on that wish list, or an expensive calculator that is required for school. Even if it’s easy to go online and order these any time, the challenge here is to teach the child (and parent) how to delay gratification.

Find used items. New-to-your-child gifts can be just as cool as gifts wrapped in plastic. If you can’t afford to buy a train table outright, think about how cool it will be if you put in the time and effort to find a like-new used one. Or you can search for months for a pile of used books on your child’s favorite subject. You’re teaching thriftiness and creativity at the same time.

Give experiences. Particularly if you have multiple children and a house full of toys, it might be time to suggest that grandparents buy a family pass to the zoo or a National Geographic Kids subscription. Dance or music lessons are also good ideas.

Choose the number and type of gifts parents will give. My husband and I haven’t settled on a number of gifts, but it will be good to limit ourselves eventually. Some parents limit Christmas gifts, in particular, to one gift a child wants, one he needs, one he will wear and one he will read. This can easily translate to birthdays. Make sure too, to limit the gifts given between birthdays. Developing your child’s character is worth the wait.

Roberts is a freelance writer. She can be reached at www.lindseymroberts.com.

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