Some birthdays are recognised as special milestones. These are the ones that tend to coincide with rites of passage: teenage, 18 or 21, 40 when life is supposed to begin, and 100 for those who achieve a full innings. This week, however, I realised that there is a case to be made for four being the very best age for a birthday.
As you may have guessed this thought did not appear from nowhere. We were with one of our grandchildren, having arranged the timing and venue of our summer holiday to be with her in Devon for her fourth birthday. And it was one of the very best that I could imagine. On the birthday itself there were presents to be opened, and then a sunny day spent on the beach at Combe Martin with a sumptuous picnic lunch followed by ice-creams. And then at the weekend there was a party for friends.
Now I have been blessed at Mill Grove by the fact that I have celebrated hundreds of children’s birthdays: children of all ages, and there have been some very special ones. Birthdays are important, certainly in British culture: they provide an occasion when family and friends take time out to express how significant an individual is to them. Unlike yearly festivals such as Christmas, Divali or Eid, a birthday celebrates a person’s life: it is unique to them. They come once a year, of course, but on balance I think four is the perfect age for a birthday.
Here is why I think that is so. The birth itself is, of course, a time of which the child will have no personal, conscious memories, and first, second and third birthdays seem to me to mean a lot more to parents and family than to most children themselves. But at the age of four a child has become aware of what birthdays are about, and come to have certain expectations: cards, presents, a birthday cake, balloons, candles and some form of party. In many cases I think this may be the first really significant birthday to a person.
After that, the institution of the birthday and the party tends to take over: it becomes a familiar ritual, and nowadays birthdays have become something of an industry with places from restaurants to theme parks offering birthday meals, and birthday events of considerable ingenuity, and creating expectations in children that parents find it hard to resist, without risking the stigmatisation of their child. (You have to have a party bag, or other children will feel cheated and let down. And if you hold a party in your own house, this is clearly second best to what several other children in your child’s class put on…)
So let me share with you some of the memorable aspects of this fourth birthday. There were the presents: all neatly wrapped up and coming with cards. And there were some special gifts too: a Lego “Friends” Tree House, for example; a blouse and matching skirt; rainbow pencils; sticky green creatures; and a complete set of all A.A. Milne’s children’s stories and poems in a single volume with its own case. But our grand-daughter was not too old to be primarily interested in the wrapping paper, and she created her own objet d’art by cutting out fairies from one piece, and making them into a collage. She did not feel self-conscious about the fact that some of the donors of the precious gifts were looking on. Clearly the parents and grand-parents found the A.A. Milne present full of associations and memories, but this did not deter the child from getting on with her creative industry. And she was delighted to show everyone what she had made, without the slightest sense that we might be disappointed in her lack of appreciation of the gifts we had chosen and purchased, wrapped and addressed so carefully.
And then in the middle of the present opening she asked if she could play hide and seek with grandpa and grandma in her lounge, a room with plenty of cushions and opportunities for finding a place difficult for even an experienced adult to find. She hid on a sofa, behind a sofa, on a chair, under a table, under a desk, behind some curtains, and even on a shelf. There were squeals of delight each time she was eventually found, while the presents sat undisturbed in the dining room just feet away. She entered into the game with everything she could muster: she was just the right age for hide and seek. And when her mother asked her immediately after her party (which was no mean themed event, based on the idea of a rainbow, and was graced by an extraordinarily striking rainbow cake decorated with Smarties) what she liked most about her birthday it was the game of hide and seek that she singled out above everything else.
And then there was the day on the beach. There were plenty of strawberries and some of her favourite foods as well as a strawberry cornetto, but our grandchild was unaffected by the birthday features of the day. Instead, she spent literally hours playing with one or another of her four grandparents in little rock pools along the Eastern side of the beach. She watched others crabbing, she swam, she made paintings on smooth rocks by dipping her little feet in the water and walking around on the warm sun-drenched silvery grey rocks. She watched someone prospecting for silver and gold coins (he was kitted out with the very latest gadgets), and she then presented each of us with some of the ‘silver’ and ‘gold’ that she found. (The fact that there is a disused silver mine at the end of the rock-pool path enhanced her sense of adventure.) She buried some stones and rounded glass on the way to the sea for a swim with grandpa, but then became so absorbed in the process that she never made it to the water!
And all the time she was joining in with the activities of other children, as an active participant, or as an observer. These were all things that she could have done on any trip to a beach: nothing was specific to her birthday. And she loved what she was doing. She revisited the rock pools at least three or four times, and on each occasion there was the repetition characteristic of the game hide and seek, coupled with the sheer joy that everything was being experienced as if for the first time.
I could go on, but I think you have got the idea by now. It was a birthday that she and we will remember, not for the particular presents but because of her sheer joy of living, of enjoying the natural world, being with her parents and grandparents, and revelling in that very special space that is created when adults are palpably happy with time to spend playing with you, when that suits you, and enjoying their own company when you are too busy prospecting to have time to spend with them.
Somehow I think that the fifth birthday will be rather different: we shall see. But meanwhile there is no reason why she should not enjoy part of every day in the way she loved her birthday: it didn’t require any expense after all. It needed only the time and the space to be together. In this sense, every day can be a birthday, even if not every day can be a fourth birthday!