My daughter turned 4 on the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend. We had plans to be in the Twin Cities for the weekend for our annual pilgrimage to the Great Minnesota Get Together – the Minnesota State Fair. As my husband and I were talking about the trip, I suggested that we stay the night in the cities on Friday and go to the Minnesota Zoo on Saturday to celebrate E’s birthday.
We had been to the Minnesota Zoo one other time – a little over two years before when she was almost two and I was 17 1/2 months pregnant (not really, it just felt like it). We enjoyed our time, but didn’t have a huge desire to go back. For the last three years, we have purchased a family pass to a much smaller zoo (Chahinkapa Zoo) about 20 miles away. During the summer months, the kids and I go once a week and they love it. It is your quintessential small-town zoo. It is small and not especially pretty. However, they have an amazing amount of awesome animals for a zoo their size. Our favorite are the tigers, monkeys, orangutan, snow leopards, grizzly bears, bison, camels & cougars. Being accustomed to Chahinkapa made us compare the Minnesota Zoo as we walked through and we were left feeling like it was so spread out and E got bored because there was so much time between each exhibit.
Although I remember not being especially impressed with the Minnesota Zoo, I thought it would be fun to go back and try it again. Because of our annual zoo membership, we were able to get our admission tickets for half price, which made it affordable.
When Josh and I talked about spending E’s birthday at the zoo, we decided that that would be her birthday gift.
We’ve talked about getting to a place with our kids where gift giving is more focused on experiences than stuff, but when they were really little, that was hard. It’s still not a concept that our four year-old completely comprehends, but she’s old enough to understand that she already has a lot of toys and it is a gift for our family to be able to do fun things.
When we told her that we were going to the cities for the weekend, we explained that we would spend her special day at the zoo and told her all of the fun things there are to do there (in addition to regular zoo animals, they have an aquarium, two big parks, a petting zoo and a splash pad) and that the focus of her day would be doing fun things together, learning and enjoying time with our family. She probably didn’t hear anything after splash pad, but we ere on the side of creating a habit of explaining why we do what we do.
We weren’t in the zoo more than ten minutes when I looked at my husband and said “I love this experiences over stuff thing.” Our kids had the BEST day. Everything that I remembered from two years ago went out the window. The time between animals was spent talking about what they just saw, thinking about what it would be like to be that animal, singing songs and running. (I apologize to all other families who had to share the zoo with us that day. I’m sure we were loud and obnoxious to watch).
I don’t know if E will remember this day. One of her nicknames is “Steel Trap” because she remembers stuff that astonishes us on a daily basis, so we’ve got that going for us. But I know that she won’t miss the toys that we would have bought her instead of (or in addition to) this day. She received a few (awesome!) presents from family and we are not at a loss of activities for the kids to do around the house.
She was celebrated for a whole day. Our family is better because she’s in it and because of these days. These shared experiences weave together with all of the other memories to create a family culture where we not only love each other, but really like being with each other. That’s (relatively) easy when our kids are four and two. But I know enough to know that that gets harder as they get older. So, my hope is that by creating these traditions now, we lay a foundation where we don’t place too high of a value on getting new or more stuff, but rather on learning and exploring and experiencing things together.
Sidenote: The above picture is a great example of getting over yourself. A very kind stranger offered to take it for us, and I didn’t want to be the person who looked at it and said “That is the worst angle on me. I look terrible. Could you please take time out of your day with your family to indulge my vanity?” So, instead, I said ‘Thank You’ and cringed on the inside – I hope. When I look at this picture, I have to remind myself to see my beautiful family on my daughter’s 4th birthday, not an angle that makes me look approximately 40 pounds heavier than I am – I hope.