For your birthday, a better world

Dads: Forego the presents and get your kids to give something that matters

December 13, 2010|By Les Cohen

My birthday was a couple of weeks ago. (Which one isn't important.) Lately, in the past few years, I've started telling my kids, who are adults now, what I wanted them to give me. I don't really need much, and I like to pick out my own stuff. Not that they were going to get me anything if I hadn't suggested it, other than the usual card or obligatory "Happy Birthday" call.

Tired of that old and unimaginative routine, I tried giving them something for my birthday, but that wasn't satisfying. More like bribing them to look forward to my being another year older.

Then I started to ask them to do something for themselves, different than they would do otherwise — like celebrating my birthday by eating healthy food for a whole day. I mean, how hard is that? Or writing a letter to the editor about something they wanted to talk about, or maybe a piece of flash fiction.

I thought I was being fatherly, even clever, but they, my son and daughter, are both busy and I don't think they appreciated this attempt at a new family tradition, which sounded a lot like a homework assignment. Still, nothing — none of the "Gee, Dad. What a great idea!" I was hoping for.

Well, this year, I'm pleased to say, I've outdone myself. This year, I've asked them to give me at least three hours of their time, over the 90 days beginning with my birthday, volunteered to some cause. Not money. I specifically ruled out contributing cash. I want them to give something more precious, more dear to them. I want them to give their time, and I left it up to them to pick something.

Far be it from me to ask my children to do something I wouldn't, I agreed to set a good example by contributing at least three hours of my own time. "Hmm? What to do, what to do?" And then it occurred to me. How about if I write an op-ed article and create a blog encouraging other dads to ask their children to do the same, to volunteer their time in their dad's honor? And so I have written this essay and created, where dads (and their children) can go to talk about the gifts of volunteered time their children gave them.

This isn't a program. There's no membership. Not a project or a movement. It's just a simple idea that I think might encourage other dads to give up the ordinary presents they usually get in favor of something that counts.

Oh, and one other thing. For the first 25 dads who ask their children to give their time instead of presents, and who write about it on, I'll send you a T-shirt. On the front it says, "My children gave me a better world for my birthday." And on the back: "So what did you get?" (They're nice Hanes Beefy-Ts, so you won't have an excuse not to wear them.)

Of course, children should feel free to surprise their fathers. (Believe me, it probably isn't what they're expecting.) So if you're a "kid," whatever your age, pay attention. For the first 25 of you that tell your story on the blog, I'll send you a shirt: "I gave my Dad a better world for his birthday" on the front, and "So what did you get yours?" on the back. How 'bout them apples?

For you dads out there who want a more traditional present, well there's still Father's Day and the December holidays — as well as random occasions, which are always the best. It's just your birthday, one day a year that we're talking about. C'mon, give it shot. Ask your children to volunteer their time and make the world, you and them, a tiny bit better because of it.

Thanks. Oh, and from one dad to another, "Happy Birthday."

Les Cohen lives in Ellicott City. He blogs at http://www.WordFeeder.US and

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