parent opinion

Mia Freedman: 'The year my kid gave me a birthday card, and I gave it back.'

A few years ago, on my birthday, one of my kids gave me a card and it was sh*t.

No, really, it was sh*t. I’m a big fan of home-made cards. I love them. And I don’t actually care about gifts.

That’s not my love language. Not from my husband, my friends or my kids.

But cards, I care about. Words, I care about, which is why Words of Affirmation is my primary love language (if you don’t know what I’m talking about this explains it).

And on this occasion, my child – who shall remain nameless but YOU KNOW WHICH ONE YOU ARE – just folded up a piece of A4 paper and scrawled Happy Birthday on it with a biro.

There might have been a heart drawn on it. Possibly a balloon. But basically it was sh*t.

And so I gave it back.

I was disappointed and hurt by their lack of effort and care and I told them so.

Are you judging me right now? If you are, I understand. Because once, I would have judged me, too, and in fact I did.

A few years before the Sh*t Card Incident, I read a terrific book called Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother by an Asian-American woman called Amy Chua. It was about the clash of her own upbringing and the hardline, Tiger-mum style she brought to parenting her own daughters who were very much American and not really down with the tiger.

As one journalist described it: “Amy Chua brought up her daughters with an extreme regime that banned TV, drilled academic learning and demanded hours of music practice daily. Then one daughter declared war …”

It’s a memoir and it’s funny and there’s one scene in it that goes like this:

Amy Chua was in a restaurant, celebrating her birthday with her husband and daughters, Sophia, seven, and Lulu, four. “Lulu handed me her ‘surprise’, which turned out to be a card,” writes Chua in her explosive new memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. “More accurately, it was a piece of paper folded crookedly in half, with a big happy face on the front. Inside, ‘Happy Birthday, Mummy! Love, Lulu’ was scrawled in crayon above another happy face. I gave the card back to Lulu. ‘I don’t want this,’ I said. ‘I want a better one – one that you’ve put some thought and effort into. I have a special box, where I keep all my cards from you and Sophia, and this one can’t go in there.’ I grabbed the card again and flipped it over. I pulled out a pen and scrawled ‘Happy Birthday Lulu Whoopee!’ I added a big sour face. … ‘I reject this.'”

At the time I read that scene in Amy’s book, I remember being horrified. It wasn’t until today when I was listening to my No Filter interview with Gabbie Stroud about her new book Dear Parents that I thought of it and realised that years later, I’d done exactly the same thing.

In my defence, my kid was a LOT older than four, but the principle is the same. When do we call out kids for a lack of effort?

And the reason I was thinking about it today is that Gabbie and I were talking about this obsession parents have with the self-esteem of children and how that has morphed into “celebrating the mundane” as she calls it.


By this, she means giving kids awards for “good listening” or just showing up.

And refusing to ever tell them that they are anything other than brilliant.

Which is an idea that can go off the rails unexpectedly (for them) when they get to school.

“Often, this is the first time anyone has ever said to them ‘you know, this work isn’t good enough, how about you try again?'” she told me.

And I am so guilty of this.

Listen to Mia Freedman’s full interview with Gabbie Stroud on No Filter. Post continues after podcast. 

Somewhere in the parenting brochure, we internalised this idea that the key to our children’s well-being, the only way to help combat everything bad that could possibly happen to them, is to build up our children’s self-esteem to epic heights.

Except those heights are often artificial or based on bullsh*t.

I find myself mindlessly gushing, “Good waiting!” “Good sleeping-in!” “Good drinking!” “Great sharing!” to my children in a perky bid to boost their self-esteem and reward good behaviour with positive reinforcement (I just read that phrase back and want to punch myself in the face quite badly).

And not surprisingly, my children tune out this mindless guff because they recognise it for the empty praising of basic human behaviour that it is. Celebrating the mundane.

So back to the birthday card.

I told my child that I expected more. That as a loving mother, I deserved more thought than a two-second scrawl on a piece of scrap paper on my birthday. I didn’t need flowers or even a present. But I needed to know that I was valued and appreciated and that some care had been put in to making me feel that way.

And then this same child made me a cake and I responded with “GOOD BAKING!”

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Feature Image: Supplied/Mia Freedman.