A Day of Birthday Surprises For My 18-Year-Old Son

by Katy on October 6, 2013 · 27 comments


My older son turns 18 tomorrow, which is completely and utterly unfathomable to me. (See above photo for reference.) However, I consider myself lucky, as his fall birthday allows me to hold onto him for an extra year. (If he’d been born at 36 weeks instead of 42 weeks, he’d be in college instead of high school right now.) But since tomorrow is a school day, we’ll take today to celebrate.

I started a birthday tradition a few years ago where the birthday person gets a “birthday day of surprises,” and the entire family spends the day doing what the birthday person likes to do. NOT what other family members likes to do, just the birthday person. And what makes it a surprise is that the plan is a secret, and you only learn the itinerary as the day unfolds.

Last year we celebrated my son’s birthday by roller skating, shopping at Uwajimaya, (the Japanese super store) laser tag and a barbecue ribs dinner.

I’m not sure what this year’s surprises will be, as my husband was out of town until last night and is currently playing in a soccer game. We need to brain storm together.

What I like about this family tradition is that it takes the focus away from the buying of things and puts it onto the sharing of experiences.

Yes, we’ll give him gifts, featuring a variety of 18-year-old milestone items such a lottery scratch-offs, a voter’s registration form and a fake pack of cigarettes; as well as some money towards his college fund. But we get to spend an entire day celebrating my son, which is a thousand times better than ten minutes of opening gifts.

Do you have any family celebration traditions that are unique to your family? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Reese October 6, 2013 at 11:01 am

Seriously sounds like the BEST gift ever. When he leaves for college, I know he’ll think back to days like today and be grateful for the attention and time spent together. 🙂

Has he decided what college he wants to go to yet? (And is this son as into Japanese items as the younger?)


Helen October 6, 2013 at 11:06 am

We start the day with a bang by waking up the birthday boy/girl early with breakfast in bed with candles and cake and some gifts and singing. Ever since my kids were little we’ve had a homemade crown that they wear for the day–the birthday king/queen. The king/queen gets to decide what we eat that day and gets to choose from options of activities. The king/queen is of course excuse from chores that day!


Jenifer October 6, 2013 at 12:43 pm

We are the same. DS is 5.

His birthday is usually a few things that he rarely gets to do, and the object-gifts come from family members. He usually gets two gifts (family), plus then our day of activities.


patti October 6, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Our son’s birthday tradition is his birth story… as in, “I woke up at 2:30 AM and knew something was going on….called the midwife and she said… all the way to when he was born and his father said, “It’s a boy!!!” My son is now 20 and we call him up first thing in the morning and start the story. He pretends to hate it but I think he loves the tradition. I cry every time I tell him the story. That is probably the part he hates. LOL


Elaine in Ark October 7, 2013 at 6:48 am

Cute! Kind of like Billy Crystal’s mom in City Slickers. I hope you don’t wake up your son at 2:30 am, though.


Lilypad October 6, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Since he turned 6 (he’s 12 now), my son has decorated a plain white t-shirt with markers any way he likes and then he wears it for the day. The only rule is, he always puts how old he is on the shirt, front and back. One year he drew cool robots all over the shirt, one year it was zoo animals, last year it was a Minecraft “creeper”. (That one was a big hit, even with the Starbucks barista who made him a special birthday treat.) It’s so fun because people we encounter throughout the day notice the shirt and wish him a happy birthday. We also eat whatever he wants (vegetarian sushi out is what he’s chosen the last few years) and so something fun outside, since he’s a summer baby. Many happy birthday wishes for your son! It’s astonishing how fast these precious years fly by, isn’t it??!!


Kierklaee October 6, 2013 at 3:55 pm

Why the hell would you ever ever ever give your kid a fake pack of cigarettes? That isn’t even remotely fun, not at all.


Katy October 6, 2013 at 4:51 pm

What, we aren’t allowed to have a sense of humor?



Elaine in Ark October 7, 2013 at 6:52 am

We had candy cigarettes when I was a kid, and we all grew up to be smokers, with some tragic results. Tobacco products aren’t funny to many of us.


Lisa October 7, 2013 at 8:35 am

He’s 18, not 8. Or 4. And, having grown up with his parents, he a) understands their sense of humor and b) has had the “smoking is terrible” lesson drilled into him thoroughly. This gag gift will not send him down to the corner store for a pack of Kools.

FWIW, my parents banned candy cigarettes when my siblings and I were kids. We ALL ended up smoking (and have all since quit).


Elaine in Ark October 8, 2013 at 11:55 am

Since you didn’t understand the point of my comment, I’ll explain it.

Just as one drink doesn’t make a person an alcoholic, joking about cigarettes won’t make a person start smoking and end up addicted to tobacco. However, it’s just something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Tobacco has NO redeeming qualities and is one of the most deadly substances that is legal (but we don’t need to get into that).

Maybe Katy should have gotten her son some pretend condoms instead.

So there’s that.

Jenifer October 7, 2013 at 12:15 pm

I had candy ciggies as a kid, and my friend and I also used straws cut down to size to pretend (this was ages 9-14 or so). I never did smoke (can’t stand it), and wouldn’t now. But it was fun to pretend as a kid.

My parents taught me how bad smoking is, and I can’t stand to be around smoke anyway, so I was pretty much destined to be a non-smoker.

I’m also a health nut. So there’s that.


Jane January 25, 2017 at 2:49 pm

Oh for crying out loud. It’s a gag gift. Sometimes people take things way too seriously in life. I’m sure as thoughtful and thorough as this parent seems to be that she has taught him the “evil” sides of real cigarettes. And if he’s an adult and chooses to smoke, that’s deal. He’s an adult. Parents need to allow their kids to be adults and make their own decisions, whether they’re good ones or bad ones in our eyes. Sometimes, that’s how people learn from them. Everyone needs to quit treating their adult children like little kids. It’s not doing anyone any favors and it’s doing your children a major disservice.


Marie October 6, 2013 at 4:10 pm

We (DS and DD) would meet their dad at the place of their choice for lunch. Then if there was an appropriate movie on, we’d go. Or mini-golfing. Or take a bunch to the water slide. Whatever the birthday person wanted to do.
Then we’d go home, they would frost and decorate their own cake, and I would cook whatever they wanted. Usually it was a roast beef dinner with all the trimmings.
The important thing was always that their father took the afternoon off and partcipated in the afternoon and evening festivities.
The kids submitted a list of what they wanted, and we bought only one thing, like a bike or riding lessons. In our family the gift wasn’t the main thing; the family time was.
I miss those days!


Alison October 6, 2013 at 4:48 pm

One of our traditions is that they birthday person gets to choose the menu for the day. My kids love this and it makes their day special without any additional cost.


Katy October 6, 2013 at 7:36 pm

We had such a great day. Here’s what we ended up doing:

Conveyer belt sushi, which was actually pretty cheap. (We stick with the $1 and $1.50 plates.)

We walked across the street to Grand Central Bakery, where my son chose a free pastry from their Tweets for Treats program. I also had a fully-punched coffee card, and I brought a large reusable to-go cup. They made me a large decaf mocha which I split into two mugs from home.

We saw the movie “The World’s End” at the Hollywood Theater. I have a year-long free pass, and I also had three individual passes compliments of my friend Julia Park-Tracey. So, free!!!!

We came home to digest and to watch The Timbers game on TV.

We then went to dinner at Noho’s Hawaiian Restaurant, which was also a pretty good deal as we ordered large platters to share and drank water.

We’re now at home watching up on favorite DVR’ d TV shows and doing laundry/dishes and homework.

And in the words of my beloved son, the day was “Pretty cool!”



Jo@simplybeingmum October 7, 2013 at 2:52 am

Sounds like a great day…Happy 18th Birthday Katy’s son.

We always have a Birthday table. I lay it out the night before with reusable tablecloth (balloon design) and a homemade cake. Plus cards and gifts – but with conscious thought as to what is given. My daughter this year had a homemade voucher for horseriding lessons this year.


Jo@simplybeingmum October 7, 2013 at 2:56 am

ps…my Son and I share our birthday. Seriously I couldn’t have planned that one better at all.
Being the Birthday control freak that I am, I even get to prep my own birthday table. Result.


Mary October 7, 2013 at 3:20 am

I read about this somewhere long ago so I can’t take credit…we also celebrate half-birthdays. The birthday girl got to pick which restaurant we went to for dinner (somewhere inexpensive like Denny’s or Boston Market) and then we’d have a half-cake for dessert at home. I’d bake a cake mix using one 9 inch round and the rest cupcakes for the freezer. I’d then cut the round in half, frost and stack…voila…a half-birthday cake! Our daughters loved this growing up. The birthday song also works with the words…Happy Half-Birthday to you….


K D October 7, 2013 at 4:40 am

I love the half-birthday half-cake idea. My daughter will be 18 in a few months. While she was in high school her birthday was always around mid-term time so it was hard to celebrate until after mid-terms (right near Christmas). This year she is away at college but has the day of her birthday off for studying for finals so it is hard to say waht we’ll do to celebrate.

Katy, I love the candy cigarette idea (they were a fixture of my childhood and yet I never had any desire to smoke).

In MD you can register to vote when you obtain your driver’s license so my daughter received her voter registration card months before she will be eligible to vote.

Enjoy your son’s last year at home.


Barb @ 1SentenceDiary October 7, 2013 at 8:52 am

We’ve always done half-birthdays in my family as well. My brother and I have birthdays around 6 months apart (we were born 3.5 years apart, but the birthdays are half a year apart 🙂 ). So, the half-birthday falls around a week before or after the sibling’s birthday. The half-birthday celebration helped to ease the jealousy factor for the non-birthday kid, and it evolved into a simple and fun tradition which I have continued with my own kids.

On the kid’s half-birthday, he/she gets to choose what is for dinner, and also gets to decorate half a cake (I make it just as Mary describes above — one layer of a layer cake, cut in half, stacked and frosted so it looks like half a cake). We sing “Happy Half-Birthday” and we make a fuss about the half-birthday kid. There are no presents, no extra money spent, and no parties, just a family making a fuss. And loads of fun.

For my brother’s 39 and one half birthday, I sent him one sock, one glove, and 26 playing cards (half a deck), just to be silly. He got a pretty big kick out of it! Of course, the next time I saw him I gave him the other half of those items, because I am too frugal to waste them.

Half-birthdays are fun!


Nancy from Mass October 7, 2013 at 3:32 pm

I grew up in a large family, so birthdays were not a big celebration for us. there was always birthday cake, but, my dad (who has since passed away) would take just the birthday person to eat wherever they wanted to go. Just the two of them. I remember once, when i was 7 or 8, my choice was McDonalds. (this was in the early 70’s). it was a big deal, because we hardly ever ate out.
Now, i let my son choose where he would want to eat and we bring him there. we come home for cake after. this friday is my birthday, we’ll probably go to a place down teh street where i can eat for free, then home to my own homemade birthday cake!


megyn October 8, 2013 at 7:26 am

We do a birthday meal at/from a restaurant of the birthday person’s choosing along with dessert of his/her choice. I generally try to make the dessert, but on my birthday, I buy myself a cake (because I deserve the damn break!). For our boys, I give them a set limit (thus far, $200) to use on a present, party, or experience. Our 3 year old chose Sea World this year, and we invited some friends to a park to play, eat PB&J’s & brownies, and just enjoy the weather. Our 5 year old chose going to art camp, and we met his friends at a splash pad for light snacks and donuts. I *love* when they pick experiences over $200 worth of stuff! Their relatives gift them quite enough, that I generally get out of gifting them physical things.


Lindsey October 8, 2013 at 11:57 am

If our birthdays fell on a school day, we were allowed to take it as a sick day. In any event, we would go to a movie of the birthday kid’s choice and then have a meal (at home, the movie pretty much used up our family’s treat money for the month!) of the birthday kid’s choosing. No chores for the birthday kid, either. We looked forward to it, especially the missing school part! (We were all straight A students.)


Debbie October 11, 2013 at 6:53 am

For my 3 kids, we always celebrate on the nearest weekend. No gifts, just experiences. On Friday, we look back on the past year and see how they’ve grown and changed. We do the height, take the BD pic etc. They make a short video about the best part of being their old age and what they look forward to in the new year. Each kid comes up w/ 2-3 wishes for the year (not material items). For ex., my oldest (she’s 8) wants to meet someone that actually speaks French as their first language. They make a poster with their wishes on them and hang it in their room. Saturday & Sunday is all about the BD kid. We do what they like, eat what they like, etc. (Like Katy, we plan this in advance with very careful consideration.) We also discuss their responsibilities… each kid selects 1 ‘chore’ that is theirs alone. These are not really chores, but contributions to the family. For example, my son loves ‘worms’ and so he chose to be in charge of the vermiculture for the garden. On their BD weekend, they can change their contribution; keep it the same; or even add to it. My kids are adopted and I try hard to make sure they understand that they are part of the family, each making a unique contribution to it. Finally, on Sunday, we reveal their reward – as they are a year older, more privileges should come with that. Examples would be extending their bedtime; allowing them to choose their own clothes every day, etc. These weekends take a lot of work, but the kids love them. Even when my son had to suffer through a tea party last month for his sister. And they really are a lot more fun then I’ve made them seem 🙂


chicknlil October 13, 2013 at 4:39 am

My favorite party was when I was around 6. My Mom gave me a princess party, of sorts we didn’t call it that, this was waaaay before the Disney princess craze. She took my best barbies and put them in bundt cakes, then decorated the cakes to look like hoop skirts. We had strawberry ice cream floats around the dining room table. She used the “good” dishes and silver, napkins, and table clothes. It was as elegant a little girls could get! We had a hoot. I felt really special, I was such a tom-boy that it was a real treat. My birthday is in the middle of summer, so it was nice to see everyone from school and play.

Now that we’re grown, Mom makes our favorite meal and we all get together for the ‘big feed’. My choice is smothered round steak, mashed potatoes, and green beans. (There’s usually salad and biscuits too.) We finish up with homemade chocolate cake with chocolate icing. We sing happy birthday is German (because we’re kooky and it’s more fun). We generally choose the same things each year. Dad will have date cake every year and one brother gets apple pie. It’s my folks, dh, both brothers, my sil, niece, and nephew that attend. We do it for each birthday, so there’s one about every six weeks. Cheap, easy, and fun!

Back in the day, I could buy smokes when I was 12, so I did. I would sneak out each night and light one up. I didn’t have enough $ to smoke as many as I wanted. I smoked off and on thru my freshman year of college. My husband started at 18. He smoked 2 packs for 14 years. He finally quit after several tries. Smoking never held that much power over me, quitting was easy. It was not the same for him. He still wants one and its been 6 years. Smoking is bad, but it is legal. Laughing at something doesn’t mean you don’t take it seriously. You could’ve given him a can of Big League Chew bubble gum! When I was a kid, telling me not to do something was a sure way to get me to do it. If you take the devil out of something, it looses its appeal immediately.


Beth Bishop October 18, 2017 at 11:04 pm

Thank you heather for this amazing list of stuff! Have you heard of CubbyCase? I recently heard about them from another parent and they’re a learning through play subscription box for children, by Harvard experts! Thought that would make a really interesting gift for kids


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