I was nervous.
My son had been invited to his first birthday party. This was a new friend and a family we didn’t know well. It was “first impressions” time in a community where it can be difficult to build relationships because we’re “not from around here.”
(One friend, who also came from outside the area, once joked that her child could grow up here, marry a local, buy a house, and have three children who went to public schools, and their family would still be considered “non-locals.”)
Of course we were going to put our best foot forward. This meant having my son create a handmade card – the most personal of all gifts. He dove into the task. He poured his heart into the words, saying how much he liked his friend. He drew + colored birthday images, which he painstakingly glued on the card to create a 3-D effect. It was a masterpiece to rival any fancy card from the store.
And then I started to worry.
I worried about my son’s vulnerability. He was exposing himself creatively. He was expressing tender emotions that are often discouraged in boys. Would his card + feelings be trampled in the stampede of a typical six-year-old's party? I feared that my son, who is highly sensitive, would end up in tears at what was supposed to be a fun event.
But there was no turning back. He was proud of his card and couldn’t wait to give it to his friend. He badgered me: “What do you think my friend will say when I give him his card? I can’t wait to give him his card!” I kept my concerns to myself, hoping for the best.
When we arrived at the party, I immediately noticed the stack of wrapped presents that were clearly big, powerful boys’ toys. We placed my son’s card and small dollar store gift in the pile. They looked so plain among the glitz + glam of the other items. To make matters worse, my son was scared to be in an unfamiliar house, and I could see tears brimming his eyes.
I couldn't stand the thought of him having his heart broken.
But I tamped down my fears and told him we would get to know the house and the people together. So we did. We ate. We talked. We sang “Happy Birthday.” I had almost forgotten about the card. Almost.
Then it was time to open gifts. Frenetic energy propelled the birthday boy from one item to another. Cards were ripped open and jettisoned after the money was acquired. Crumpled paper piled up, hiding everything underneath. The decibel level exceeded comfortable limits. All of the boys rambunctiously pawed at each new toy. All except my son. He was waiting. Waiting to see when his friend would open the card he made.
It would be the last gift. The closer. There would be no mistaking people's reactions. I held my breath.
The noisy chatter continued until the birthday boy pulled my son’s card out of the envelope. For the first time, he didn’t simply open the card looking for money. He stared at the front of the card where the images were pasted. He began tracing the images with his finger, marveling at the 3-D effect.
The room fell silent.
Then someone asked, “Did you make that?” My son was smiling and nodding his head. “Wow,” exclaimed another person. “That’s really good,” said a third. Even the other boys had stopped playing to take a peek. The card held everyone’s attention for at least a minute – a lifetime to a six-year-old. The birthday boy’s mom proclaimed that this was a card worth keeping.
It was my turn to fight back tears. I was elated and ashamed. My son had successfully expressed his authentic self to the world, and I had worried that it would not be good enough. And it was. Of course it was.
That day, my son reminded me of the power of authenticity + vulnerability in making deep, personal connections. Connections that move others. Connections that last.
Today we have a nice friendship with that family, not because we made a good “first impression,” but because a little boy helped us make a compelling connection from a place of love, joy, and creativity.
So next time you feel you need big-budget marketing to make a lasting impression, remember my son and the power of his handmade card.