You Better Watch Out

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The-Elf-on-the-Shelf-The-Forgotten-CRMParents have always been a little mean-spirited at Christmas time. When I was a child, I took to heart the admonishment that Santa was watching me. If I was naughty, no presents for me. Looking back, I think that was a terrible message to send about Santa Claus and the giving and receiving of gifts.

As a parent, I realize that it’s important to have many discipline techniques to deal with child misbehavior. And sometimes we’re so desperate to stop our kid’s annoying or destructive behavior that we jump at anything we think might work. But in the case of Christmas threats, I think we are headed down the wrong path.

Take the Elf on the Shelf. Mercifully, my family missed out on this custom due to the age of my children. But my understanding is that the elf is some sort of spy for Santa who lurks in the house and keeps moving around so as to catch the kids in any sort of shenanigans. This is not only a bit creepy, but it gives children the sense that their parents see them as basically naughty and in need of watching at all times.

Many internet memes have blithely skewered the image of the Elf on the Shelf by posing him in compromising positions with Barbies and such. But others are troubled by the surveillance and reporting aspects of the toy. Digital technology professor Laura Pinto worries that the Elf on the Shelf is normalizing a police state mentality for a generation of children. (Washington Post, Dec. 16, 2014)

Another new technique I have seen popularized on Facebook is this: A parent wraps a bunch of empty boxes with Christmas wrap. Then, when the child misbehaves, the parent tosses one of the gifts into the fire. Whoever came up with that idea most likely thinks of themselves as clever, but I think it’s downright cruel.

At the very least, the idea of tying children’s behavior to receiving gifts on Christmas is the antithesis of what Christmas is supposed to be all about. The birth of Jesus was a gift for all mankind to save us from our sin. Quite the opposite of being expected to “behave” in order to receive it, the gift of Christ was given precisely because we do not deserve it.

Christmas should be a time of selflessness and love. Let’s retire these mean-spirited traditions and confine Santa and the elves to jolly singing in the workshop at the North Pole.

 

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Countdown to Christmas

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On December 1, my kids would all jockey to be the first – that is, the first one to open a door on our Advent calendar. For me, December 1 begins the frenzied (for me), agonizing (for kids) countdown to Christmas.

Prior to Thanksgiving, I would admonish my children that they were not allowed to utter the “C” word until after we had stuffed ourselves with turkey and made our way home from Grandma’s house over the river and through the woods. But on December 1, I began to pull out all the stops.

Large red plastic boxes made their way up from the basement. Cookies dusted with red and green sugars appeared in the pantry while candy bowls got filled with peppermints and Hershey’s Kisses. The Christmas music I had refused to play prior to Thanksgiving now wafted regularly through our house.

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. There are so many good things associated with it: twinkling lights, cookies, gifts, and Santa Claus. People somehow seem more cheerful going about their business with the background sound of jingle bells. And the season of Advent gives us a whole month of delicious anticipation.

When my kids were young, they would spend hours on their Christmas lists. Sometimes their wants were quite simple. One year my son asked for underwear and a Santa hat. Sometimes their requests were grander: a Brio train set, a play kitchen, a bike. My daughter has still not forgiven Santa for not getting her the My Size Barbie she asked for at age 6.

But more memorable than the gifts my children longed for were the traditions we kept each December. One of them was rolling out and decorating sugar cookies, some of which we would save for Santa. Our kitchen would be a flour- and sprinkle- infused disaster area. My son would pile his cookie high with frosting and sprinkles and then happily demolish it in minutes, red and green festooning his adorable face. We also attempted, sometimes successfully, the ubiquitous gingerbread house. I would scour the holiday candy aisle at my local grocery store for the colorful hard candies I remembered from my own childhood Christmases. These we would use to decorate our little houses, trying to make them enticing enough for Hansel and Gretel.

Another tradition of ours was to pile in the car on a wintry evening and drive around looking at Christmas lights. I’d keep the car nice and toasty for my pajama-clad kids, and we’d pass by our favorite streets and particular houses that really did Christmas in grand style. Afterwards we’d stop at a nearby Dunkin Donuts for a donut and hot chocolate before returning home and getting everyone tucked into bed.

There were fun holiday specials to watch each December and a huge Christmas tree to decorate. We’d play one of Amy Grant’s wonderful Christmas albums, and the kids would reminisce as they unwrapped special ornaments given to them or made by them in Christmas seasons past. I can remember Decembers when I would run myself ragged trying to collect all the Disney ornaments offered in McDonald’s Happy Meals.

But the tradition that really helped us anticipate the coming of Christmas was the aforementioned Advent calendar. It was a wooden box with a green wooden tree on top. Each morning a different one of the kids took his or her turn opening the designated door and placing another ornament on the wooden tree. Before long, the tree was filled with decorations, and it was clear that Christmas was almost here.

We also had a Jesse tree, which is a religious Advent calendar with 25 ornaments depicting the Biblical origins of Christmas. Each evening after dinner, we would read the Scripture passage on the next ornament and place it on the Jesse tree, and it gave us a chance to talk about Jesus’s origins as a descendant of Abraham and of the great King David, Jesse’s youngest son. This tradition gave us a glimpse into the true meaning of our waiting and anticipating: the coming of Christ on Christmas.

My kids are mostly grown now, but we still enjoy our traditions: homemade cookies, a new ornament and pair of pajamas for each kid, a Honeybaked Ham dinner on Christmas Eve, gift giving, and, of course, Christmas Mass, when “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” turns into:

Behold,
I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all people.
For today in the city of David a savior has been born
who is Christ the Lord.
(Luke 2:10-11)

May your anticipation of Christmas be happy and  holy as you count down the days of December.

 

Baby Driver

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9181272874_b1b53bb1f8_bMy youngest child got her drivers license the other day.  After a lot of angst and more than 50 hours of practice driving (Be still, my heart!), we made our way to the DMV for the dreaded road test. My husband, who is generally calmer in the car than I, was supposed to take my daughter, but he chickened bailed out at the last minute. Yet as I sat on the hard plastic chair in the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, it felt fitting to be there waiting for my fourth and last child to go through this particular rite of passage.

I’ve always gotten excited about firsts in my children’s lives: first word, first tooth, first day of kindergarten etc. But I don’t really have a corresponding nostalgia for “lasts” in the way some parents do: last first day of school, last school dance, and now last child to get a new drivers license. Sure, I shed some tears dropping each of my three older children off at college, and I do miss seeing them on a day to day basis. But I’m too happy about all the new and exciting possibilities in their lives to dwell too long on the losses.

After what seemed an interminable wait, my daughter walked in alongside the road test evaluator. I couldn’t read her expression. The evaluator handed her a piece of paper as I walked towards her with a half smile and a tentative thumbs up. She nodded and grinned. “SUCCESS!!!” I texted my husband. My daughter regaled me with the finer points of the road test while we waited for her to have her picture taken and get her temporary license. Then she drove home, not as a practice driver, but as a newly licensed one.

There will be many more rites of passage for my youngest child to go through: ACTs, college applications, prom, graduation. And I will be there right alongside her, savoring each “last” in my life while welcoming all the new things awaiting her in the great big world of adulthood.

 

Be the Bad Guy

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A recent report from our local high school indicates that 60 to 75 lunches are dropped off per day by parents whose kids either forgot them or wanted a hot lunch from a takeout place. The report was the school’s way of explaining why they have instituted new policies surrounding the epidemic of parental coddling.

I must admit that I have dropped off lunches, fees, homework, and any number of items to my kids at school over the years, resenting their irresponsibility as well as my own inability to say no. When I read the story about new lunch drop-off policies, I thought to myself, I wish the school would just stop allowing parents to drop off anything to their children during the school day. It would be so much easier to let the high school be the bad guy.

There’s the rub. It is not much fun to have to be the bad guy in our day to day parenting. It’s much easier and more pleasant to be the wise and understanding mentor and quasi-friend to our kids. I imagine myself as a sort of Lorelei Gilmore from The Gilmore Girls, joking around, sharing musical tastes and clothes with my teenage daughter, much too young and cool to do anything as unpleasant as instilling discipline.

The reality is that I have to rain on her parade numerous times a day. Nagging her to get off her smartphone and get to her homework, insisting that she go to bed at a decent hour, making her wear her retainer: it’s all in a day’s work for a parent. And in more important matters, it’s even more essential to be the bad guy. Our kids have always given us a lot of flak for checking with their friends’ parents to make sure there will be adult supervision when they go to their homes. And grounding them for staying out past curfew or doing something dangerous or illegal doesn’t win us any popularity contests either. But as Glenn Close’s character in The Big Chill tells her daughter, “I’m your mom. When you’re a mother, you get to be mean.”

Although it’s difficult, I keep reminding myself that kids need and actually want limits, and my husband and I are their number one gatekeepers. I also remember that in Gilmore Girls, Lorelei is blessed with a near-perfect daughter who at times is more mature than her mom. And sometimes even my kids appreciate our roles as heavies. I’ve always told them that if they are in an uncomfortable situation or don’t want to do something their peers are pressuring them to do, they can make us the bad guys.

As for being my teenage daughter’s  “gofer,” I guess it’s up to me to be the bad guy and let her be hungry next time she forgets her lunch.

Less Is More

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I talk too much. Whether it’s nervous chatter in an uncomfortable social situation or getting carried away by my own story-telling, I sometimes say too much. I’ll find myself oversharing personal information or saying silly things while trying to be clever, and I’ll end up feeling embarrassed or dissatisfied with the interaction. Or I’ll monopolize a conversation and then wonder if my friend thinks I’m too self-involved.

Nowhere is my tendency to say too much more apparent and ineffectual, though, than in my interactions with my children. From the time they were little, I got into the habit of giving them lengthy explanations for everything from how Santa gets around the world in one night to why they need to brush their teeth/go to bed/not hit their brother or sister.

Over the years, my kids’ reaction to all this talking (more like haranguing sometimes) has fallen into one of two camps: either escalating the battle of wills and shouting back or completely tuning me out, like the kids in the Charlie Brown cartoons who only hear “Wah wah wah” when their teacher speaks.

When it comes to speaking and writing, often less is more. One of our most revered American literary icons, for instance, was the terse Ernest Hemingway, whose prose could be likened to a spartan cell in an ancient monastery: no frills. And who among us has not sometimes wished our pastor would share some short kernel of spiritual wisdom instead of droning on and on and repeating himself?

For my part, I am practicing the art of saying less but communicating more.

Enough said.

Thinking About Gender

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The other day my daughter was hanging out with two of her best friends in our backyard. It was her birthday, and they had surprised her with an early morning birthday breakfast. As I puttered in the kitchen, I glanced out the window and saw the three girls squeezed into my daughter’s parachute-like hammock, limb upon limb. I thought to myself, “Teenaged boys would never do that.”

As a young feminist and subscriber to the tabula rasa school of thought on human development, I used to resist the idea that gender roles had any basis in biology. Girls and boys are different, I insisted, because they learn to be. To be sure, it’s hard to separate nature from nurture in the way children develop because even as infants, children are handled differently based upon their sex.

But as the parent of both boys and girls, I’ve had to admit that there seem to be some inherent differences between the sexes. My boys have always been more active and challenged authority more than my girls. The nature of their friendships with others of the same sex is different too. My girls have always felt social slights more deeply than have my boys. And seeing a group of girls braiding each other’s hair does resemble the grooming behavior of our primate relatives, the chimpanzees.

I realize there is wide variation in the way individual children develop. Not all girls like dolls, and not all boys like sports. And the science of human development is discovering the many nuances that make gender much less of a binary phenomenon than has previously been assumed. Such discoveries are making people uncomfortable and opening up debates about gender identification on birth certificates and surgery on intersex children. I think what’s most important in these debates is the idea that we are each unique individuals, and our identities should be respected and viewed as the complexities that they actually are.

Still, it’s been interesting for me to see the way my sons and daughters have developed over the years and to admit to myself that I don’t know the half of it when it comes to gender. I remember when my oldest child tried to be a tomboy. Her best friend was rough and tumble, so my daughter eschewed more girlish clothing and activities. Ultimately, though, her identification as a “girly girl” won out. I also remember my daughter and her friends dressing my younger son up in girls’ clothes and putting barrettes in his hair. That adorable little boy has grown up to be a burly football player.

Gender identification is important. It’s a big part of who we are as human beings. I believe that if we are open and loving with our children, we will raise them to be exactly who they are meant to be: themselves.

 

What Makes a Family? Love

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(photo courtesy of Gift of Adoption Fund)

The gift-wrapped package looked like it contained a pair of shoes. Teenaged Lauren watched while a special man in her life, Joe, opened her gift. Joe is not her biological father but has cared for her like one since she was a tiny girl. Inside the box were adoption papers. In a twist on the marriage proposal, Lauren was asking Joe, “Will you be my adopted father?” Of course, Joe and Lauren collapsed in tears and hugs. They recognized a simple fact. Being a family is not about blood ties.

Fourteen years ago on a hot July day in Hefei, China, my husband and I adopted our beloved fourth child, a daughter. We brought her home to her sister and two brothers on the other side of the world. The first weeks were rocky. She had her days and nights mixed up and would regularly awaken my daughter, with whom she was sharing a room. Invariably in the morning,  I would find my oldest child in a sleeping bag on the living room floor where she had decamped to escape the crying. Our new baby was also afraid of our boys and, to a lesser extent, her new dad. We reasoned that this was because in the orphanage where she had spent the first 11 months of her life, there were no males.

Before long, though, she was understanding us, laughing, playing, and walking. Her sister doted on her, and her brothers could make her laugh like no one else. Each afternoon after I had dropped my son off at preschool, I would take her to Panera Bread, where we would share a bowl of soup. Occasionally, we would have to suffer an ignorant or obnoxious question about her being adopted and whether she was really ours. Mostly, though, she just fit into the life of our family and became one of us. When I now look at my 15-year-old daughter, I can’t imagine ever having lived without her.

The adoption journey is not without its struggles. Sometimes unknown physical or emotional issues come to light. Some adoptees have identity crises or feelings of abandonment. The adoption process is anything but simple itself. Between the home studies and paperwork and waiting, it took us two full years to adopt our daughter. And the cost of adoption can be prohibitive.

Here in my hometown of Chicago, an adoptive couple in the north suburbs started a nonprofit to help families defray the many costs of adoption, particularly overseas adoptions, which require all kinds of fees as well as travel expenses. Gift of Adoption Fund has helped countless families grow through financial assistance that prioritizes families adopting children in the most urgent cases, such as those in foster care or with special needs. (Gift of Adoption Fund is a 501 (c) 3 charitable organization.)

Families come to be in so many different ways. Just as Lauren learned over the years that Joe was in every meaningful sense her true father, we have learned that what makes a family is the love and commitment to care for each other and to be there no matter what.