Hope, Tears, and the Holidays

The holiday season, with all its wonderfulness, is a challenging time for parents. There's lots of extra work--shopping, decorating, baking, card-writing, entertaining--to fit into already busy schedules. There's the heightened tension between how much we want to spend and how much we can afford. But for me, I think the hardest thing is dealing my children's hopes and disappointments.

Here's a common scenario for Christmas afternoon: after all the work, all the love and thought and care gone into the choice of presents, all the stretching to make this a special time, our children look at us with disappointment and say, "Is that all?" I just want to wring their little necks.

Part of the problem is all the hype and commercialism. If there are twenty-six new toys being advertised furiously all month and you buy them only seven, they're as acutely aware of what they didn't get as what they did. Part of the solution lies in helping them focus lots of attention on what they give, or doing other special holiday things that have nothing to do with presents.

But I don't think that even our best efforts in that direction will totally solve the problem. In the logical order of our adult world, the fact that you are actually able to get one thing that you want makes it easier to accept the possibility of not getting something else. But it just doesn't always work that way with children--particularly small ones. Successfully getting one thing may just make them more hopeful about the possibility of getting more. Or the adults' openness in the present may seem like an invitation to air all their past disappointments. It's like whetting the appetite, or warming up. Then, if they don't get the next thing, they're doubly disappointed.

I think of the time I took my son to the store for a special treat after his club. We usually don't do this, but I say he can pick out any dessert and any drink. I'm feeling very loving, pleased about abandoning penny-pinching and having this special time with him. He looks carefully through the selection, picks out a pack of cupcakes, and says he wants something else too. My pleasure instantly disappears. Here I've been especially flexible, and what does he do? He tries to take advantage of me! Why can't he just appreciate the special thing I've offered instead of spoiling the time for both of us by being so greedy?

Only later did it occur to me that there is another point of view. A little boy sees his mom bending in his direction. He senses that this is a special occasion, and prepares to enjoy it as fully as he can, to soak up all of it that he can get. How much will she bend? How special can he make this? Clearly this is the time to go for it. So he does--and she gets all upset and angry and spoils the special time for both of them.

What can we do? We can try to remember that other perspective. We can set up situations where it may actually be possible for them to get everything they want--though holiday gift-giving is probably not one of them. (In retrospect, I wish that I had given my son free reign at that pastry counter that evening. It wouldn't have ruined either my pocketbook or his health, and he would have had a chance to have settled in and thoroughly enjoyed the specialness of that time without a parental limit looming on the horizon.)

More importantly, we can expect that a chance of getting something will raise their hopes about the possibility of getting more. And we can be prepared to listen to their disappointments. We can assume that holiday time--with all its promise--will be a time of tears and frustration, and we can interpret this not as gross lack of appreciation, but as a testimony to our children's great and wonderful capacity for hope.