Tangent — A New Scrooge

December 22, 2010

I love giving gifts, but I hate giving things out of obligation. Is there anyone who likes that? Oh, you do?! Masochist.

Christmas for some has become about obligation. How can it not be with the continual bemoaning from so many about how much Christmas buying is killing them? And it’s not chiefly the result of a bad economy; that kind of plaint has been around for years. It’s just more pronounced with the current financial squeeze. But these days when it’s earnestly said to me, I sometimes reply, “Don’t do it.” I never say this with a flippant tone, and it still gets me looks as if I’m teasing or have two heads. But the looks never bother me. I understand what drives them. A significant number of people really do hinge their identities on what they do for Christmas (been there, done that, got a t-shirt), so they will almost kill themselves trying to maintain whoever it is they think they are or should be, and to suggest otherwise is laughable or freaky to them. Their behavior is specifically wrapped up in being a good person, friend, child, mate or parent, and the last one is the real killer. I mean who wants to let down the kids? People who let down their kids are scum. Right?

May I suggest that generally kids’ expectations have been corrupted, and it’s time to take back their inclinations or at least make a serious adjustment to them? And what a great year to do it when resources are so low for so many. May be the perfect time to make a change. I mean who’s driving what the kids want? And is it reasonable? At first it can be fun buying for them — they’re so little and cute and really don’t want that much and are happy with almost anything. But unless a family is living in a hole in the ground or lives in a developing country with no access to any media, chances are good that as the kids get older their appetites are growing by continually being whet with all the “needs” that barrage them almost every waking hour, and parents are under tremendous stress to meet those “needs.” Well, I stopped meeting them, and surprisingly my kids do not see me as scum.

I’m not going to act as if this was an easy thing. It wasn’t, and I give SO complete credit for having the backbone to say, “Enough is enough.” This started a couple of years before we decided to move out of the city, but hey, media still gets to the country. We simply did not buy as much that Christmas, and what a relief it was. The key was letting go of this idea that creating magic for our kids on Christmas morning with “good” gifts was supposed to keep them from great emotional damage as an adult. LOL! Sorry I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of that. But back to how I became a Scrooge. Oh, there were some tears from the kids when we cut back, and I think my oldest actually said we ruined her life (she said the same thing when we got rid of the tv for five years). Such is the wisdom of a child, and sadly too many of us listen to that as if it really is wisdom, but it’s not wisdom and never will be.

And each year I watch some friends painfully go into hock over Christmas, and when they explain why (as they almost invariably do if for no other reason than to convince themselves), it’s not uncommon for the reason to be about their child really really wanting something, and they just don’t have the heart to deny them even if it creates stress enough to bring on health issues. Often their rationalization for taking the burden of debt is something like, “My parents never got me ______________ at Christmas,” and you can almost hear the longing in their minds concluding, “My life would have been so much better and my relationships more fulfilling if I’d had one of those like everyone else.” Marketers have done a superb job when someone feels like that. That’s the gift that keeps on giving to their hip pockets.

But the marketers don’t care about anyone’s relationships. They only want to sell you something. Oh, you already know all of this? Well, it seems many of us often forget it and succumb to the number their trying to do on our heads — tying our worth as a parent, as a human being, to what we can provide for Christmas and worse implying that our relationships with our kids will suck if we don’t buy certain things for them. The real horror is that the message is given to the kids to in turn give to us.

The only way to get loose is to first be aware that “good” Christmas presents will never help anyone’s psyche and second stop succumbing to the idea that it does. That means buying the things you want to buy and can reasonably buy (obviously this is different for everyone) and being happy with it — reveling in the joy of giving, the heart of it. Most important being happy to be with family and friends and not making Christmas about that few minutes on Christmas morning when the kids dive into all the stuff. It’s amazing how kids pick up on our attitudes. Maybe not immediately, but they do eventually. Parents are still the most influential people in a child’s life no matter what “they” tell you. Don’t listen to that internal voice that’s being fed mostly by marketers that you must buy more and more in order for your child to be well adjusted. It’s a lie. And you have more power than you realize. It may not seem like it immediately, but it’s true.

Now for the most important part, and no part of me is being snarky. You take the stuff away and something usually needs to replace it, and maybe for some of you this isn’t an issue. At our house it was about time, therefore SO and I have made an effort to spend more time with our kids and to really listen to what’s going on with them. Christmas is just another time to focus on them a little more because we have set more time aside to do it and to hopefully make memories with our interactions rather than some expensive electronic gadgets. In the past I was so busy making money and making a mark that frankly, it was easier to give material things, and I salved my conscience with the idea that I was able to give “good” gifts. But my time is the real gift they need, and that’s the kind of obligation I need to joyfully meet.

My kids might not have felt that way about it when I first began to give it, but they see it now. One of my “little” SOs is faraway right now and can’t make it home for Christmas (feeling choked as I write this), but unbeknown to her, I’m going to surprise her on Christmas day, and I can hardly wait. That means I will be around here less in the next couple of weeks. Oh, I have a couple of posts loaded up, but I will not be hovering over my laptop when they let fly. So think of me in coming days hanging out with my kid and roaming the streets with her and laughing about God knows what, and I know she will not expect me to come bearing gifts, but I will, and what a wonderful feeling to give with absolutely no obligation. That is surely a joy, but the greater joy is knowing I can hang out with her and she will want me to.

And I know there will come a moment as there always does when I look at the great person she has become and is becoming and realize that it could have been a little different. We could have stayed on that same path with her and her siblings that left no part of the living room floor bare of gifts on Christmas morning and had us facilitating an ever growing gluttony for things, and ultimately building a bondage to things which would have made them dull people.

Edit: It’s 2012, and I’m going back to NYC at Christmastime. I now have two “little” SOs there. I can hardly wait.