Imperfect Serenity

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007


So the good news is that I’ve done of a great job of empowering my daughter to know what she wants and to ask for it. This was one of my goals as the mother of a daughter, and I’ve apparently accomplished it before her eleventh birthday. The bad news is that she is honing her skills negotiating with me, and she’s better at it than I am.

The issue of the day is still her Christmas gift. She’s given up on the iPhone, but has gotten stuck on the iPod nano. Everyday she brings it up and presents cogent counter-arguments to the reasons we’ve told her we’re not buying her one. To my concern that it will separate her from the family and to her father’s concern that those little earphones are bad for your hearing (It’s true. He did some research.), she responds that she won’t listen to it that much or play it that loudly. To our concerns about price, she responds that she only wants this one thing and finds us sales in the newspaper. To our argument that Christmas is not about material gifts, she responds that she knows and parrots back our little lecture about God in the world. So last night I reached the bottom of the argument barrel. I told her that I thought a little disappointment would be good for her soul. Predictably, she rolled her eyes.

Although it sounds lame to an almost eleven-year-old, I think that is truly a reason I won’t get her what she wants. A few other parents have suggested I’m silly, but I just ran into a child psychologist friend who totally agrees. A new member of my writer’s group, Tamar Chansky has written books on children and anxiety and is now writing one on freeing children from negative thinking. Part of what she deals with is teaching children to deal with disappointment with flexibility and resilience so they don’t fall apart every time they don’t get their way. Part of what they need, she argues, is the experience of bouncing back from disappointment, which they will never get if parents always try to shield them from it. When I told her about the iPod nano, she encouraged me to stand firm.

I find myself wondering if this is more of a problem in our middle class American world where my children really don’t have to go without very much. When I was a child I didn’t expect to get every latest thing on the market because I knew my parents couldn’t afford it. Certainly when I was in the Peace Corps in Botswana, my students were happy if they owned their own pen and a pair of shoes. In fact, my students seemed happy much of the time. Although their lives were far from perfect, I suspect they didn’t have near the levels of anxious children as our more materially affluent society.

I also think this is a spiritual dilemma that relates to the book I’m writing, The Wisdom to Know the Difference. (By the way, I don’t think I’ve mentioned here that I’ve found a publisher, Tarcher, which focuses on mind, body spirit issues!) On the one hand, I want my children to grow up trusting the universe, believing that their deepest needs will always be met. I want them to know that what they do matters. (For example, learning to ask for what you want clearly and with good counter-arguments when necessary does make you more likely to get what you want.) On the other hand, I want them to learn to accept that they won’t always get exactly what they want, and that’s OK. The trick is to figure out how to parent in ways that they learn both lessons.

Tamar mentioned the importance of knowing where you’re heading when you set your course. I have to keep reminding myself of the kind of adults I want my children to become, not just the kind of reactions I want on Christmas morning.

***Speaking of Christmas, I will be taking a vacation from blogging and probably won’t post again until early in the New Year. So have a blessed Christmas, Eid, or solstice to you all.

Monday, December 10, 2007

'Tis a Gift

A few days ago a friend who works with low-income students told me that one of her students was sharing Ramen noodles with his siblings this month so that their family could afford Christmas. It was my friend’s impression that they might be saving, not just for a simple gift, but for some higher status electronic item.

This story reminded me of my mother, who always said that Santa was a cruel story to tell poor children. She and my father went bankrupt when I was a baby, so they couldn’t afford nearly as many gifts as the cousins whom we usually visited for Christmas dinner. My mother didn’t want me to believe that I was naughty and they were nice just because I got fewer toys. She also didn’t want me to ever be without healthy food or a good education, so she put her money into that which she thought would nurture me, even when it wasn’t what I most wanted. Coming up on the two-year anniversary of her death, I appreciate my mother’s practical wisdom much more than when I was a child.

It is so difficult to resist the consumer competition that Christmas has become. Even religious people seem to have surrendered. Last night we attended a mass geared for children where the priest told a story about Santa during the homily and in his closing remarks reminded the children that “Santa loves children who are good,” so if they were good, they would “be surprised by what Santa would bring them on Christmas morning.” When afterward I gently suggested that it was really hard for families like ours to keep the focus off the consumerism, the priest nodded in commiseration, not realizing that his remarks contributed to the problem.

I guess I shouldn’t be too aggravated at my daughter for asking (repeatedly) for an iPhone for Christmas. She’s just doing what her culture tells her to do. The question for me is how to swim against the cultural tide without drowning (see last year’s post). I’m pretty sure that giving my children an alternative example will work better than giving speeches. So although I was kind of thinking that I’d like an iPod myself this year, I told Tom not to get me one. Instead I asked for a retreat sometime early in the new year—and a few pairs of warm socks for our trip to Wisconsin. (Like Albus Dumbledore, all I really need is some warm socks.) Tom also wants a retreat, and a shirt to replace the one that just got ripped. The children might not notice or appreciate the example now, but maybe they will in forty years, the way I appreciate my mother’s approach to Christmas now that I’m on the other end of the gift-giving.

In the meantime, Tom and I are trying to figure out how to give them some gifts they can unwrap, but ones that will nurture them more than Ramen noodles.

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