Grinching on Christmas Lists

Are written lists of material wants ever a good idea?

3094706012_4b4505805f_zHot Swede’s family is a Christmas list family. After Thanksgiving, my mother-in-law asks for gift ideas for everyone. This is the way it has always been, and her children have always handed over wish lists, often very specific lists. I know that lots of other families do this, and I honor that. I always provide her with ideas for her son and grandkids. I spend a lot of time collecting ideas and then deciding which ones to give her- considering what she might enjoy shopping for. However, I will not; I cannot provide her with a list for myself. It rubs me the wrong way. I can’t make myself do it.

I blame my parents, (as one does.) I grew up in a family where we might casually mention something we might like to receive, but the focus was on what we were going to give, or my mom ranting that she wished we could jettison all the presents and just spend time together. I can imagine the look on my mom’s face if I had presented her with an itemized written wish. (My Little Pony stable, rollerblades, a pogo ball, pocket knife, or spy jacket: the few things I remember wanting very much.) Um, no. Tell me your #1 want and go make a list of good ideas for other people.

We didn’t hang stockings on the fireplace until Christmas Eve because it looked selfish. (Hot Swede and I have skirted this argument. Currently, the stockings are up, much to my dismay.) I don’t remember nosing around under the tree to see what was for me, but that may have been because my parents were late wrappers and things didn’t appear under the tree until right before the big day.  But my distaste of wish lists expands beyond family eccentricity. I am philosophically and practically opposed to them.

Gift giving is never about what I want to get. It is about considering others’ needs and interests, and finding something they will like and I’d like to give. When I receive gifts this way, the love, time, and thought of the giver become part of the present. They are what make it meaningful. Otherwise, it is just another scarf, hat, or set of whiskey glasses. When gift exchanging is done well, it is the thought that counts.

The gifts I appreciate most are the unexpected ones- ones where someone has thought carefully about me, found something they were excited to give, and I get to enjoy something I never even had the chance to want. This goes back to my wedding and the first time I supplied the mother of all wish lists- the gift registry, to potential gift givers.  Yes, I appreciate my matching dishes, flatware, and set of pots. I think of my paternal family every time I pull out the china we picked out and they gave for us, but that doesn’t happen often. However, the handmade ceramic bowl given by a cousin and the cutting boards made by Hot Swede’s uncle delight me. They carry the additional boon of reminding me of the giver each time I use them.

There are good reasons for wedding gift registries. They are lifesavers when buying for someone I don’t know well, or looking to assess the tastes of the recipient. For newlyweds, it is nice to start out with matching sets of dishes, even though I broke all the bowls by my 10th anniversary, and we are on our 3rd set of daily glassware. (It’s like a Jewish Greek wedding every time I do dishes.) Lists are not necessary for the kind of personal giving I do at Christmas.

Sometimes I need ideas and direction. In that case, I ask the person directly if there’s anything they need or want. Even better, I’ll ask someone who knows them better than do I. In this way, I remain free to give what I can and would like to, and they still have a chance at being pleasantly surprised with my efforts.

Wish lists take the “thought that counts” out of the process. Getting something I’ve asked for is nice. The generosity of the giver is there, but it feels as if the giver has simply done my shopping for me, cheapening and limiting the role of the giver and tying up the gift with a little ribbon of guilt for me.

Okay, so this one I'll accept.

Okay, so this one I’ll accept.

It isn’t just guilt that cheapens the experience.  The writing of a wish list immediately creates expectation in the gift recipient, and nothing kills happiness like expectation. The fewer expectations we have for others to meet our needs, the happier we are. This truth extends all the way into expecting someone else to give you that Star Wars Millennium Falcon 7965 LEGO set that you’ve wanted since you were 28.

Such specific written requests limit the giver. If you give me a wish list, am I obligated to get something off the list, even if I find something else I think you’d enjoy? Will you be disappointed, or worse, irritated if I don’t purchase from your list? I much prefer the surprise and joy of receiving the thoughtfulness of the giver in a gift THEY’VE picked for me, even if it isn’t what I’d pick out for myself.

Writing a wish list manufactures want. Goody! Normally, when asked if there is anything I’d like for Christmas, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. In an effort to make gift giving easier on my family, I started brainstorming gift ideas for myself and writing them down so I could refer to them up when asked. I looked around for things I didn’t have and decided that I wanted them. Do you see the problem? I created desires for trifles that I hadn’t wanted before! And then I was asking loved ones to fulfill them for me! Talk about killing satisfaction and gratitude. What an unhealthy and unhelpful practice. This is the first year I will not do it. I won’t. I’d rather get the same food scented candle from everyone than engage in manufacturing material voids for my loved ones to fill. Thumbs down.

There is only one kind of acceptable gift list: the list of gifts I want to GIVE. You may tell me about something you’d love to receive. I want to know if there’s something you really want. However, if you hand me an itemized shopping list of your material desires, I’m going to be irked and leave it where it lies until recycling day.

I love giving gifts. I start the gift giving brainstorm in September. I love the puzzle of matching people with gifts within my budget. I like the challenge and enjoy the process. I love offering up a beautifully wrapped package. I have every Christmas giving list since 1998, so I can keep track of past ideas and what books I’ve already given. I am no Scrooge. But a gift is about receiving the goodwill and love of others, and I like it best when the giver isn’t told exactly the color, model, and shape their goodwill should take.

One of my favorite things.

One of my favorite things.

If you write and give from wish lists, tell me how you use them and why you like them. I am genuinely curious. Lots of people use them without issue. And I fully accept that my hang ups with them are my own. However you manage your gift giving, I wish you all a fun and meaningful experience, whether you like detailed lists with ISBN codes, homemade gifts, or eschew it all together and make donations to charitable organizations, whatever works for you.

Bumbling towards Responsible Adulthood

I blew my lid with the kids this morning. Our babysitter left her bag at the house and my children took out her sidewalk paint and gleefully used it all up. They went into her bag and helped themselves. I was horrified. “What? You just helped yourselves to someone else’s property? Would you rifle through Grandma’s purse? What made you think that was okay? I am ashamed of your choices…” and on… and on.Hendrick_Jacobsz._Dubbels_001

There are times, like this, when I feel like the most terrible parent around. I felt guilty for losing my cool (but not that guilty.) I felt like a failure because my 8 and 6 year-old took stuff that wasn’t theirs and they should know better. I was embarrassed. I clearly had not done my job. I cried on the way to school. I knew I was over-reacting. My rational self kept mumbling, “This is not about you.” But she lost control of the ship; it was all she could do to keep me from blurting out, “I guess I’ll have to come visit you in prison!”

Knowing that I was teetering on the edge, I called Hot Swede at work. He is experienced and effective at talking me down from emotional cliffs. His level head and calm voice soon lowered my crazy sail, and I began to think sense.

People make mistakes. Kids are inexperienced people; they’re going to make a lot of them. Of all the lessons children need to learn, moral and ethical ones the most difficult.  Moral action requires mastery of oneself- doing what’s right instead of what’s desired. Ethical behavior takes courage, thoughtfulness and maturity- three things that my young have yet to develop. It takes practice, redirection, consequences, forgiveness and love to learn to behave in moral and ethical ways. It is part of children’s job to push boundaries and figure out how they will operate within and on the world. That is where I come in. My job is to help them learn these lessons with sidewalk paint, instead of more expensive property and consequences.

I thought they had “do not steal” all sorted- my fatuous mistake. When rational, I understand that, of course, I am not done teaching and reinforcing lessons about respect for others and their property. They are 8 and 6. Duh.

So, I will explain why I was so upset this morning and the seriousness of stealing. They will each buy a set of replacement paints with their saved allowance and write an apology.  Two sets- because I want them to feel the cost and because when we wrong someone, we often have to expend extra effort to make things right.

I wish I had been prepared with an attitude of “Wonderful, here’s a chance to teach a lesson.” instead of caught off guard and horrified.  I will pray for wisdom and grace in anticipation of the next time they make a bonehead move. Because this is just the prelude.

Still the best option

Still the best option

Mind Their Manners

A plea for parental courtesy, for everyone’s sake.

A few weeks ago, an elderly man lurched out of our church service in a hurry. The effects of stroke encumber his body, but he moved quickly and was clearly distressed. Four ushers rushed to his side to see what was the matter. Agitated, he repeated himself four or five times before they understood- “The children, yelling in church!” It was true. This gentleman had been seated near a small child who had been yelling (not crying or fussing, just yelling) for quite awhile.  I had trouble hearing the sermon and I was 20 feet away. This gentleman ended up sitting near the nursery and listening to the remainder of the service over the speakers. The yeller stayed in her pew.

When did it become okay for people to inflict their disruptive children on large gatherings of the public? When did parents stop minding their children’s behavior

and removing disorderly youngsters from church services, movies, restaurants, waiting rooms, weddings, etc? I may suffer from early onset curmudgeonry, but I am not the only one to notice this trend. Fed up restaurateurs ban children from their establishments. I’ve seen waiters with trays of food trip over Lilliputian diners who are allowed to frolic about the dining room. Hostesses provide crayons, coloring pages, games, and pizza dough to play with, in an effort to keep children in their seats and reasonably quiet. Clerks in shops full of breakable baubles bristle like porcupines when I walk in with three small people. On airplanes, childless travelers tighten their jaws when seated next to my 6 and 4-year-olds and then compliment them and me on their good behavior at the end of the flight, their words sighing with relief.

Ugh, airline travel.

Ugh, airline travel.

I like children. From experience (three kids worth of experience) I know how little control I have over any family situation. I can’t always predict what kids will say, when they will need the toilet, or puke on an airplane. (Dear sir next to me in the last row of that Delta flight, you were so gracious when my daughter threw up all over us… twice. If I hadn’t been so flustered, I would have bought you a drink. You are a gem.)

Most people are pretty patient with normal childlike behavior, and just want to know that parents are sensitive to the impact their young have on others. Babies make noise. Toddlers get tired of sitting still. Pre-schoolers are not always capable of controlling their behavior. This is why we hold parents responsible.

As the adult, I am responsible for extending courtesies to the people with whom my children come in contact. Young children are not yet capable or skilled enough to do it themselves. If my child pours milk into your handbag, I will be horrified, apologize and try to make amends. Because he is my child, I take on the consequences of his actions as though they are my own. Common decency does not allow me to dismiss the act with, “Kids will be kids. What are you going to do?”

Direct destruction of property may be an extreme example, but what if my kid ruins your romantic dinner by banging her fork on her plate repeatedly, talks through an entire movie, stunt drives his die cast car across the hood of your new car, or cries loudly throughout your daughter’s wedding? And what if I do nothing?

I frequently see parents laugh at or ignore a child who is impinging on another’s experience. You may find your child’s behavior charming and excusable. But here’s the truth- No one thinks your kid is as darling as you do, not even her grandparents. Ask yourself how you would feel if the loud, obnoxious, boorish gal stumbling around, throwing peas and yelling was a full-grown adult. Not as tolerable, is it?

That isn’t to say that people should not give a little grace to children and their parents. (Actually, we could stand to give a little grace to everyone.) Children will melt down despite a parent’s best efforts, and it is important to remain calm and give the parent a chance to handle the situation before becoming incensed and offended. For me, as long as the parent is addressing the behavior, and is sensitive to the people around them, I have no problem. We were all children once and our parents taught us how to behave. These children are the people who will be our caregivers when we are in the nursing home, so- be nice.

We parents owe it to our fellows to minimize the impact of our children’s negative behavior. It is common respect. We owe it to our children to teach them good 20762534_660705a831_zmanners and to protect their young reputations. When parents allow bad behavior to go unchecked, they make all children guilty by association, thus- bans on children in restaurants. Worse, they make pariahs out of their innocent children. Adults don’t want to be around them and other parents don’t want their children around them either. They won’t say it to the parent’s face, but hey say it to everyone else.

So, what? Do we keep our kids at home until they can use choose the right fork at a fancy dinner? No, they need chances to practice and learn. Parents should take them out in public, but only if they are willing to do the work of teaching and guiding. Talk about the expectations for behavior ahead of time, and how different events demand different kinds of behavior. Don’t take them somewhere where you are unwilling or unable to skedaddle if it all goes south. Remove children when they are disruptive; it is less awful than staying. Don’t take them places where you know they have no chance of behaving reasonably (courtrooms, late night dinners, screenings of Ingmar Bergman films come to mind.) Yes, there have been times when I’ve spent entire church services cajoling toddlers to be quiet, or standing in the narthex with a fussy baby. I have been known to employ gum and orange Tic Tacs liberally. I’ve spent hours on a plane with a hand on small legs, reminding them not to kick the seat in front of them.  It’s all part of making small savages civil.

Human society is complicated and nuanced. It takes years to learn its rules and absorb its conventions. This is why human childhood is so long and why we have parents for the duration- to guide us through the social jungle and soften the discord between our inexperience and the adult world. When their behavior is good, children are an absolute joy to be around. They infuse life and beauty into any gathering. The best part of any wedding reception are the diminutive guests- shoes off, shirt half-untucked, getting down on the dance floor.ba1de2eb0ff97867d7aa474eb3c3e20f-d5z94e5

Have you had experiences with unruly children and their parents? Am I off base? Please tell me if this is a personal quirk and I need to lighten up. I will listen. I’d especially like to hear how other parents handle their children’s less than ideal public behavior and how you handle OTHER people’s unruly kids. (There’s a thorny one.) I take all tips and suggestions.