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Thursday, December 4, 2014

If I Cancel Christmas, It's On Me

     On GMA this morning, they ran a fluff story about parents who decided to “cancel” Christmas for their three young boys. I’m torn about whether to admire them for their stick-to-it-iveness or view them as child abusers. 
     Who hasn't threatened this? This couple's actually doing it! Amazing! While I'm tempted to follow suit, I'm afraid I don't have the Christmas balls for it. Or maybe it goes deeper than my backbone or lack therof. *adopts Grinch voice* Cancelling Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.
     Granted, I am a lenient parent. It stems from being the product of one overprotective parent and one who suffered a mental illness. My mother was on a mission to keep anything bad from happening a la Marlin from Finding Nemo, and my father was often in a fugue state. That’s right, he sometimes acted like a zombie, i.e., sitting in a trance, not paying attention to anything going on around him. He was in a world of his own. One time, in order to demonstrate this eccentricity, I jumped over him while he was watching TV. The friend hanging out with me that day thought it was hysterical, and I got that thrill one always gets in successfully entertaining an audience. My father didn’t flinch. 
Not much fun for little Elmo.
     It never occurred to me how cruel my actions were. I was just a kid--typically a very good kid--maybe around eleven years old and at the mercy of some forces I didn't understand. (No one told me about my father's mental condition, for instance.) I still should’ve been nicer that day. I don’t know what got into me.
     Based on reading this, you’ll probably dismiss any parenting advice I can give. But I’ll argue that being the daughter of a man who suffered multiple mental breakdowns and at least as many suicide attempts over the course of my youth makes me a better, far more understanding parent. Besides, anyone can give parenting advice. So there.
     And as an officially screwed-up child who grew to be a mediocre mom who--to her credit--tries like hell to be an awesome one, I advise these parents to reconsider their decision. Grinch parenting is as effective as Finding Nemo parenting = Not Very. If you really want to teach your kids the meaning of Christmas, I would go a less punitive route. Take it from someone who once doled out an overzealous punishment, and has lived to regret it. 
     About eight years ago, my daughter got reamed in kindergarten for eating the “special snack” of a child with allergies. (Gluten, I think.) Kindergarten was a horrible year for us. I knew it would be a hard transition, because my older daughter had gone through it a few years before. It's the perfect storm of factors that can cause kids apprehension. The teachers are getting to know the children. The children are acclimating to school, some of them without the benefit of having attended pre-school. Patience is a must in most instances—which is why most kindergarten teachers are the cream of the crop, chosen specifically to ease the burden of transition and establish a good impression of school and a firm routine.
The snack thief, eight years later.
     My middle daughter’s kindergarten career posed even more challenges than usual. The personality of her teacher didn’t meld well with hers, for one thing. I came to find out years later that the teacher was basically just teaching kindergarten because she wanted the part-time schedule to be home with her young daughter. (I know this, because she told me so, in those exact words.) And my older daughter has since had the teacher for a higher grade, which made it clear that some of the problems were not entirely my middle daughter’s fault, but resulted instead from this particular teacher's method of dealing with strong personalities. 
      Back to the Snack Incident. The kindergarten teacher lost it. She called me in, sat me down with my daughter and read us the riot act. We were stoic through the onslaught. How could my daughter steal the snack (a bag of cookies) from a child who is already suffering from the stigma of not being able to participate in birthday treats and regular snack time? How could I just be sitting there, not disciplining her? Don’t I see how cruel and calculating this is? How could I sleep at night knowing my daughter had done this?     
     That same week, a group of boys snuck a peanut-butter-smeared item onto the placemat of a child suffering peanut allergies and the administration laughed that incident off as a harmless lunchtime prank. (To me it sounded like attempted murder, but what did I know? I was raising the Anti-Christ.) Since the ranting to which I was subjected echoed what the pre-school teachers had said the prior year, I figured my daughter was a snotty, entitled brat. The teacher suggested “severe consequences” while skewering me with her one good eye. (A glare seems more effective from a one-eyed person, doesn't it?) I took her advice to heart.
     At the time, my daughter was in a horseback riding class offered through community education. My husband had coached kiddie soccer and received a voucher, which we used for the class. I decided to withhold her next horseback riding session. That would teach her a lesson about stealing snacks from poor unsuspecting gluten-free kids, I thought. This course of action would certainly please the one-eyed teacher. (I’m a pleaser, did I mention that?) Worst. Decision. Ever.
     I took my daughter to the horseback riding class so she could explain to the instructor in her own words why she wouldn’t be in class. There were tears from my daughter, a befuddled look from the instructor, trauma, despair-filled whinnying, snickerings from the other kids (or maybe that was the horses, too). It was horrible. Essentially I punished MYSELF.
     Now, I don’t know what the children of The Grinch parents did to bring on a cancellation of Christmas, but it should be more than simply being bratty. Everyone’s bratty. Everyone. Some grow out of it. Some don't. And, if you haven’t noticed, most people are also losing the meaning of Christmas.
How come they got to park on the street?
     Let me tell another story from my overly-punitive past. My mother didn’t like cars parked on the street in front of the house. The rule was I could park my car in the street all day, enabling her to get in and out of the driveway, but in the evening I had to pull it off the street. Which meant I had to get up the next morning and move it before my father left for work. We affectionately called this The Suburban Shuffle. One night I didn’t feel like moving the car. I was either too lazy, too tired, or I’d figured out that if I parked it on the street (where everyone else parked, by the way), I could sleep in later than 6 a.m., which is when my father would have to leave. I worked at a department store and rarely had to get there before 8.  
     That night a vandal came through our neighborhood and shot out people’s windows with a b.b. gun. He had chosen random cars to take out—mine and a few of the neighbors’, all the way around the block. The next morning, I walked out to my car to find the window in shards. I was devastated. I knew it would be expensive to replace, and it was also a mess to clean up.
      My parents gave me no sympathy. You can imagine what they said: if I’d parked in the driveway, like they’d suggested, my car would’ve been spared. What lesson did that teach me? To listen always to my parents? No (Thank God, because sometimes my parents made mistakes and this incident actually made me trust them less.) That I had control over bad things? No. What it taught me was to fear the unknown. It taught me that I couldn’t rely on my parents for support in times of need. If I asked for help, I’d be accused of bringing my own problems upon me. Note: The punishment was rendered not by my parents but by the FORCES OF THE UNIVERSE, emancipating my mom and dad from the title of “the bad guys”, although they deemed the punishment fitting with their attitudes.
     How does this parallel the boys losing Christmas, you might ask? Obviously, in this case the parents are the bad guys. What if my parents decided to sneak out at night and shoot a b.b. gun at my poor Sunbird for the purpose of teaching me a lesson? No one would support that but isn't it--in a sense--the equivalent of the way these parents are holding their kids up as examples? It might not be as bad as staking skulls on swords outside the castle wall (Game of Thrones moment)...okay I'm gonna drop this allegory in the middle of a sentence. All I'm saying is it's very hard to resist the lure of the distorted view of Christmas that ADULTS have helped propagate. 
     I’ve had problems and obstacles since my car windows got shot out, some of which I might’ve “brought on myself” and some that just happened. They happened regardless of whether or not I followed every rule to the letter. Just as Christmas comes without ribbons, tags, packages, boxes or bags. Christmas, you see, is a similar force with the same potential to be negative or positive. It certainly depends on the perceptions of people experiencing it, but it's also a powerful tradition steeped in history and myth. Unfortunately, it has morphed into a strange cultural hybrid: a multi-billion dollar industry, a political conundrum, observed legally but defined by laws of etiquette that make it wrong to express Christian sentiments in the same public buildings that close their doors for the holiday. Giving these children the incorrect impression that they can somehow control this cluster of confusion that Christmas has become is wrong and damaging.
     Let me note here that I think this is a GREAT idea (check it out on this blog) if it isn’t tied back to the kids’ behavior. Parents who sit their children down and explain that society in general has lost perspective and that’s trickling down to the family, so they’ve decided not to do a big thing this year have my full support.
    If not handled this way, I fear that withholding Christmas might actually bring more attention to the consumerism aspect. The kids’ goals for next year will most likely include “earning” their presents back. And what if they behave like angels, yet their dad or mom loses his or her job and the family can’t afford the presents that allegedly correlate to their improved behavior? What lesson will that teach?
     Of course, it will be all-out brilliant if next year the boys insist upon the exact same scaled-back celebration, preferring it to the bigger extravaganza. I will gladly eat my words if that happens. Only time will tell.
Just imagine Mr. Rogers on there. No!
    Until then, I advise the parents who have shouted this non-traditional parenting decision from the rooftops and thus garnered numerous blog hits, interviews on national morning shows, and my attention (last but not least): Unless you relish being visited this Christmas Eve (and bitch-slapped) by the ghosts of Dr. Seuss, Mr. Rogers and Dr. Spock (I know, my head is swimming from the guru mash-up right there), I’d get those boys some gifts for Christmas. The devolution of our culture is certainly not their fault. At least, I don't think it is. (Is one of them named Damien? If so, all bets are off.)

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