I mean, my intentions were pure. And I think my daughters’ were, too. At least now I do. But somehow, it all turned out wrong and weird and ugly and it’s my fault. Let me explain.
It’s Christmas time and the magic Santa fairy dust is settling over the house and the spirit of giving is smacking us all upside the head and so it was only natural that when we passed a Salvation Army “Angel Tree” at the mall last weekend, we grab two Christmas present “wishes” and suggest to the girls that they use some of their allowance money (a third of it has always been set aside specifically for charity) to buy gifts for kids in need. The deal was this: Mari and Lila would take $20 each from their charity stash and, as a family, we would head to Target one afternoon after school and giddily buy stuff that would make some kid very happy.
Yeah, well, that one free afternoon came and Lila had a ton of homework and couldn’t/wouldn’t focus and we got a late start to Target and we were hungry when we went and the kids wanted to buy the wants on the list (toys) and I insisted we focus, first, on the needs on the list (clothes) and before we knew it, full-blown meltdowns were in effect. Lila was pouting in the sweater aisle, talking about “but I want to buy fun stuff!” and Mari was doing the slow shuffle in the DVD aisle, talking about, “I’m tired!” and I could see Nick doing the price tag calculations and honeying up his throat for the “that’s more than enough!” speech that inevitably comes when the two of us end up in a store together.
And by the time we got to the cash register, I was so disgusted by the pouting and the complaining and the general lack of goodwill being displayed by my kids (who have everything) toward the children we were trying to help (who have nothing) that I postponed our Christmas tree purchase, stomped through the parking lot and back to the car like a stone-cold lunatic, and spent the car ride, the rest of the evening and a chunk of the next morning being pissed and calling my girls all kinds of spoiled brats and ungratefuls and making terroristic threats like, “I kept all the receipts for your Christmas presents. Maybe I should just return them all and give the money to the Salvation Army,” and “Since you’re too tired and cranky to buy gifts for kids in need, maybe I should just give them yours,” and “Before you open your presents, maybe we’ll make a trip to the local homeless shelter so you can see what it’s like for a child to wake up on Christmas morning wondering where they’ll get their next meal and hot shower, let alone presents from their parents. Now that’s a child who’s tired!”
I mean, I grew up in a two-parent, solidly blue-collar household that, most weeks, tottered on the financial brink. We had all that we needed, I guess—food in the refrigerator, roof over our heads, heat in the winter, a car to get us from point A to point B. Unconditional love. But my parents, both factory workers, were but a mere paycheck or two from slipping into financial darkness and so wants weren’t always easy to come by, and when they did, they came on very special occasions—like birthdays and Christmas. And even then, we knew better than to go overboard with the asking.
This is a concept with which my children are not familiar. We are not rich by any stretch, but the babies have all that they need and all that they want, too, and while they usually are not bratty about asking for stuff, Nick and I are keenly aware that they don’t really know most days how good they have it.
And that’s on us.
Honestly, we struggle to find the balance between giving them what they need and what they want and making sure that they understand they are extremely fortunate because there are so many more children who do not get wants or needs satisfied—and that mustn’t ever be forgotten. We especially hammer home to them constantly and consistently that it’s OUR duty to reach out and offer help to people who need it in any way that we can.
Thinking any other way is absolutely unacceptable in our home.
And so if there is even a whiff of entitlement or ungratefulness floating from my girls’ general direction, we shut it down with a quickness. It was this I had in mind when I got ugly over the Target incident.
Indeed, I got so ugly that on the car ride in to school the next morning, my whole “You guys have all of what you need and all of what you want and it’s perfectly ridiculous that you were dragging around Target acting like you didn’t want to be bothered with helping poor kids have a nice Christmas” tirade made my Mari burst into tears. Nasty, snotty tears.
“But we did want to buy presents for little kids,” she insisted between sobs. “The whole time we were at the store I was thinking about how cool it would be to see them opening the presents. I was just tired. That’s all.”
And in that moment, I looked into the rearview mirror and into her eyes and listened to Mari and really saw my baby.
Saw her heart.
The conversation that came after I pulled over the car and climbed into the backseat with her was eye opening. And honest. And pure. She admitted to dragging, but only because she’d been up since 6 a.m. that morning, not because she didn’t want to buy presents. And yes, Lila was pouting in the sweater aisle, but only because she had just $20 to spend and she wanted to buy fun things for the kids because that’s the kind of present every kid wants to open on Christmas day—something that will make a child with very little reason to smile, well, smile.
And as Mari sobbed and talked and sobbed and talked some more, I replayed the evening in my mind—this time, from my daughters’ perspectives. And I realized that it was I who turned what should have been a very meaningful, heartfelt, loving, feel-good experience into a battle—by insisting on sweaters and long-sleeve shirts instead of extra toys; by getting huffy with the salesman for taking so long to find “Camp Rock” on DVD; by lingering in the clothing aisle, knowing full well that both girls wanted to check out the board games; by announcing that they were being brats and we weren’t going to get a Christmas tree, even as they handed over their hard-earned allowance to buy gifts for strangers they would never see or receive a “thank you” from—an abstract concept that sounds nice but still must be a little weird to an 8- and 11-year-old.
In other words, I was the one who was being a brat that night. Not them. And for that, I’m not too big or too grown or too “Mommy” to say that I’m really sorry.
I am not perfect.
My girls need to know this.
And I do, too.