The Gift of Trust

The holiday season is in full swing and this is the time of the year I find myself cringing as I observe parents in ‘high gear’ as they unintentionally put stress on themselves and the rest of their family. While the authentic desire to create some kind of magical holiday celebration is usually the impetus to the endless chaos of shopping, baking, cooking and decorating, many families wind up enduring stressed out days leading up to the big event.

Just yesterday, as I walked out of the supermarket to my car I watched a parent screaming at her two children to stop whining and asking for things. The three of them looked miserable as they passed the bell ringer who was cheerfully wishing them a “Merry Christmas!”

We are a society that has trained our children to expect lots of expensive presents in order to believe that they experienced a wonderful holiday. Parents spend money they do not have or could be used in a more sustainable way, in an attempt to satisfy an often insatiable taste for ‘wonder.’ The endless to-do lists and the momentum for overspending have thrown many moms and dads into a type of holiday madness.

The people who suffer the most are the very children they are trying to make happy.

The recent addition of the “Elf on the Shelf” has added a creepy element to the ‘better watch out’ side of Christmas. The elf spies on the kids and is used to control their behavior through the month of December with the threat of not receiving gifts for even minor infractions. We already lie to the children about the reality of Santa and the use of this elf further turns off their critical thinking skills by trying to convince them that a little stuffed creature is actually watching them and reporting back to the people in power.

I was a pre-school teacher for many years and I used a hand puppet to teach many lessons about compassion and empathy. I am not opposed to the use of imagination or giving inanimate objects human qualities. Fairy tales, Disneyland and superheroes are part of childhood fantasy. What concerns me is outright lying in order to manipulate and control. My message is to slow down the pace of the season, consciously step away from the stress of preparations and take responsibility for maintaining good parenting skills before exhaustion turns you into a scary storybook monster.

This time of year reminds me of a story shared by a dad who was coming to my parenting classes:

Mom was about to bake Christmas cookies with the children, ages five and three, and left him in charge while she ran to the store to get some needed ingredients. He left the children playing in the family room for just a few minutes and when he returned there were red and green sprinkles all over the couch, the rug, the dog and the children’s hair! In the short time that he was gone a ‘mystery person’ seemed to have opened all the sprinkles and created a giant mess!

His initial reaction was to gasp, feel his pulse quicken, and sense his muscles tighten. He began screaming at the children, demanding to know who was responsible for the disaster. The older one blamed the younger one and the younger one insisted it was his sister’s idea to open the jars. Dad felt himself totally out of control as he tried to get up every last sprinkle before mom got home. He sent the children to their rooms, threatening that there would be no gifts until they told him the truth.

This is my memory of what he reported happened next: “It was as if a light went off in my heart. Right in the middle of my tirade, I was suddenly filled with the awareness that I didn’t want to be this angry, screaming, punitive daddy. Something welled up deep inside of me and I softened. I no longer felt a need to yell.” After a moment of regaining his emotional balance he walked into the older child’s room and with a conscious softening in his voice and facial expression he invited her to come and sit on the couch with him. He had something important to tell her. He tenderly looked into his daughter’s eyes and apologized for scaring her with his big, angry reaction. He acknowledged how important it was for them to be a team, to trust each other and even when they were angry to find a way to talk about it. He continued by saying he would try hard not to act so scary when he was angry. They hugged and his daughter softly admitted that she opened the sprinkle jars as a way of ‘helping mommy.’ They agreed that going forward all baking, including the opening of ingredients, had to be done with the supervision of a grown up. Then she happily skipped off to play with her brother. A few minutes later she returned and said to her dad, “Remember how you said we would always tell each other the truth? Well, I have something to tell you.” Dad held his breath, wondering what secrets she was about to reveal. “Do you remember when we left cookies for Santa last Christmas Eve?” she asked. “Well, in the middle of the night, I snuck into the living room and ate two of Santa’s cookies.” She waited for his reaction, perhaps checking to see if he would again become the screaming, out of control daddy. Instead of becoming angry he hugged her and said, “I feel good that you felt safe to tell me that story. I think that Santa has forgiven you, too.”

Talk about your holiday miracles! The marvel of this story is the way the ‘disaster’ led to the development of trust between father and child. Dad’s commitment to be mindful and take responsibility for his own actions are the very building blocks that create open communication as children grow into their teen age years. The ‘gift of trust’ costs nothing monetarily yet is precious beyond description. He was even able to use the myth of Santa to teach forgiveness… so much better than manipulation and control.

You cannot find the gift of trust at the mall or on the Internet. This is a gift that is nurtured from deep inside your being.

This holiday season I wish you and the children in your lives, gifts from the heart.