Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Change to a Low-Key Christmas

Christmas at my parent's home was usually a noisy, fun filled affair with nephews and nieces who played with me in the basement while the older people played cards upstairs. Our toys, which resided in a small closet in the basement, consisted of such things as a plastic telephone with a broken dial, a plastic bottle in form of a woman in a long dress, a couple of empty spools of thread, and a fluffy powderpuff that once had a life in a cosmetic kit.  In desperation to keep ourselve amused, we grabbed every extra blanket, a rickety old card table plus some extra wooden chairs, and made forts, then mazes, then haunted houses. Sometimes we found an old deck of 51 cards, or someone's new board game to keep busy. It was always fun, even with deficient toys.

The adults played pinochle or canasta passionately. Thank goodness I had no memories of anyone getting angry about losing, no one seriously cheated, and lots of laughter accompanied all games. At some point, my father would bring out the Limburger cheese, and soda crackers. Eating it made you an adult somehow, earning the respect of my dad, whose mother had made it at home when he was a child.  Some of my nephews and I would stop playing downstairs for a few moments and stand behind an adult to watch the pinochle game. Sometimes we even filled in to organize a hand while someone needed a bathroom break, which was a thrill because it showed how that grown-up believed in our ability to be a worthy player.  The house was always too hot; the oven and all the extra bodies finally made it so that we had to open a window.

As I grew older and more proficient at pinochle, I joined the card playing crowd or helped in the kitchen as needed.  Younger kids grew up and the days of building forts with old card tables, or messing with toys in the basement changed. The older kids still played downstairs, but this time they had full decks of cards, and a stereo with the newest rock and roll.  The laughter of little children was gone, but teenagers bring their own energy to a home.

Then our generation got married and started bringing back children of our own. But there was something wrong with the picture. Mom was in her late seventies, and my siblings were making more comments about the strain of hosting the annual Christmas event. She may have loved the house being filled with the sounds of grandchildren, but she couldn't ignore that even with help, the work load before and after the holiday was too much. She wouldn't give up the hosting of the annual dinner until her stroke changed it all.

Suddnely my siblings all drifted to their own homes. My children, who came along too late to learn how crazy these holiday parties could be, are now used to a new kind of December 25th:  the Low key Christmas. We have our own at home now, just us. Our siblings have their own, too, and even when we've tried to invite each other, they've been busy. It's time to have our own family traditions, and our boys will have very different childhood Christmas memories compared to mine.  It's a reality I've come to accept.

I'm thinking of all of this as I watch them try out their new video game. My husband has already watched the DVD instruction manual that accompanied a new tool I bought for him.  We've been snacking, and soon we'll head over to the table to play cards or go for a walk together. Later tonight we may even go caroling at a local nursing home. Very different traditions than what I had a child.

In many respects, this Low Key Christmas is becoming a favorite of mine. Gone are the crowds of people that have to struggle to find a place to sit just to eat. Absent are the cries from frustrated children who can't deal with an older sibling or cousin doing something naughty.  I no longer have to try to explain to my mother that I just want to sit and visit with a family member that I haven't seen in ages, not play cards constantly.  The idea of "peace on earth," a concept made for Christmas, is actually attainable in our home.

My children will never have memories of the Noisy Christmas. They'll someday bring home their own kids and there will the a new generation to toss downstairs with the command of, "Go play!"  I'll try to supply a new bunch of toys, ones that won't cut your fingers off with busted plastic, or be castoff junk a long forgotten cosmetic case.  Instead, I'm saving all the really cool things my kids are outgrowing like the legos, robotics, and other engineering goodies.  I might even sink the television in the lake for Christmas day, just so my grandkids can't park in front of a video game all day.  Then once again our house will be filled with noise and joy, to start a new generation of memories for kids who may lose it all later, and go back to a Low Key Christmas.

Friday, December 23, 2011

When Do You Do Too Much For Your Kid?

"You do a lot for your kids," commented an older friend of mine as I had just explained how we were going to Florida for Oldest's acting "competition."

I was taken aback. Did she mean that as a compliment or just an observation? She is too polite to ever criticize.

But the comment has drifted with me all the way through this trip to Florida. Is there a yardstick on how much you should do for your child? Is it measured in money? Should you do as much for your child as your wallet allows? Is it measured in time? Should you walk away from a career to be a full time mom? Should you work as many hours as possible to bring home a bigger paycheck, provide a bigger house or balance time and work?

Should you only do what a child appreciate? If an offspring thanks you often, should you dedicate more time, energy, or money to help them get a start in life? And what do you do about the child that won't appreciate it until they have their own child? These questions rattle around in my brain as I ramble through parenting. 

This pondering of whether I am committing enough of my personal resources for my children actually raises its head in other ways. I find myself comparing my life with other people from my childhood. For example, I'm totally unlike my goal setting neighbor who knew since she was five that she wanted to be a teacher. We grew up in the same neighborhood, and she envied me because I wore glasses. Then she envied me because I got my period first. I never understood her at all. But she had something I never had: her calling in life.  I had no idea what I wanted as an occupation, only that I had a need to write. Last week I found out that she almost has her doctorate in teaching, and here I am, accomplished only in non-tangibles. My greatest work, raising two boys and enjoying my life partnership with my husband, seems to pale in her stature. Thankfully, I don't feel envy, just concern about whether my lack of a touchable stepping stone keeps me from doing more for my kids.

Then it just comes back to how to measure what you should do for your child.  Just as everyone needs to define how to raise a son or daughter, each person has to find the parameter of giving to their kid. Consider several parents at the recent event my son attended.  These parents spent anywhere  from $8-$10,000 for their child to compete in each aspect of this competition.  I watched as these overrun children ran from room to room, changing into different clothing here and there, completely exhausted by the process. No doubt they got the rush of performing more than my son did. But to me, it was crazy to spend that kind of money on a possibly unatainable thing. I triy to wrap my mind around the fact that some people simply didn't even feel the financial speedbump that would have given a person like me. Truthfully, I can't.

I consider these things when I remember a conversation between two teenage boys that I overheard one day in a cafe. The one, dressed in black jeans, and wearing a black T-shirt bearing the picture of a heavy rock band,  lamented that his mother wasn't going to buy him an X-box for Christmas.  "The bitch said it cost too much money," he said indignintly. The boy across from him shook his head in sympathy at his friend's plight.

I regret that I was too stunned at his bad language about his mother to say anything to him. The incident bothered me on so many levels. First, that any young man would refer to his mother in such a fashion, and second, that he felt so entitled. But admittedly, it throws fuel on my fire of wondering how much parents should do for their children, and when is too much?

This never-ending quest that parents have to balance the right amount of giving is one of the essentials that needs to be mastered in a marriage. The Man Who Puts Up With Me probably doesn't ponder this in his life at all. He just parents the way he thinks is best, rolls his eyes if he doesn't agree with me, and occasionally voices an opinion about what I am doing with our sons. I think that's one reason our marriage thrives. I figure if he's not murdering our boys, they will probably survive.  So I leave him alone. But we differ greatly on how we treat them. I try and take them anywhere they want, but I make them pay financially for their own luxuries. He'll give them a $20 bill whenever he wants.  He comes down hard on them when he feels they've done something wrong. I'll sit down and talk to them about it.  Which of those approaches is doing too much or not enough?

I have a couple of friends who shell out several hundred dollars a month to their parents for financial support. Without that money, their elders would be on the street. I ponder whether their folks left themselves financially strapped while doing "too much" for their children when they were younger, or if this is normal.  It is a measuring stick: I never want to be a financial burden to my children. There it comes back to balancing the see-saw of doing too much for your kids again. For sure, in my book, you have done too much for them if you become their burden later in life.

So for today I take comfort in knowing that I can never give them too much in the way of deserved praise, honest encouragement, and unconditional love. The rest of my musings will be my never-ending quest of learning, knowing full well that I may never know the outcome until the day I die.