Tag Archives: parenting

Having “The Talk” about Santa

medium_4188008601There are parents who refuse to participate in the Santa myth because they don’t want to lie to their children. That stand has integrity in its own way, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary to be so draconian about it. Myths are tales that give meaning and texture to our lives.

As an adult Christian, for example, Christmas invites me into the mystery of a God who refuses to remain at an aloof distance but would participate fully in human vulnerability through the incarnation of Jesus. But that’s kind of abstract for a kid. The Santa myth is much more relatable. As much as some of us chide our kids about lumps of coal and Santa keeping a list (and setting aside the reality that Santa showers more gifts on wealthy homes than poorer ones), the fact is that Santa embodies grace: no matter who you are or what you’ve done, you will be remembered on Christmas morning.

But if you participate in Santa, you need to be ready for some messiness later. There will come a liminal time in which younger siblings still believe in Santa but older siblings know the whole truth. Or what to do with classmates at school whose awareness may not match up with your own child?

Our middle child asked for “the truth” about Santa last year, and Robert shared it with her. Interestingly, this year she’s acting as if the conversation never happened. There’s not always a clear before and after with these things. Sometimes there’s a willful forgetting, or a benign sense of denial. And that’s OK.

Still, if you’re truly concerned about your kid landing in therapy someday to work through their betrayal once they discover the truth about Santa, you could start by downplaying the Santa thing from the get-go. Don’t insist that the guy at the mall is the “real” Santa. Don’t answer a kid’s critical thinking questions with ever wilder explanations about the physics of flying reindeer, or how Santa can deliver so many presents in 24 hours. The appearance of presents on Christmas morning, as if by magic, is wondrous enough. Glitter and fake hoofprints in the snow are just gilding the lily.

When my children ask questions about Santa, I usually preface my answer by saying, “Well, the story goes that…” This puts me in the role of the communicator of a folktale rather than some perpetrator of a fraud. If they’re inclined to continue believing, they will accept this framing. If they’re ready to push further, they will.

In fact, though there are many ways to have the Santa conversation, this is the one that makes the most sense to me—to approach it as a story. Here is the gist of what I said to our oldest daughter a few years back. Her questions had turned from idle to insistent (and trust me, you’ll know when it’s time for this conversation). I’m recreating it here as a single commentary, but this unfolded over a series of halting conversations—in fact, it continues to unfold.

The story of Santa is just that—a story. It began a long time ago, with a man named Nicholas, who was a bishop in Myra, in present-day Turkey. Nicholas was a humble man with a special fondness for children. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. There are many other examples of Nicholas’s generosity that were told. Over time, Nicholas became Saint Nicholas, which is the church’s way of honoring him.

And his story spread, as beautiful stories tend to do. It was such a beautiful story that everyone wanted to be a part of it, not just in Greece and Turkey, where Nicholas was from, but all over the world. People changed the story somewhat and called Nicholas by other names: Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, and so forth. Just as Nicholas gave gifts in secret, so do parents and other adults give secret gifts to children.

The story of Santa has continued all of these centuries because it’s a powerful story that helps give our lives meaning. And that story has not ended with you asking the “truth” about Santa. Santa is as real now as he was the moment before you asked the question. And the story will continue as long as there are people willing to tell it and live in it.

Yes, the story goes on—it’s just that you’re in a different place in the story now. Before, you were in the part of the story that received gifts as if by magic on Christmas morning. Guess what? You still get to be in that part of the story. But now you also get to be in the part of the story that shares those gifts with other people. (Maybe you’d like to help pick out stocking stuffers for your younger siblings, for example.)

There are all kinds of characters in stories like this. There are characters who think the whole thing is silly and a waste of time. That’s OK. There are also people who go around telling their siblings or their peers the “truth.” You can choose to do that if you want. But then you’ve taken away their choice to be where they want to be in the story. I hope you won’t take that choice away from them. They’ll come to another place in the story when it is time.

When I said earlier that the story began with Nicolas of Myra, that’s not really true. Because Nicholas was part of an older and deeper story, the story of Jesus. Jesus’ life was one of giving to those around him, living simply, sharing good news with hurting people, and asking others to follow his example. Nicholas decided that he wanted to dedicate his life to living in that story. So many of us, when we participate in the Santa story, are also participating in Jesus’ story. For others, the Santa story is not connected with Jesus, but with the spirit of giving. That’s OK too.

Over time, you will have questions about Jesus’ story as well. How can a man die and come back to life? Are all of Jesus’ miracles really possible? What happens to us after we die, if anything? I have all of those questions too, and probably always will. But the bottom line for me is that the story of Jesus has grabbed ahold of me and won’t let me go. It’s the story I want to live in, as best I can, for as long as I can.

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Each Monday in December I’m sending out thoughts on how to have a “Sabbathy” Advent and Christmas. Join my mailing list to receive those. 

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A Hidden Cause of Helicopter Parenting

A few days ago a friend of mine posted this article from Slate, “Why Millennials Can’t Grow Up: Helicopter parenting has caused my psychotherapy clients to crash land.”

The author is a mental health professional who’s seen a dramatic rise in the number of millenials who end up in her office, unable to cope with their burgeoning adulthood.

I’m glad this author addresses the narcissism trope, which I’m so tired of:

It seems as if every article about millennials claims that these kids must all have narcissistic personality disorder. It’s easy to generalize an entire population by its collective Facebook statuses. However, narcissism is not Amy’s problem, or the main problem with millennials.

The big problem is not that they think too highly of themselves. Their bigger challenge is conflict negotiation, and they often are unable to think for themselves. The overinvolvement of helicopter parents prevents children from learning how to grapple with disappointments on their own. If parents are navigating every minor situation for their kids, kids never learn to deal with conflict on their own. Helicopter parenting has caused these kids to crash land.

We’ve all heard this. People love to kvetch about helicopter parents; we pass around stories of parents who go on job interviews with their adult children, or who call colleges during the application process, pretending to be the high school student, or who step in for their high schooler, arguing for higher grade on tests. My sense is that these egregious stories are outliers, though there does seem to be an uptick in this helicopter mentality among certain socioeconomic groups, and I’ve seen plenty of examples of it myself.

My question is, why? Why are people choosing to parent this way? If we can get to the cause, we can start to correct it. I’ve heard a number of explanations:

  • the increasing competitiveness of college admissions and the job market;
  • the spiraling cost of higher education, leading to a “customer is always right” mentality;
  • a media culture that likes to peddle fear of the bogeyman lurking behind over corner, to the point that parents are terrified to let their kids roam free in the world (figuratively and literally)
  • a rejection of authoritarian, “do it my way” models of parenting in favor of a teaching/shepherding model. In theory, this shepherding model should be about equipping the child to make her own decisions and live in the world, but other factors combine to create a bitter result: buddy-buddy parents who are so petrified of their kids’ failing that they flatten every bump in the road.

I suggest another cause underlying this stuff. I haven’t heard it mentioned much, but I think it’s a factor we shouldn’t ignore. It has to do with time.

Nobody starts out intending to impersonate his child to a college admissions officer. It happens over a period of years, and it happens with a thousand tiny decisions, starting when they are young. Decisions like:

1. When my child is having an emotional reaction to something, am I able to stop what I’m doing and let them have their feelings, or am I going to find a quick and easy way to smooth things over?

2. If my child absolutely refuses to wear a coat, will I let them go without one and suffer the discomfort—and learn a valuable lesson—or am I going to “make” them wear one?

3. If a student is having a conflict with a teacher’s teaching style, will I coach him first on how to address the issue, and support those efforts, intervening as a last resort? Or will I immediately swoop in and take over, demanding that the teacher conform to my child’s learning style?

4. Am I going to let my child play freely on the monkey bars, knowing there’s a teensy-tiny chance they could fall and break their arm, or worse? Or am I going to follow them around squawking “be careful, be careful” like a paranoid cockatoo?

I argue that the way you answer these questions, and a thousand others, is directly related to factors such as:

1. whether you’ve built any margins into your schedule to address a child’s emotional life, as opposed to pacifying or appeasing them so you can get on to the next thing, or

2. your tolerance of a cold and complaining child, which is directly related to your own stress level, or

3. whether you’re able do the hard work of coaching, which will take much longer than just doing it yourself, or

4. whether you have time for a trip to the emergency room. (OK, nobody really has ER time built into their schedule.)

I don’t consider myself a helicopter parent by temperament. Sure, I hate as much as anyone to see my kids experience pain or loss, but I try to take the long view and understand that failures and setbacks build resilience. That said, the times that I find myself firing up the chopper are precisely those times when I am too busy, too stressed, or too anxious to stop and help the kids work through their issues. I’d rather solve it myself, brush my hands off, and get on with life.

But in this parenting business, short-cuts (while sometimes necessary) can be costly. One of my parenting mantras is “the harder thing is the easier thing.” That is, doing what seems harder at the time is often easier in the long run: investing the time in helping a child understand her own emotions, or advocate for herself, pays huge dividends down the road. Building margins into my schedule is my biggest spiritual challenge at the moment, but I need to, not just for myself but for my children.

Because there’s no way I’m accompanying them on a job interview.

 

A Family Liturgy for Halloween

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Halloween is still several days away, but in many homes, the excitement and preparation has been going on for several weeks. In our family, the kids are planning their costumes, imagining ever-more-intricate ones. I love their creativity, and want them to have fun and feel great about their costumes, but some of the logistics of their imaginations require me to ratchet back their expectations. I am not a seamstress with an abundance of free time. As of this writing, we are settling on a zombie, Gaia (aka Mother Earth) and Luke Skywalker.

Truth be told, Halloween is one of my least favorite holidays. Some Christians have a suspicion toward Halloween because of its supposed relationship to the occult. That’s not my issue; in fact, All Hallow’s Eve is connected to All Saints Day, an explicitly Christian celebration adapted from the Celts.

No, I don’t love how over-the-top Halloween has become. The trend is away from homemade, improvised costumes and toward “authenticity.” My aspiring Luke Skywalker is angling for a “real” costume, not one of Daddy’s white shirts with a wraparound belt and makeshift lightsaber.

Halloween is a huge and growing industry, and it shows in my neighborhood. Every year we see more and more houses with extreme decorations—elaborate graveyards, spooky lighting, fog machines, even a full-fledged haunted house right on the front lawn. That’s their choice, of course, and my children love trick-or-treating at these homes… but they make even a moderate amount of decorating look positively Scrooge-like in comparison! (They also draw the bulk of the trick-or-treaters, leaving the rest of us to frantically give away six Snickers at a time as the crowd starts to thin.)

And the candy… oh, the candy.

READ THE REST, including some ideas to connect Halloween with Christian faith at Practicing Families. Thanks Joanna for the invitation to write!

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Parenting Hack: Avoiding the Snack Wars

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I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in hunger and were suddenly silenced.

Now that all three kids are in school (and there was much rejoicing!) I’m trying to find ways to simplify life. One of my sources of stress has been after-school snacks. I try to provide a number of decent options, but in the past it drove me crazy to have the girls come home and start jockeying for stuff. I’ve been torn between giving them the freedom to choose what they want and trying to teach them about balance and nutrition.

Can I have a granola bar after I eat this graham cracker with peanut butter? (No, those are both the same kind of food. Eat an apple.)

I also got put in the middle of some annoying altercations.

She ate the last of the fruit snacks! No fair! All that’s left are raisins and I hate those. (Tough. Eat an apple.)

Now with Sweet Baby James in the mix, I knew I had to head off these snack kerfuffles before they started sucking my will to live. So here’s my solution:

1. Each week I make or buy one snack, and that’s the snack for the week. These are generally grain-based snacks and may be granola bars or muffins or even frozen whole grain waffles.

2. If they do not want the snack of the week, or if they eat it and are still hungry, they are welcome to serve themselves anything from the fruit and vegetable drawer, a hard-boiled egg, or a piece of string cheese. (No Caroline and Margaret, I will not wash those grapes for you. Yes James, I will peel your carrot.)

I’d say it’s working pretty well in that I am not a ragey mess from all the negotiating and needling. But this week I made these pumpkin granola bars and Margaret said they “make her gag.” OK, I guess I’m still honing my repertoire. So if you have any suggestions of easy crowd-pleasing snacks that aren’t nutritionally terrible, please let me know and I’ll pin them to my “afterschool” board on Pinterest. Store-bought suggestions are also appreciated, because there ain’t no shame in that.

P.S. No cutesy snacks that require complicated assemblage. The above is about as crafty as I care to get with food.

“No” Has Consequences

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It’s been a wonderful summer—our family’s trip to Iona, Scotland was over-the-moon wonderful—but it’s good to be back into a routine. I put my lastborn child on the school bus this morning. I won’t lie, there were a couple of happy mommy tears as he waved from the second seat and rumbled away.

I wrote earlier in the summer about creating a “to-don’t” list, and have been working on identifying things that I can let go of, either by delegating or just leaving them undone. The idea is to free up time and mental space for those things that are more important.

Our family has a big to-don’t on tap this fall… we’re giving up Girl Scouts.

This one hurts. I am a big believer in scouting. I was a Girl Scout. My mother was my Girl Scout leader, and I was a co-leader for Caroline’s troop last year. Margaret has been patiently waiting for her turn to join. Instead, we will be a Scout-free household for the next year, perhaps longer. I won’t bore you with the reasons, nor with the list of what’s on our plates instead. Suffice to say, this is the right thing for us right now.

On one level it feels great: No meetings. No cookies. No weekends jammed with field trips and badge work.

But it’s also agonizing. No rocketry or horseback riding. No camping. No intentional leadership development of our girls. Yes, they could potentially get that kind of experience in other ways. But how? And what are the consequences if they don’t?

Time management experts (and Sabbath practitioners) sometimes make saying “No” sound simple, as if all that stands between you and a simpler life is to let the unimportant stuff go. But the values of the Girl Scouts are important.

When we say No, we are trusting a bigger Yes.

But that’s easier said than done.

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