Something you want...a gift guide

Something you want,
Something you need,
Something to wear,
Something to read.

I’m sure I stumbled across this little bit of genius somewhere on the internet years ago but I’m not sure of its exact origins. However, the moment I read it I found that it spoke deeply to the exasperation I always felt around Christmas and birthdays. Like many parents, the initial euphoria of tearing through gifts often ended with a deflated heaviness that settled over the room. What really pushed me to make some changes was the year that we stacked the boys’ gifts in tidy piles to have friends over. They took the things they were most excited to play with and then the remaining items sat, unmoved, for days. The excess was apparent to me and that feeling only grew as I spent the following weeks shuffling and rearranging to make room for new things. This problem is a given once you have kids but it becomes a true dilemma when you have a small space. So, when I heard this little set of parameters I knew we should give it a try.

We’ve since amended it to add the clunkier line, “Something to see…” so the boys can each request an experience they would like to have over the holidays. For example, our 12 year old asked for a go kart day for himself and a friend and our youngest one wants a trip to the good zoo that’s an hour and a half away.

If you find yourself struggling with the excess of any gift giving time, I cannot recommend this framework enough; even if children don’t get media exposure in the way of commercials and ads, it somehow manages to seep in all the same. This leaves kids with what we affectionately dubbed, “the wantsies.” They lose sight of the items that would actually bring them true joy and become convinced they need to have it all. We start this dialogue early on so they have time to consider what they would like early on and by the time we actually need to get the gifts we all feel confident that they’ve settled on what they really want. If 5 gifts seems like a meager offering for Christmas morning, consider that each child will also get a gift chosen by their sibling(s), along with those from neighbors, friends, grandparents, etc plus a gift from Santa. It adds up!

When it comes to Christmas our biggest problem solver has undoubtedly been our advent calendar. Purchased over a decade ago from Pottery Barn, this oversized linen piece with 25 large numbered pockets is the one thing that makes it officially feel like the holidays at our house. I purchase stacks of blank white cards that are just the right size from a local printing shop (so, so cheap) and each night we put a handwritten note in the next day’s pocket, typically the note tells the kids what holiday activity we’ll be doing: making our teacher gifts, buying the tree, going to look at lights downtown, etc and occasionally a little toy or treat will make an appearance. One thing I absolutely love is that as they’ve gotten older, the boys like to take a turn writing the notes for us - a gesture that is always appreciated during the marathon that is the holiday season. I save the notes from each year not only for sentimental reasons but also because it helps jog my memory for the days ahead. Tucked away in a large ziploc are about 10 years worth of advent notes that I consider to be some of our most prized possessions.

More Ways to Make the Holidays More Meaningful:

  1. Encourage kids to get involved in a gift giving initiative for those in need - when we make children aware that everyone will, at some point, face hard times, we teach them to have compassion without pity or judgment and allow them the freedom to connect on a more authentic level. Collecting gifts for patients in a local children’s hospital, donating to a coat drive or “adopting”a family for the holidays with a group of friends, classmates or teammates are all great places to start.

  2. Schedule a pre-holiday clean out - we’ve often explained to our kids that in order for new things to come in, other things must go. Sometimes we pack up items to be stored and swapped out later but mostly, toys and books are donated.

  3. Find a craft that kids like and make it en masse - we have a few tried and true holiday crafts that we love and work our way through the rotation each year. These are the gifts that are given to neighbors, friends, etc. It saves time and the kids still love to decide which color or shape is just the right thing for each person.

  4. Start a collection - it can be anything; holiday mugs, record albums, the possibilities are endless! It’s fun to come across things when you’re out and about and each one, when unpacked, carries memories from years past.

  5. Don’t be afraid to embrace the power of functionality! - Remember the horror stories of wives whose husbands gave them a dishwasher for their birthday or a vacuum for Mother’s Day? Me too. But I have to admit that at some point, the idea of replacing things I use all the time that are broken or missing sounds pretty great. When I’m really stumped on what to get someone, I try to think of things they use everyday that can be repaired or upgraded. This year I happily put a new pair of kitchen tongs on my wish list and have plans to spend an evening sharpening and organizing all my oldest son’s drawing supplies. Clean out someone’s garage space, touch up paint the baseboards while someone is out shopping or organize a loved one’s magazines or bookshelves. Lame as it may sounds, these little gestures go a long way toward the happiness of others.

  6. Gift ritual - We typically have all the same ornaments on the tree each year but we’ve made it a tradition that each boy gets a new ornament, wrapped and under the tree, that they can open on the 15th of December. It’s always fun to pick these out and it helps make the wait to Christmas morning a bit easier. I also love the idea of a white elephant party with friends or a prank day…I’m just not brave enough to try that one out.

  7. Family service day - we’ve done this the last few years and although it takes some organizing, it’s something we all love. We choose an open weekend day before Christmas then draw names out of a hat (we rotate who gets to be partnered with our youngest) and then spend the day doing nice things and giving small gifts to the person on our slip. We draw the line at indentured servitude but some ideas are putting away the person’s laundry, making their favorite breakfast, treating them to a movie, a bike ride or a walk into town for a coffee or hot cocoa. It pushes us to really think about the person and what they enjoy the most.

  8. Scavenger Hunt - I think this would be an awesome idea if you have a house full of guests for the holidays. I can definitely see a group of dads embracing this after a few beers on Christmas Eve. One year we did a scavenger hunt as the main gift and the boys spent the morning all over the trails near our house, looking for clues that each had an experience gift with each one (going to see Star Wars, sledding with friends, etc) and it concluded along the quiet, deserted streets of our little town, which is cozy and empty on Christmas Day.

  9. Holiday to-do list - If a large advent calendar is not your thing, maybe just making a list of fun things to see and do over the holidays is enough. You can also keep an empty jar with some slips of paper and pencils nearby so people can quickly jot down ideas as they come up.

  10. Save one for later - A friend once told me that he and his sister became so depressed and whiny after the initial euphoria of Christmas was over that his mom, exasperated, started stashing one gift away that they could open the day after Christmas. We started saving gifts from neighbors, kid buddies and teachers to open the morning of December 26th and I love it - these gifts often get more attention and appreciation when they are not being unearthed from a pile of wrapping paper. Plus, if you’re at all like me, you can always be counted on to scare up a long-forgotten gift from the back of one of your closets.

Happy Holidays!

Knowing When to Nudge

Odds are good that whatever your kid is into, there will come a time when they want something. Badly. Whether it’s a part in a play, a choir solo, a spelling bee win, the spot on the top team (or second or third team), a better grade, learning to ride a bike. Whatever it is, there will be something. When they speak of this thing you’ll see anticipation and excitement all over their face but maybe you’ll also notice a twinge of frantic energy, an underlying current of panic and desperation. You’ll see how the panic and desperation can start to take over the excitement and suddenly, you’re left with someone who quickly starts to spiral, fear and doubt washing over the very thing they wanted so badly and are now totally convinced is out of their reach.

I have definitely had those moments and have played it several ways with varying results. I’ve been the constant nagging presence, following them around, asking incredulously, “WHAT?! You’re eating that? You have a tournament tomorrow!” and things along those lines. I’ve also sat back, biting my tongue, forcing myself not to point out what seems obvious and watched my kids crash and burn. There is a time and place for both tactics but it didn’t take me very long to realize that I don’t want to be anyone’s overlord, watching over their every move, swatting cookies out of their hands, dragging them to bed on time, etc. And it also felt very removed and cold to watch someone so young set themselves up for failure and suffer a result that was avoidable. A few years ago my oldest son really wanted a spot on a new soccer team. It was a goal that was attainable but would require him to put in some extra work. When he told us what he wanted we asked him, “Is this what you really want?” his answer was a strong, certain “Yes.” So we asked him what his plan was in order to improve enough that he would have a good shot. He laid out a pretty detailed set of things he could do to work on speed, agility, foot skills, etc. We told him it sounded good but also seemed like a lot of work. I imagined me, following him around with the chart he’d made on graph paper demanding, “You’re going out to play? You didn’t do your 50 pushups! And why are your vitamins still sitting on the counter?” That scenario did not sound appealing. So instead, I decided to approach it differently; I told him that if he was serious about this he would probably do much better with some help and support. That eating super clean and going to bed on time would likely help and he agreed. I offered up that if he wanted, I would help nudge him until tryouts were over. I would be there to encourage him when he was feeling down, remind him of his dream and his plans when he was tempted by something that could easily derail him but I would never nag him or force him - my level of enthusiasm would match his. No more, no less. We agreed to try it and got started. Over the coming weeks I became a version of Paulie from the Rocky movies, helping him find pockets of time to train, offering up a smoothie or cup of broth and reminding him that the things he was giving up temporarily (sleepovers, bags of candy, a weekend to sleep in) would all be waiting for him at the end. Sometimes I just played the role of the not-fun mom who said “no” to things on his behalf to let him off the hook with friends and that was ok, too. His work paid off and a new dynamic between us was born.

These days, when a big thing is coming up with either of my two older boys we know the drill - as the thing gets closer I will say, “OK…you ready to be nudged?” and the answer is usually yes but sometimes it’s a “no,” either because they feel they’ve got it on their own or they have a better date in mind to start focusing on it or maybe it’s something that, upon some thought, isn’t really that important and they don’t want to be invested in the outcome, let along bring others along. Maybe it sounds crazy and restrictive to deny children some things that just seem like a birthright of childhood like candy, late nights and a whole day spent in front of a device but there’s a lot to be said for getting older kids in the mindset that goals take work and that if it’s something they want badly enough, the satisfaction of accomplishing it will bolster them for future challenges. Even if the end result falls short and they don’t “win” they have helped strengthen their determination and shown they can do hard things without having an adult drag them along. The win is theirs and that’s what matters. Or maybe they fail spectacularly and that is theirs, too. In that case, the Nudger can have a compassionate conversation about what went wrong, what they’d like to do differently next time or find out if it was something they actually really wanted in the first place. The Nudger will never declare loudly, “I told you so!” They’ll save that to yell into a pillow later. Because sometimes the thing that made them quit or not see the goal through is not laziness or indifference it’s fear or a crushing insecurity and we can certainly all relate to that. In those moments I remind my kids that those things are so real and will show up at the least opportune moments throughout their whole lives. But the silver lining - and it’s a huge one - is that they are sorting it out now, at such a young age that being able to identify those things will come easier as adults and they’ll have a whole bag of tricks to work past those hurdles later on.

Eyes Open

There are life's small concerns, that endless string of details that keeps a low hum in the background of our minds at all times, eventually taking on the same familiarity as a kitchen appliance; harmless little things like permission slips, emails awaiting reply, overdue library books. The decibels ramp up steadily as the worries grow into larger subjects like an unexpected home repair, a child who is heartbroken over an argument with a friend, the existential crisis that seems to plague us all at some point in our adulthood...divorce...a health scare.

I foolishly assumed, for some time, that this was the loudest the noise would get, that the things listed above were the likely culprits to look out for. And while the world did not suddenly change, the landscape shifted. I thought we were doing our part to speak openly and frequently with our white, middle class, suburban sons about the issues of race that had plagued our country in a historical sense and what the future might look like for them as they grow older. I still remember the conversation we had with our son, then ten, about white privilege - a gauzy, hard to grasp concept that life would somehow be easier for him because he happened to be born white, likely heterosexual and male. My son instantly took offense to the notion that he, someone who works hard, looks out for others and cares about humanity in general would ever expect special treatment because of these seemingly insignificant factors, over which he had absolutely no control. "No, no," we assured him, "it's not that you'll ever expect it. We know that. It's that it will happen automatically. It will be so subtle, you won't even know it's happening. You will work hard, you will try your best. There will be things that are difficult for you and you'll have to overcome those obstacles." Unfortunately, prejudice does not share the same helpful identifier as pornography. It's shadowy appearance can allow it to slip by undetected and we don't always know it when we see it. We tried to explain that the world at large will naturally bend, ever so slightly, for people like him and that he should never take that for granted, that he should always be open to the existence of this inequality and not allow it to make him bitter or angry but instead, more concerned about the difficulties of others. After this conversation I couldn't help but think of the flip side, undoubtedly happening around other kitchen tables, where children were told about the ways in which the world would not be bending ever so slightly to help them. It bolstered us to keep the talks going as our children have gotten older. We had ripped off the bandaid and now, each time the opportunity presented itself, we started to look deeper and speak more openly. 

The weight of injustice of all kinds was a hum back then but it's steadily grown to a siren over the last few years. Even as I had these "difficult" conversations with my sons about race and gender inequality I was keenly, uncomfortably aware that they were a luxury not afforded to many. I tried to temper their knowledge of racial issues, bigotry and homophobia with age appropriate stories from my own childhood, a treasure trove of cautionary tales that I found, ironically, to come in useful for such a thing. I wanted to prepare them for a reality they would someday encounter without forcing it on them. I wanted to help them transcend that sticky layer of white guilt so many of their peers would likely wade through, starting with the appropriation they would try on through their very (very) limited exposure to other cultures. I told them of my cousin, who found himself the only black person in a suburban white neighborhood with a police officer stepfather. The relief he felt when he transferred to a predominantly black high school, only to be shunned by his classmates because of his cluelessness around black culture, his light skin, his amber colored eyes. How alone and confused he must have felt. I told them about my own feelings of helplessness as I watched this unfold. That as much as I understood his pain, I knew even then that his situation held nuances I could never grasp. Relaying the story of someone close to me, it felt awkward to be speaking a story that was not, ultimately, my own to tell. I did my best to honor that experience and to acknowledge that my retelling it may skew it or inadvertently diminish it in some way.

These conversations then carried us over to puberty and as my son bemoaned his own slow train to men's shoe sizes, we talked very candidly about what it must be like to be a girl, the gender who typically "gets" to advance first. The feeling of towering over your classmates, the horror of starting your period unexpectedly halfway through the school day. The sudden addition of training bras to your daily wardrobe. Uncomfortable and awkward subjects? Yes, definitely, but we've kept on, a sense of obligation to build this compassion and empathy just as we do with multiplication facts and diagramming sentences. 

There are times that the heartache and anger I feel when I see the news feels like one that needs to be shared with my kids but I've learned that the hardest thing is to know when to temper their knowledge of things that will likely confuse and terrify them. Because of their ages, who they happen to be and where they live, they don't see or experience examples of injustice and prejudice every day, so they have no frame of reference for these larger, more egregious occurrences. Knowing that these events still deserve to be acknowledged, that the conversation must continue, we've started to frame the discussion with our kids in a way that will hopefully serve them better in the long run. We've discussed that their jobs, as children and young adults, is to pay attention to how others are treated. ALWAYS. In school and sports, with their friends and classmates. Among parents and neighbors. Animals. Nature. Pay attention to how people are treated. 

Armed with their new edict, our kids started to come back with observations and questions. They've told us of times when they felt compelled to point out the unfair treatment of someone, slights big and small that they felt deserved to be righted. We talked about their other responsibilities - the importance of being curious about other people, interested in their stories as individual humans and to not put the burden on their black friends, Hispanic friends or even girl buddies to be their own personal translators. That it's unfair to ask someone to speak on behalf of an entire people. The danger of stereotypes. The time and effort it takes to really understand someone. And, mostly, that there are so, so many times in life when they will not be the person in the room who has all the answers or the best solution to a complicated problem. There will be many times when your job is just to go into a situation being open to hearing what others have to say. Since those initial conversations I feel like this notion of paying attention to how others are treated has given me, as a parent, a bridge to connect the larger issues I am aware of to the ones my children bring home. On those nights I lie awake in bed, unable to sleep as I churn over the events taking place in the world I wonder, like all parents, what more I can do to heal, to help, to take action. We choose our path as adults in the bigger work we take on with our activism but I take comfort, too, in knowing that as my children grow, so will their awareness and their understanding, and that they will not have the feelings of crippling naiveté many of us have felt as adults, that their generation is already well-versed in the realities they will face. I take comfort in the fact that by the time they can vote, hold jobs, run for office or start families of their own they will already have the power of knowing how others are treated. 

 

A Feather in All of Our Caps

I'm not ashamed to admit that when it comes to parenting advice, I'll take inspiration wherever I can get it. And while it's safe to say that my frequent viewing of The Real Housewives franchise is not the thing I'm most proud of, I also don't hide it. What can I say? It makes me happy. If I'm having a bad day I'll often let myself watch Luann fall into the bushes a few times...or the infamous prosthetic leg throw...or really any of Phaedra's one-liners but I digress. On an episode of last season's Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Kyle Richards was talking to a friend about her ongoing issues with her sisters, Kathy Hilton and Kim Richards. She got emotional speaking about her mother, "Big Kathy," was really the glue that kept them together when she was alive, that even though the girls had similar interests that often brought a competitive note into their relationship, Big Kathy worked tirelessly to make the girls see each other as a team, rather than rivals. Kyle tearfully recounted that whenever something fortunate happened to one sister, she would tell them that the person's success was a feather in all their caps. And it really stuck with me. 

I've spoken before about my sons' larger gap in ages and while you might think that would make them immune to many of the classic scenarios of sibling rivalry, it really doesn't. The problem for us is that, age difference aside, they have many of the same interests; soccer, running, drawing, school work, helpfulness. There is still quite a bit of overlap and acknowledging one person's accomplishments often feels like you're holding it up as a gold standard for the other son to use as a measure which more often than not, makes them feel that they are falling flat in comparison. And that's just not the case. 

Whatever feelings my husband may secretly have on my devotion to my list of Bravo shows, he agreed that it makes sense to highlight accomplishments in this way, a victory for one or the overcoming of an obstacle as a win for our whole family. A feather in everyone's cap. We quickly came to see that it really does work - my middle son's huge leap in math facts may have been due largely to his willingness to not give up and spend extra time practicing, but we also get to share in that as the people who quizzed him over dinner and encouraged him each step of the way. A toddler potty trained in a week? So proud of my little guy but you know that was a group effort. The list goes on, so many instances where someone is able to stand in triumph of an achievement, celebrate the moment and then acknowledge that others played a part, too. 

I encourage you to give it a try and in the meantime I'll just be over here waiting for a grateful family to thank me for the hours and hours I've sacrificed, dutifully watching Housewives installments to find such gems. 

Defining "Done"

As my kids get older and life gets busier the expectation that they will do chores and finish tasks without being double-checked has grown considerably. There are the basics that we do every school day (brush teeth, make beds, care for pets, unpack lunches, etc) and then there are other items that are needed too - vacuuming rooms on weekends, cleaning up the yard, putting away bikes and cleaning out the car after a marathon day of sports shuttling. And I can tell you that there are fewer things that make me want to fall to my knees and shout, "WHY?! WHY?!" at the skies more than what usually happens when these jobs are doled out. My kids will dutifully march off to do whatever was asked, then, after a period of time they'll call out that "______ is done. I'm gonna go play/read/whatever." And then I'll walk into their room an hour later to see that the floor is vacuumed, but the vacuum is in the middle of the room, still plugged in. Or they swept, but left the dustpan full of bits. A car that was recently cleaned out will sit in the driveway with every door open and a bag of trash in the back seat. Bikes put away? Yup! Shed closed. No. Dishwasher loaded with dishes and soap? Done. Start button pushed? Uh, probably not.

It is this vexing problem that led me to start thinking about how I, and they, define when a job is truly done. As frustrating as it is to see my kids suffer from not quite finishing a job I also realized that I am also guilty, too, and more often than I'd care to admit. The last steps are usually the most tedious and least desirable but those are often the pieces separating a job well done from something that stays on a list. I've noticed little and big things I do with varying frequency that I really struggle to finish and how much those loose ends weigh on me. Compound that with loose ends from three kids and it quickly becomes a ball of knots. 

The more I've thought about this the more clear it has made me want to be when handing out little jobs or asking favors from not just my boys but others, too. I think about what a finished job looks like to me and that becomes part of the ask - so, "Can you please vacuum your room then empty it out and put it away?" So simple but it keeps us on the same page. Generally, this expectation becomes the norm pretty quickly which is good because if done too much, it can feel like too much micro-management. In doing this, it's also made me come to the uncomfortable conclusion that my definition of done is not the one that others share and that I sometimes need to let go of that ideal. Less so with kids, more so with adults. Specifically spouses. ;) There are times when it matters and times when it doesn't. Starting to put tasks in these two columns of those that need extra instructions and those that don't frees up mental space and takes so much less time. 

As we quickly barrel towards summer and all the communication and planning those eight weeks involve, I highly recommend putting some thoughts around this as a way to preserve sanity and keep the peace. 

Midsummer

There are certain times each year that feel especially bittersweet; the day after Christmas, when a kid's birthday party has wrapped up and you survey a house strewn with used paper plates, crumpled wrapping paper and discarded toys. But no day draws conflicting emotions quite like the first day of school - I think it will forever remain King. I spend a lot of early summer trying not to think of that looming square on the calendar and in those first days of freedom it's easy to do. The summer stretches out before us full of anticipation and excitement and we sit around asking, "What should we do this summer?" then feel slightly punchy and giddy when the answer is, "We can do anything! We have the WHOLE SUMMER!"

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