Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Most Wonderful Lie of the Year?

Out of the blue, three weeks before Christmas, Diva suddenly had a terrible thought. “We don’t have a chimney!” Both Daddy and I knew exactly what she was saying, but we let it play out. “How will Santa get the presents in without a chimney?”
Lit by the dangerous glow of the same hot, colored light bulbs that adorned the Christmas trees of my husband’s childhood, I maintained my nonchalance, barely glancing up. “I guess I always thought he came through the window nearest the tree,” I said. “I mean, that’s where the presents end up.” A pause. “What do you think Daddy?” He concurred, of course. And thus, once again, lying to our daughter came as naturally as breathing.
Funny thing for those who celebrate Christmas: during this season of grace and love and human kindness, it’s like lie-a-palooza, at least where children are involved. Santa as we know him is a hybrid beast—a Coke ad overlaid on top of a German myth sprinkled with the legend of a Greek monk, and the whole thing wrapped in flannel. If you think about it, he’s kind of a creep, really: a leather-booted stranger who sneaks into your house at night with a list of family members he likes to observe in their sleep. If that story was invented today, there’d be a restraining order involved. The part that wins people over to Santa is presents—people like presents.

In theory, it’s not the gifts themselves but the spirit of giving that Santa represents. Our children, we hope, will want to give to others because they have been inspired by the best—the man who practically invented the art. But methinks there’s more to it for parents: Santa allows us to give more than we should, more than our kids actually need, the kind of toys we always wanted and maybe didn’t get but now have an excuse to buy. And we all know that no present from Dad and Dad is ever as good as one delivered by reindeer direct from the North Pole.

So we lie. And lie and lie. Last year, Diva asked about all the “extra” Santas. She had seen the real one at Macy’s in Times Square—she knew he was real because they said so on TV at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—and had stood in a long line for the privilege of sitting on his lap and whispering her request for a robot dog (a toy she had never once mentioned to us). To then see ersatz Ole St. Nicks at malls and banks and the local cable company lobby was confusing, so she turned to the expert, Papa, who loves Christmas like a pig loves muck. “How can they all be Santa?”

I know, the honest and intellectually-sound approach might have been to use this as the first window into easing her out of the Santa myth, and we have at least one friend who would have jumped at such a chance if she’d been his daughter. But I turned her query back around and asked if the Santas all seemed real. No—she was firm—the true item was the one she’d met. So if they weren’t all Santa, why did she think they dressed like him? She came to a peaceful resolution herself: These guys were his helpers because he couldn’t be everywhere at once when all kids needed to get their requests in. I praised her powers of reason. And thus was the lie of Christmas preserved another year.

This week, a friend’s 7 year-old daughter grabbed her mom’s face and pulled her startled mother in close for a piercing look. “Mommy,” she said, teeth bared like fangs. “Are YOU Santa?”

The mom didn’t hesitate. “Of course not! He brought you nine presents last year! I never buy you that much!” The mom later confessed to me that she'd known she needed to stop there, but hadn’t been able to contain herself, and had overshot, goading her daughter, “And you know who is friends with Santa? God. God is!” (I would like to hazard a guess that she has now pretty much guaranteed a two-for-one faith collapse sometime within the next few years.) The mom, red-faced as she recalled her overzealousness, explained to me, “I just want another year, you know?”

I do know. We hang on to this story because it’s a touchstone of too-brief childhood, something special truly just for kids. Yet we know that the outcome is the eventual revelation that not just one’s own parents but, by extension, all grown-ups know how to lie with straight faces. This can occasion any number of reactions from a child, from a shrug to horror to anger, but we roll with it because we think even a bad reaction will be—as are all things with children—short-lived.  In this way, we make a permanent contribution to the process by which the proverbial blinders fall off; our children will never again implicitly trust everything we say, nor will they think that lying to us in return is inherently a problem. I may recall this ruefully when Diva is 16 and throws out a claim like, “When I said I was in my room, I meant a room which felt like mine, which is true in a way, right?”

Honestly, it’s hard to imagine another myth so widespread, so well-embraced, which is designed to be proven untrue as one’s rite of passage into maturity. As far as I know, there is no Amazon jungle tribe which tells its young that there is a Guardian Bird who brings good boys and girls an invisible cloak that makes them impervious to fire, a story the kiddies love right until they burn themselves on an open flame for the first time, only to be told that the blistering welt is proof that they are now so much smarter than those silly little kids with unblemished skin who still believe.

I don’t want to Diva to get burned by Santa—really, I don’t.  At least not this year. Maybe next year or the year after she’ll have thick enough skin for that. But this Christmas, Santa’s bringing her a Barbie dollhouse the size of a Smart Car, a purchase her dads might be somewhat embarrassed to admit they’d made. And if she asks how the jolly old elf got such a big present through the window, I’m sure to have a good lie ready. Tis the season after all.  

Thursday, December 2, 2010

To Still a Mockingbird

           Diva: “I don’t WANT to go to a tree-lighting!”

           Papa: “I don’t WANT to hear any more whining!”

           Ah yes, the fine art of mimicking one’s child with horrible sing-song precision. It’s such an elegant parenting strategy, that I can’t imagine why more experts don’t recommend it. Oh sure, it’s rude, juvenile, and patently ineffective but you can’t beat it for ease! Or so it seemed when the mockery popped out of my mouth during a long car ride just after Thanksgiving.
            It was late afternoon on what had already been a full day. We’d woken Diva before the sun was up, earlier than she has to rise for school, so that we could bundle her in the car and head four hours north from Boston to where my mother lives in a small Maine town. Diva, a go-go-go kid, hates to ride in the car; all the stillness plucks her last nerve. Even videos—the opiates of the backseat masses—will only tide her over for so long. She gets a little crazy and the crazy rubs off.
            If the travel issue itself wasn’t enough, there’s the fact that we were headed to an Assisted Living facility, which is not exactly a kid-friendly place. To be honest, my mom isn’t entirely kid-friendly to start with. Even with other adults, she can only handle conversation in limited doses, and it’s been decades since she knew how to engage a child. More than a year had passed since the last time we’d brought Diva to Maine. On that visit, she’d immediately seen my mom’s collection of stuffed animals and had eagerly picked one up.  Mom had panicked; her first words to my four year-old were, “Can you put that back down?” This greeting had made Diva clam up for the rest of the visit, and when a neighbor stopped by, my mother complained—within Diva’s earshot—that her granddaughter “was good at not talking.”
Not surprisingly, we did not have high hopes for this recent excursion. But I had come up with a strategy to take the edge off: after we finished our visit, we would make an overnight stop in a city halfway home. I had booked a place with a pool because hotel pools are nearly an obsession for Diva; she’s a girl who would choose a visit to Trenton over Disneyland if Trenton offered a pool and Disneyland did not. On the way to the hotel, we would stop at a Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony, because I am a helpless Christmas fiend. (I finished this year’s holiday i-pod mix a month ago, back when store clerks were still packing away their skeletons and witches.)  The plan was to end the evening at a restaurant with poutine; for the uninitiated, poutine is a dish of French fries topped with brown gravy and cheese curd, which sounds a little disgusting but is like crack for The Hubby. In my mind, all these eventual treats would make the day feel less like a slog, and I assumed Diva would feel this way too.
The Hubby and I shuffled our increasingly-bored gal from locale to locale: first the Assisted Living facility, then to a restaurant that caters to elderly Mainers who like their bland food served in very large portions, followed by a trip to Wal-Mart to buy sundries for Mom, and then a stop at the home of even older relatives whom Diva has never before met. By midday, my daughter was rightly feeling that no one was especially paying attention to her interests. Unfortunately, my mother and I were having such a terrible time finding things to talk about that my own tension was rising as steadily as mercury in July. So even though I could sense that Diva was unhappy, I couldn’t make myself feel any sympathy for her and, indeed, I resented her inability to be more long-suffering. I was thinking things like, “If she had been a pioneer child, not only would she have gone willingly to whatever wilderness we dragged her to, she’d have had to chop down trees once we got there!”
When at last we parted from my mom, Diva didn’t want to give her a hug, or a kiss, or even a wave. She actually hid inside The Hubby’s coat. This pushed me over the edge. Because my mother has never accepted the validity of my marriage, it has always been insanely (and pointlessly) important to me that she recognize the goodness of my parenting. Instead, here was proof that my daughter had been raised by boors: she was a girl with no manners and a heart so hard she wouldn’t give an old lady a kiss.
As would have been clear to a rational person, what was really transpiring was that a tired girl, largely ignored for hours, felt shy around a woman whom she barely knew and who had said little more than “hello” to her all day. But I wasn’t feeling rational. As we headed south toward the mini-escape I’d planned, and Lily said she didn’t want to go to any tree-lighting, my mocking reply was instantaneous—which only ramped things up. She said she WASN’T going and I couldn’t MAKE her, and I replied that she was wrong on both counts. I may even have said something like, “Just try me, lady.”
When I said to The Hubby that I thought Diva needed to get better at doing whatever her dads told her, he admonished me, gently. “Maybe we didn’t do our job as dads today.” He pointed out that we’d never warned her that so much of the day would be un-fun, that hours of driving would be followed by hours of tension before more driving. We hadn’t explained how many boring things she would have to suffer through before getting back into the car for another dreaded drive. And after holding out the carrot of pool time all day, we’d never conveyed that the tree lighting would have to happen first. The Hubby was right and I knew it. In essence, I had expected my five year-old to be more grown-up in the face of the same long day that had taxed me to the point of acting like a bratty kid. When I came to understand this, I let out a long sigh as something unwound inside me.
But there was still the matter of what to do next. We could have just skipped both the tree lighting and the dinner, letting Diva revel in the long-delayed pool time and calling it good. And that would have been a defensible choice in many ways.
Instead, we did something else—everything else, actually. We’d already blown one chance at good parenting that day, no need to blow the next. Rather than suddenly backtracking, so that only her wants and desires were going to be met, and thus sending a message that whining (even if understandable) was indeed the way to get what she wished, we decided to stick to our original plan. But this time, we talked it through.
We had a conversation with Diva about the whole day, how we knew it hadn’t really been that much fun so far, but how important it was to look out for each other. Most of the day had been about the needs of her grandmother, but now we were going to focus on each member of our own little family, not leaving anyone out. We would go to the tree lighting for Papa, then to the pool for her, and then to the restaurant for Daddy. We talked about how all of us needed to do our part to make sure each person truly enjoyed the event that they’d been looking forward to, on the premise that making each other happy as individuals was a way to make us happy together as a family.
She sang lustily all through the tree-lighting, swam like an especially splashy nymph in the pool, and then mowed her way through a cone of French fries like a high Belgian. As we walked back to the hotel, she exulted about our triathlon of fun. “We did EVERYBODY’s thing!” she crowed, happily. And when she announced that she had LOVED this night, I didn’t mimic her—I simply agreed: I loved it, too.     

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