Christmas doesn’t go as planned (or failing at parenting in the golden age of consumerism)

Years ago, when our daughter first “got” Christmas, Santa, and receiving presents just for being her – I think she was 3, almost 4 – she ran to the tree like a mad wind-up toy, her little legs pumping to get to “the goods.” If it had been a cartoon, a trail of dust would have followed her, along with a scorched wood floor revealing her path to the tree.

What an amazing Christmas it was as she played with her dolls and modeled a Snow White dress in the mirror, admiring her perfectness. As a parent, it was the winningest Christmas of all and the one we dreamed of, complete with big smiles and happiness in abundance.

That Christmas was not this Christmas.

Our daughter, now nine, had her list for Santa: Let’s Dance 3 for Xbox, a Fushigi glow ball (not sure where this request came from), and a soccer ball trainer.

And she had her “parent list”: Disneyland Xbox game and a piano keyboard.

Pretty simple requests, especially compared to the ones she created when younger. We talked to her about asking for fewer gifts. And to her credit, she listened. No long lists this year.

We also discussed the desire for “stuff” and consumerism with her. We watched “Story of Stuff” together. But as you’re about to read, we failed in our mission to teach her not want stuff too deeply. Or the forces of consumerism overwhelmed her. Or both.

Looking at her list, we crossed out one item, the piano keyboard. She’s taking guitar and voice lessons and doesn’t like to practice. How much would she use a keyboard? We figured it would collect dust after a couple of weeks of play.

It had to be pink.

We changed her request to a new bicycle, which she needs since she looks like a circus performer on her small bike with her knees sticking out on its undersized frame.

I spent a few hours shopping at local stores and looking online and found a pink and silver bike for her at a neighborhood bike store, not a chain store, which made me happy. I added a kickstand and silver water bottle holder to match the silver trim.

After she opened her presents, I told her we had one more gift for her and went to the garage to get the bike. She said to my wife, “Is he going to get my keyboard?”

Wow, she really wanted a keyboard, I thought.

When I was a kid, I loved having a bike. I remember all of them. And it was a big deal getting a new bike. So, I expected she would love it and gush with mad excitement.

But what is life if not the crusher of hope and expectations?

I wheeled the bike into the living room. Nothing. No response. Disappointment showed on her face. I wasn’t holding a keyboard in my hands.

I didn’t hear, “oh, Daddy, what a cool bike!” Or, “oh, my gosh, that’s the best present ever.”

I received the same reaction as if I had wheeled a giant load of coal into the room.

Our kids grow up, so do their bikes. The small bike is Cotton Candy and it served us well. I remember my daughter falling off it at the park where she learned to ride. We figured the grass would soften the fall. And it did.

Then came stunned responses from me: You don’t like it? I thought you’d love this. You need a new bike. Look it’s pink. 21 speeds. I don’t know if it can be returned or not.

My wife was stunned too as my daughter clung to her. Then, as I was speaking, trying to get my bearings in the situation, my daughter made a remark that made me feel like a servant when she said something like: “Why is he speaking right now?”

At this point, my friends, you should know to never visit this site for parental advice. Or you can visit it to learn what not to do as a parent. For in that moment, I felt like a failure. Not for choosing the wrong gift so much as for hearing such a queen-like remark from my daughter.

Was this my daughter speaking in that tone? That’s what hurt most – we had spent nine years raising her not to act like this.

When my wife told her how upset she was by the remark, tears followed and she ran to her room. We sat there stunned, our Christmas happiness taking a 180-degree turn to something unexpected.

When the three of us came back together, my wife and I chose not to pounce on my daughter, which at times wasn’t easy. We told her why we weren’t happy with her attitude and reaction to the bike, and used the situation as a learning experience to discuss the pressure she, as a nine-year-old, is under to “want stuff” and base her happiness on “getting stuff” like a keyboard.

We discussed basic manners when receiving a gift, but focused on personal happiness and how companies want us to connect our happiness with products and the newest versions of products. And to her credit she seemed to get it and respond with understanding comments, questions, and apologies.

Soon, her extreme desire for the keyboard faded and she realized how cool the bike was. As winners of the Christmas weather lottery and a 74-degree day in Los Angeles, all of us went for a test ride.

And while riding her first bike with hand brakes for skidding, gears for climbing hills and going faster than she had ever ridden before, she smiled like she did years ago when she rode her first pink bike with training wheels. Christmas joy returned to her face and ours. She looked so happy and proud and joyful in a way I think most parents know only a child can muster. It’s happiness in its purest form, unstrained and untainted by complex thought and hidden motives.

If I think of my memories of childhood, a lot of them include a bike. Now I wonder if my daughter will remember this Christmas and the bike years from now. It’s the most important Christmas for her to date and about more than the bike. It’s about her future happiness. It’s also a warning to us as parents that our child is under constant pressure to consume, to own stuff and shop.

My wife and I have quite the challenge ahead of us. We lost this battle, but we don’t plan on losing the war. “Owning stuff” will be a conversation in our house for a very long time. Just as this Christmas will be a memory in my mind for a long time. Because despite its sharp right turn to the unexpected, it was still one of the best – they’re all good when they could be your last – and I will never forget it.

Memorable Christmases are the best Christmases, even when they don’t go as planned.

Happy Holidays.

6 thoughts on “Christmas doesn’t go as planned (or failing at parenting in the golden age of consumerism)

  1. I love how you handled the situation! I really struggled this year, more than previous years, with people’s selfishness. It was appalling to hear my some of my coworkers talk about what they were getting for their kids.

    My girls are both young enough that they’re still happy with ANYTHING they get. I also think it helps that we have done away with television in our house (we now just have Netflix, and Adam and I watch our shows online). Shylee (my 6yr old) doesn’t even know what’s “cool” right now because she hasn’t seen any TV commercials for months. But… I know the day is coming that we’ll have to sit down and have a similar conversation with our girls… and I dread it!

    I like what you said about memorable Christmases being the best Christmases, and it sounds like this is one none of you will be forgetting anytime soon!

    • Jenny,

      I don’t know if we handled it well or not. But thank you for the support. It’s hard. Having an only child is challenging sometimes.

      I like the fact you cut the TV. I’ve been thinking of doing it too. Between Netflix and Apple TV, I bet we can find something to watch on weekends. Kudos to you for the change. I talk to my daughter all the time about commercials. I make her zip through them during recorded shows when she watches cartoons.

      I hope you don’t have to have the same conversation. It gets harder when they get older and other kids want stuff. We thought we were doing a good job. Then the Christmas surprise came. But it’s all good.

      Wishing you and the family a happy new year. And for you, a healthy new year free of hospital stays.


  2. I struggle so much with consumerism myself that my kids seem okay to me. I swear my mantra is “I want a …” The good news is that I’ve learned that I just don’t get what I want most of the time or that I need to wait an awfully long time for it. I’ve learned not to buy anything on impulse and I’ve learned to live with wanting things that I might never have. I’m not talking about big stuff like luxury cars, I’m talking little to medium things like kitchen gadgets and that iPad that I dream of every day. My goal is to learn to appreciate what I have and not focus on what I think I want. I struggle wit this.

    • Margie,

      You and I can commiserate together about consumerism and how we struggle. I do all the time and think it’s part of why I feel less than successful in life. Oh, well, that’s another post for another day. I’m better about impulse purchases too. And I like your goals. I’m going to borrow them, though it may be hopeless for me.

      If you’re looking for an iPad, pick up a used one. The iPad 3 is coming out soon. You’ll see a lot of people unload iPad 2s when it does. Find a used one that the owner put a protective plastic on and the screen should be like new. That will save you money. I say all of this because I do think the iPad is worth the money, especially if you can find a good one used.

      Best of new year wishes to you and the family. And I hope you help deliver a lot of healthy, happy babies in 2012. But not so many that you have no time to yourself. Just the right balance is what I’m wishing you. 🙂


  3. Ahhh… UC, we all deal with our little munchkins and their selfishness, it seems it is a rite of passage, after all, how do we learn if not by making the mistakes? I was a complete obnoxious twat as a child and look how fabulous I turned out?

    Lets face it, by nature we’re all a little selfish and self absorbed – its the age we live in, though we may try to fight it as much as possible and call ourselves ‘good parents’,’ and hope to not get that call from a jail cell anytime in the next decade.

    My son has learned this (hard) lesson regarding gratefulness for what one has and respect in the time of disappointment, more than once over the past few months, and frankly probably didn’t end up nearly as gracious as your daughter did in her process! Give yourself a pat on the back, we all do our best and our kids are not complete hellions – in this regard, its been a good year!

    On that note, at 2pm on 31st December 2011 here in Aus, may I wish you and your family a very happy (Australian) New Year!

  4. Pingback: The parenting gods deliver another lesson to moi | The Unknown Cystic

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