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.
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.
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.