I have been running around frantically the last few weeks. Not because anything is wrong, but because the holidays are upon us. My stress stems from my over-scheduling of holiday parties and trying to find the right gifts for family members. And then this morning, as I woke up with anxiety in anticipation of the myriad things I still need to get done, I had a realization. Most gifts are enjoyed for a short amount of time. Much of what I’ve been trying to do is find the perfect gifts for my children. But as I gaze upon the walls of Legos and books from past Christmas’s and birthdays, I wonder if I am doing them a disservice by focusing so much of my energy on presents. What if the cheesy idea I’ve been hearing lately is true? What if the best present to give my child is my presence?
When I was growing up, we were very poor. The six members of my family slept in two bedrooms and we collected cans to make ends meet. I remember the delights on Christmas morning when I unwrapped a new puzzle or some Encyclopedia Brown books. What I also remember is my parents rarely ever around to engage with me. They were too busy with their 24-hour motel business and much too stressed about the mortgage payment and leaky roof.
Today, instead of living on a busy street filled with bright lights and piercing sirens, I live in a spacious house on a calm street. I don’t have the financial woes my parents faced. And yet, I still feel stress. I have inherited their habit for worrying and have passed it down. My stress seems to ooze out of me and my children soak it in. They are also scurrying around making cards and shopping for gifts. So what am I to do? One of the hardest things about parenting is that children are great copycats. When my daughter was 4 years old, we were visiting with my in-laws and she dropped a toy and said, “Damn!” That’s when I knew she was listening and began paying more attention to my words. There needs to be a balance, however. It can be tiresome to always be “the model parent” for your child when those “perfect” behaviors don’t come naturally. I grew up with a parent who yelled a lot, so I will slide into those shoes when I am in stressful situations.
The balance I found is with “human parenting.” This is my term for recognizing parents as being human and that we are bound to make mistakes. The hallmarks of human parenting are kindness, apologies, and forgiveness. Here’s how it works: 1) I try to be kind in all situations. This is my intention, but because I am human, I sometimes fail at this. 2) If I’ve suddenly become unconscious and did something unkind like yelling at someone, then I apologize. I tell the person I have offended that I am sorry for any pain that my words or actions have caused them. 3) Once I have apologized, I have to forgive myself. This is perhaps the hardest thing to do, but it is necessary. Why? Because if I can forgive myself, then that means I am being kind to myself. And if I practice being kind to myself, then I am more likely to be kind to others. If I practice these steps, it can lead to more kindness and less time spent apologizing or forgiving.
So this also brings me full circle to the stress I have been experiencing lately. If I could have asked for any gift from my parents when I was a child, I would have chosen the gift of their presence. I craved their love and attention back then, and even though they always managed to find a gift that I enjoyed Christmas morning, I would have gladly taken a moment of connection or a loving gaze. I don’t want to diminish the fun and joy of opening gifts and then playing with new toys. But how long does that joy really last? A few weeks? A few hours? What lasts longer than a holiday present is the presence I bring to the moment. If I stop stressing or worrying about getting things perfect and instead enjoy the present moment–truly enjoy being with them–then I will be giving them the best gift this holiday season.