Christmas is supposed to be the most wonderful time of year for children and parents alike. So why does the holiday season bring out so much winey, crabby, defiant, entitled and spoiled behavior in our kids? True that the onslaught of extra sugary treats must be a contributing factor and yes, the extra family events and late nights that interrupt a child’s normal routine can be a challenge, but it seems that there is something more to it, something we, the parents, add which makes our children even more erratic this time of year.
There has been a lot of negative behavior from my four year old daughter, Twila, lately. Just when I thought we were out of the cloud of three-year-old, non-sensical, emotional terror, the last week of busyness and running around happened and Twila suddenly reverted or verted for the first time to a whole new level of testing, button-pushing, shouting, arguing and defiance.
Ryan and I were laid out for about forty-eight hours with an awful stomach bug on Monday and Tuesday. And for the two days after that had only fits and bursts of energy, so by Saturday morning, Twila was ready for something interesting to do besides sit around our living room, watching movies, occasionally venturing up to the back of the couch pretending to be a princess or witch and eventually ramping up her energy and action until one of us got hurt or a glass of water got spilled and Ryan and I snapped at her.
Feeling quite a bit more energetic ourselves, we thought we would take our daughters to a nearby mall where kids could ride a train, engineered by Santa himself around the shops and kiosks. This idea proved to be overly ambitious almost as soon as we arrived.
Twila’s patience with our low energy and dour attitudes all week was rebounding in a most feisty and contentious way. Every display we passed, she had to grab and handle; each store we walked by she dodged into without a word of request or explanation. When I tried to speak to her or touch her, she jerked away from me like a pro football player dodging a tackle. She would sooner hit the floor than allow me to steady her shoulder with a firm hand.
A few moments of this behavior was enough to have my adrenaline pumping, internal indignation and embarrassment coursing through my veins. I don’t know how to respond to these parental situations except to respond in kind. As she did her best fullback routine, dodging away from me, juking through the crowd, I became an infuriated linebacker growling ferociously behind her until my strong hand closed around her tiny upper arm at which time she reverted back into a wriggling, squirming, screaming four-year-old who, when on her back, legs kicking wildly up at me, proved more dangerous than any pro football player.
I was vaguely aware as I lifted her clean off her feet and transported her flailing body to the side of the crowded mall plaza and held her firmly against the wall that I looked like one of those parents. I’ll admit right now that I am often one of the judging crowd watching those parents who grab and yank their children, who yell and bark at, and insult their small, whimpering kids who (though may be ill tempered) appear to be acting just like normal toddlers and kids. Kids whine, kids complain and nag and beg for things and yes they drive us crazy sometimes but aren’t we supposed to be the bigger person? Aren’t we with our greater strength also charged to have greater self control and patience than our small children?
I felt the judgmental eyes on me as I held Twila’s shoulders tightly as she struggled away from my grip, sticking out her lower lip and furrowing her brow in prideful resentment, in refusal to appear as if she was listening to me.
I realized at that moment, staring into her angry little face, feeling her look into my angry face, crowds of people watching our angry little exchange, that I hate the mall. I’ve never been a shopper, I find it tedious to walk around picking through piles of clothes, flipping through racks, examining products and asking chit-chatty questions of overly friendly store clerks. But that morning, as I crouched over the linoleum seam where the floor met a great, cylindrical pillar, I actually blamed the mall for my daughter’s obnoxious behavior. I blamed the mall for my inability to react wisely to my daughter’s tantrum. I blamed the mall because it was crowded, loud, bright and far too full in so many ways. It was too full of people, too full of products, too full of sounds, too full of something posing as the Christmas spirit. Mostly, though, I blamed myself for bringing my daughter here.
All around were cheerful sounds, bright decorations, festive music, and Christmas-y smells but it wasn’t actually joyful at all. It was still just a crowded, concrete warehouse whose special holiday train I was holding over my daughter’s head to try and coerce good behavior. Talk about the Christmas spirit.
Seemingly happy people with gingerbread lattes and cell phones in palm, walked through the conveyer belt of products, wondering what their children or friends or boyfriends might want in their stockings this year and casually judging me for pinning my four-year-old against the wall as she grimaced and fought against me.
It wasn’t Twila’s fault, it was my fault and the mall’s fault but not her fault. She is still new on this planet and is still learning what social constructs are all about. She is still learning that you shouldn’t shove and run in long crowded hallways of people, that it’s frowned upon to grab the soft arms of cashmere sweaters, hanging in tidy lines as you eat handfuls of oily potato chips. She’s still learning that it’s dangerous to run away from your mother in a crowded place; that trying to hide from your mom in the midst of crowds of strangers makes her crazy with latent fears about abduction. How should she know that going out of the house for the first time in days to a big place with high ceilings doesn’t mean you can run full bore as far as you can?
As usual, it’s me, mom, who should know herself and her children and the condition of malls better than to think the three would make a good combination in the shadow of Thanksgiving weekend as the shopping season gears up towards full on hysteria. It’s my job to keep Twila safe by bringing her to places that are safe for her to act like herself, a normal, active four-year-old who wants to run and hide and yell, not a place where manic shoppers are pushing towards the best deals on overpriced clothes and electronics.
So my lesson was learned as I stood there poised to pounce all over my defiant daughter. I figured it out, if a little late, that this is not where Twila and I would make the most of the Christmas season together. There underneath the melodic sounds of Silver Bells and the intermittent jiggling of “Santa’s” reindeer reigns and the constant shuffling of feet, the screams and cries of children being photographed on Santa’s lap, the chinging of cash registers, the rustling of shopping bags, was the least joyous place for the two of us. And I won’t make that mistake again.
I’ll spend this month, instead, playing with my kids, taking them places they can run around and be themselves. I won’t spend all month teaching them to want things so I can turn around in a month or a year or five years and get angry with them for wanting too many things. Instead we’ll emphasize playing, and spending time together, making crafts and giving to people who actually need things, reading Christmas stories, singing songs and watching Christmas movies. And in this small way I will try to do what I can to not contribute to the consumerist hysteria of a season that is supposed to be full of peace and wonder.