Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

A Christmas Day Story for Parents

The best gift can be teaching our children responsibility for others

Pamela is a ball of energy most days. She rises early to make her daughters’ lunches and then heads out to catch the bus to her first of two jobs. She makes just enough to make ends meet and provide a tidy little townhouse for her girls. Tammy is 11, her older sister Jacintha is 14. Though life is difficult, Pamela says it’s still easier now than when they lived with her emotionally abusive husband who abandoned the family five years ago. After he moved across town with his new wife, the girls used to visit every second weekend. At Dad’s house, they had iPods and new clothes and even a puppy. The puppy was dad’s gift to Tammy. The only problem was that whatever Dad gave the girls stayed at Dad’s. Even the iPods.

In fact, Dad’s house rules were very different from Mom’s. When Dad told the girls eight weeks before Christmas that he was leaving to take a job overseas, he also told them he was holding a garage sale to sell everything the girls had at his place. The iPods and their clothes all went to the sidewalk one chilly Saturday morning. The puppy was sent to the SPCA to be euthanized.

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It was the day after her dog was put down that Tammy didn’t come home after school.

Pamela was frantic when Jacintha called like she was supposed to and said she didn’t know where Tammy was. Pamela tried calling Tammy’s friends, but the pharmacy where she worked as a technician was busy and her boss told her to get back to work. By the time Pamela arrived home at 6:00 PM, Tammy was there, but she wouldn’t say where she’d been or who she’d been with.

If Tammy was trying to get her mother fired, it was working. Pamela eventually asked to see a family therapist at a local clinic.

When I met the family for the first time, Tammy was a sour angry little girl who let her long brown hair hang in front of her face. She shrugged her shoulders or dismissed me with her eyes when I asked her questions about her school and friends. When I finally asked her about her father and his leaving, she did nothing but glare at me and refused to say anything more. I didn’t dare ask about the puppy. At least not then.

We worked together for the next few weeks, developing a story about two households with very different rules. Mom’s house rule was “Do everything you can for others.” Dad’s seemed to be “Do everything for yourself.” Though it was clear enough to us adults, I wasn’t sure Tammy or Jacintha really understood the difference.

That was just before Christmas and Pamela was struggling to make our appointments because she was working extra long hours so she could afford to replace the iPods her ex-husband had sold. The more Pamela worked, the more angry and unpredictable Tammy became.

Eventually, I said to Tammy, gently, but with certainty, “Tammy, when you don’t come home or call, you put the entire family at risk. Your mom can’t work, and if she doesn’t work, she won’t have the money to keep the house going. When you let your mom know where you are after school, you are helping the whole family. Your mom, your sister, and you.” Though Tammy didn’t roll her eyes or glare, she didn’t say much either. Nor did she change her behavior.

At our next meeting, it was just Pamela in the room with me. There was already a light dusting of snow on the ground and we spent most of our time together talking about Christmas traditions and what this holiday would be like for her and her girls. “I’m worn out this year, working lots of extra shifts, and then the baking and the decorating. It’s a bit much for me,” Pamela said.

“Could the girls help?” I asked.

“Oh, I’ve asked them to put up the decorations before, but they never get around to it. Then I just end up staying up late and making the house perfect the way I like it for Christmas day. It means a lot to them that the tree is there and everything is pretty. Like the family is a real family.”

I nodded, but I also wondered if this wasn’t a chance to help the girls understand how important it was that they contributed to the family. We’d been talking for weeks about the need to make both girls understand that they had a role to play in making the family work.

“Pamela, what if you asked the girls to do the decorating, and putting up the tree, things they could do on their own? And if they don’t do it, then still give them their presents, but leave the house undecorated. Let them see they’ve let you down.”

Pamela couldn’t breath for a moment. I could see that the thought of leaving the house bare for Christmas was unthinkable. But then she nodded ever so slightly and said, “Yes, maybe I could do that.”

When we met again in early January, Pamela and her daughters came in laughing about something Jacintha had said on the bus about an old lady’s false teeth and their mother getting old. It was the kind of gentle teasing a family therapist likes to see.

“And Christmas? How did the holidays go?” I asked.

They looked from one to the other before Pamela finally spoke. “Well, I asked the girls if they would please take the decorations out of the closet and set everything up. I was busy baking and working, as you know. But it got later and later. They always seemed to be busy with something else. Then they went to bed Christmas eve.”

“I guess we expected Mom to do the decorating. It wasn’t like we really thought she wanted us to help,” Jacintha said.

“But I really did this time. Because, just like you said, Michael, we have a house rule that we do things for each other. But they let me down. Really let me down. And I’ll admit that I was into the closet and unpacking boxes of decorations before I caught myself and said, ‘No more’. I put it all back and went to bed.”

“I’m impressed,” I said. “And the next morning?”

There was another pause and Tammy started crying. Pamela reached over and pulled her onto her knee. A large dangly child needing a hug. Then Pamela explained, “I’d wrapped the iPods I bought them. They weren’t cheap. But that’s what they wanted. So I made the prettiest little packages out of them and left them in the middle of the living room floor.”

“Where the tree was supposed to be but wasn’t,” Jacintha added.

“And when the girls came down to see what Santa had left, that’s all they saw. Just two little wrapped boxes in a big empty room.”

“It was like the Grinch had been to our house,” said Tammy, wiping away her tears.

“Yes, just like that,” said Pamela and gave her daughter a playful squeeze.

They told me there had been lots of crying that morning, and apologies, and then the girls dragged out the tree and set it up and they cooked breakfast all together.

“So Mom’s house rules? We do things for others. Everyone sort of understands that now?” I asked. This time, Tammy was the first to nod.

“And Dad’s rules?” Tammy went silent and began crying again. I leaned closer until our eyes met.

“Your dad didn’t just sell the iPods. He also left, didn’t he? I can see that made you sad. And he gave your puppy to the pound.”

“He killed her,” Tammy yelled and then sobbed heavy wet tears into her mother’s shoulder. “Why?”

Finding the answer to that question would take us some time, but one thing was for sure. What happened that Christmas morning had made the family stronger. Two girls learned the meaning of family and what making a contribution is all about. And they learned that we have choices in life. We can be selfish or we can be kind. To my mind, that was a very special Christmas present Pamela had given her daughters.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

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