When I was about four years old, my dad came home early from work one day. Still in his coat and tie, he ushered me into the car, saying something to my mom so that she wouldn't worry, and then he whisked me away to K-Mart to buy my mother a Mother's Day gift.
K-Mart wasn't his idea. He had asked me the night before where I thought it would be good to get something for my mom, and, at the tender age of four, I loved my mother very much but also had a hard time getting the concept of Mother's Day into my toddler brain. Her job, after all, was to be my mother. It didn't make sense to me for there to be a day where we simply rewarded her for being good at what she was already supposed to be good at.
So I suggested K-Mart since they had cool toys there that my parents were usually willing to be talked into purchasing if I used my sad puppy-eyes, and I decided therefore that this was a win-win scenario. My dad and I would head off to K-Mart, I'd have a pretty good chance of getting a new action-figure, and I would get all the associated adult-like kudos for picking out a gift for my mom because she was my mom and that's what I was supposed to do.
Looking back on this, it occurs to me that this sounds rather selfish, but then I'm looking at this memory through the lenses of a hopefully fully-formed adult. If I put on my kiddie psychiatrist hat, my attitude starts to make sense to me. My mom, because I was very fortunate, was good at being a mom (she still is, for that matter) so I took her presence and attention more or less for granted. As callous as this might sound, this exact attitude is entirely consistent with how it ought to be.
As fate would have it, you had to pass through the plant section of K-Mart before you got into the main shopping aisles (I think they took advantage of the non-air conditioned area to warm the tropical plants). With the impulsive wisdom that perhaps one only truly and confidently possesses between the ages of two and five, I decided on the spot that I would ask my dad to buy for my mother a rubber tree plant. What's funny is how clearly I remember the plant. It was about half my height, with three healthy leaves and a teeny baby leaf about to unfurl. My dad, as eager to leave K-Mart as I was to visit the toy section, quickly grabbed the plant, prepared to pay for it, and then caught sight of my puppy dog eyes. I think I ended up getting some kind of toy, but I don't remember what.
I just remember the plant.
This memory was newly conjured for me just the other day as I was having a teeny disagreement with my youngest child about what to do on Mother's Day this year.
"We're going to take Mom to breakfast on Mother's Day," I explained.
"Why?" she asked.
I responded, "What do you mean: Why?"
She thought about her next move.
"Can't Mom just have cereal?"
“Sure she can have cereal, but she’s not gonna. She’s gonna go out to breakfast with you and your sister and me.”
Thinking back to that K-Mart trip more than 30 years ago, I then strategically launched a bold-faced bribe.
"We'll get a toy on the way home," I promised.
She agreed. Plus, she had those puppy-dog eyes.
In the spirit, therefore, of preparing parents and kids for this yearly celebration of all of the good that mom's do, I thought I’d offer some guidelines for the various and sometimes surprising ways that kids might view the recognition of Mother's Day as children and adolescents progress along their developmental trajectories.
Little Kids (ages 2-5ish)
Little kids might not get it.
Then again, they might.
Remember that at this age kids are trying out different attitudes and then watching to see how others respond. There's certainly no shortage of advertisements for Mother's Day, so kids have all sorts of templates beyond the ones you or their schools might offer. Most of these templates will be interpreted in rather concrete ways: We get something for Mom on Mother's Day because we love Mom, and because it is the right thing to do. In fact, kids tend to remember most of all their mother's bright eyes at receiving the gift. If a teeny bribe is needed to make it go smoothly, that seems OK. There's no real benefit in making Mother's Day a time for disciplinary precedent.
School-Aged Kids (ages 5ish to 12ish)
These are some of the best years for Mother's Day. Kids have grown big enough to truly appreciate their moms and to be comfortable expressing that recognition. It's not that when they were younger that they didn't appreciate Mom. It's just that when they were younger they were busy needing Mom to do things like stand-up and to eat and to take half-decent baths. With independence comes a slightly melancholic, though not necessarily painful realization that Mom is needed now for more complex moments. How do you negotiate difficult social circumstances at school? How do you manage your growing homework burden when faced with the call of a beautiful day? With these memories and with appreciation for Mom's increasingly nuanced jobs, school-aged kids often go all-out on Mother's Day. A little help from adults or older siblings, and these become the Mother's Days characterized by homemade projects and breakfast, albeit often burnt, brought proudly to bed where Mom has been given the freedom to sleep-in. Just sit back, parents, and enjoy the unfettered good will that is most common for kids this age as they ring in Mother's Day festivities.
Adolescents (12ish and up, depending on much your kids have matured!)
Remember how we said that little kids are trying on different attitudes? Well, adolescents are doing the same thing. Developmentalists have even referred to these changes in behavior as the "second separation." The first comes when you're little and you try on different styles and then look for your parents' response. The second, now ripe with acne and the occasional surly retort, is more about seeing how peers respond. There may be great ambivalence about Mother's Day during teen years. This isn't necessarily because teens are unable to appreciate mom and in no way does it mean that teens take their moms for granted. It means, instead, that the simple recognition of all that Mom does brings back memories of simpler times, and those simpler times are both longed for and soundly eschewed. Here's where, if you encounter resistance, you might raise your voice a bit if your teen wakes on the wrong side of the metaphorical bed with regard to properly acknowledging Mother's Day celebrations. Remind them that they gotta do something. Take them shopping, let them wander the Internet to shop, have them use some of their own money if needed. Kids this age are also pretty sophisticated. They can do some pretty cool stuff. A photograph a teen has taken, framed up and nicely presented, will with all likelihood end up on the bedroom wall for Mom.
Mother's Day is fun. There is poetic truth, of course, that it happens in spring. Rebirth, flowers, new energy in the air; this is all the stuff that moms bring us. A cynic might argue that it is an artificially created day concocted by the greeting card industry, and who am I to rebuke this? I just think that even a concocted day is worth it if we take time out to celebrate the moms among us.
And that rubber tree I got for my mom? She still has it. It's gone through trimmings and repotting and new leaves and droughts and times of rapid growth, but still it thrives, all thanks to my mommy.
Steven Schlozman is a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He is the Associate Director for the Clay Center for Young Healthy Young Minds. His first novel, The Zombie Autopsies, has been optioned for film by horror director George Romero.