This morning I found myself threatening to take away one of my daughter’s Christmas presents and give it to a more deserving child, if she persisted in treating me without respect. I was tired of making simple requests (please put on a jacket or a sweater!) that were met with indignation (I WON’T!). I was tired of staying up half the night with one sick kid only to have the other look me in the sad, tired eyes and say, “I hate you!” I was tired of her (albeit developmentally appropriate) egocentricism (think about how I feel, for once!).

Even in the moment, though, I was appalled by my threat. How exactly would I do that? I wondered. Would I reveal a gift to her, then have her walk with me down the street (sobbing) to deposit it at the children’s home? Would I show her a wrapped gift that she would never open and then steal it away, as her imagination dashed between all the magical possibilities of what it contained? Would I lie and pretend to have given away a gift that never existed? All the potential scenarios seemed equally terrible. And to threaten without following through, well, that’s just bad parenting.

I haven’t heard many parents admit that the holidays bring out the monsters in their children. But, think about it, they’re like a cocktail for child insanity: obscene amounts of sugar; impossibly delayed gratification; frequent pressure to behave; overtaxed parents; and usually a winter virus on top.

Those of us with young children are often painfully aware of the disconnect between the appearance of family harmony (perky, beautiful children who smile for pictures on facebook) and the reality of family strain. And it’s easy to feel alone, and to believe that, though your kids also smile for pictures, other people’s kids behave and are happy ALL THE TIME.

There’s pressure on us, too. There’s pressure to make this time of year special, to enjoy the family outings to buy trees, the trips to crowded malls, the baking of cookies. And I’ll be the first to say, sometimes I’m just not feeling it.

Sometimes when my daughter has a sweet little request, like singing carols by the Christmas tree before bed, I don’t want to do it. I want to read my book, have a glass of wine, indulge myself for a change. Sometimes, in the kindest little voice, my son asks to climb on my lap and give me kisses (which he does about 50 times a day), and I frankly don’t really feel like being touched, or getting his little fever germs all over my lips.

There are still plenty of moments that I actually do enjoy. But the sheer number of moments is greater during the time of year when all extracurricular activities have finished for the year, when school is getting out, when kids are home sick, which means the number of bad moments is at all-year high, as well.

One thing I’ve noticed about parenting, particularly as a person who knows a fair amount about developmental psychology, is that the parenting situation provides us with endless opportunities to feel bad about ourselves. There seem to be so many opportunities to fail, and so many moments when we witness our small failures. The reason for this is, In part, because we’re not that different from our kids. We’re people—with bad moods, frustrations, flaws. But we want to be our best selves for them all the time. Even if we try our hardest, we will certainly fall short. Simone de Beauvoir once wrote, “It's frightening to think that you mark your children merely by being yourself. It seems unfair.” It really does.

But human is really the best we can be. It makes sense to correct our behavior when we can (I won’t make that stupid threat again!) and let ourselves off the hook once in a while. Because, I think, the very fact that we wish to be our best selves for them matters. They may not know it now, except on some undefinable, almost cellular level. But they’ll likely know it when they become parents themselves. And they’ll hopefully remember the efforts we made, and the times when we succeeded, as way more important than the moments when we were distracted at the holiday concert or frustrated at them for tearing open someone else’s wrapped present. 

Encountering America

Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self
Jessica Grogan, Ph.D.

Jessica Grogan, Ph.D. is the author of Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self (January 2013, Harper Perennial).

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