Learning Care Group News: December 1, 2012

The Best Gift You Can Give Your Kids This Holiday Season

avoid being dismissive of your child For better or worse, my kids associate the holiday season with gifts. I haven’t even put away the Thanksgiving decorations, but I already know my boys would like their first electronic readers, some new clothing for our planned holiday trip and (obviously!) a replenishing of their beloved baseball equipment.

While my kids will receive some of the material loot from their wish lists, they probably won’t be aware of the biggest gift that I’m hoping to give them this season: a changed attitude. Over the past few months, I’ve been devouring the latest happiness and parenting research. I worry about raising children in our “never enough” culture, and I’ve found myself wondering whether I’m cultivating sufficient feelings of love and belonging to counteract the other message my kids will receive.

I’m far from a perfect parent (after all, my book is called Good Enough Is the New Perfect!), and I try to remind myself that mistakes are teaching opportunities. Still, as a recovering perfectionist, I can’t help but cringe when I think of the times I’ve shooed my kids away because I needed just another minute to finish my work, or when my younger son called across the fence for me to look up from the phone and “pay attention” when he was batting. I don’t think I should stop working every time my kids want my attention; sometimes I must prioritize work. But in light of my recent reading binge, I’ve committed to changing small, daily behaviors to show my kids unconditional love this holiday season.

I’ve been particularly affected by the work of Dr. Brené Brown, who writes on the topics of shame and vulnerability. Dr. Brown’s new book, Daring Greatly, describes the heartache associated with not feeling a sense of belonging at home. She interviewed middle schoolers who confessed that while it was a terrible feeling not to “fit in” at school, almost nothing rivaled the pain of not belonging at home. This struck a chord with me, too, as my older son Gideon is just half a year from starting middle school. I learned that the brain processes social rejection or shame the same way it processes physical pain, and read with an uncomfortable feeling the list of items that students said made them feel like they didn’t belong in their own families. The list included:

  • not living up to parents’ expectations
  • not being as cool or popular as your parents would like you to be
  • not being as smart as your parents
  • not being good at the same things your parents excelled at
  • your parents being embarrassed because you don’t have enough friends or you’re not an athlete or cheerleader
  • your parents not liking who you are and what you like to do
  • your parents not paying attention to your life.

Children growing up today face a barrage of societal messages about what they must acquire to be “enough,” but at home, we have a powerful opportunity to teach worthiness and resilience. And that starts with simple things, like how parents react when their children walk into the room. I know I can change small, daily behaviors to show my kids unconditional love and to ensure that they know they belong in our family. Like stopping, at least momentarily, when they walk in the room. And letting them know that I’m glad to see them.

It really can be that simple. When Henry comes bounding down the steps in his fifth costume change of the night, before I remind him that he needs to clean up his mess, I need to flash a smile. I want him to see my wholehearted embrace of his enthusiasm for life, my appreciation for his imagination. I want my face to light up!

This holiday season, I’m striving to give my children the gift of unconditional love and acceptance, and the knowledge that they will always belong in our home, their safe haven. I know that present will last far longer than anything on their wish lists!

Is there a moment you can remember where you felt particularly dismissive as a parent? Tell us in a comment below.

About the Author

Hollee Schwartz Temple

Hollee Schwartz Temple is a professor at West Virginia University College of Law. She is a work/life balance columnist for the American Bar Association Journal, the nation's premier lawyer magazine, and blogs about work/life issues at http://thenewperfect.com. Hollee is the coauthor of Good Enough Is the New Perfect: Finding Happiness and Success in Modern Motherhood.