Friday, 15 December 2017

He’s making a list, checking it twice

I love Christmas time. It’s the most wonderful time of the year (if the song is to be believed).

Once Halloween has passed and the supermarket displays of mince pies, sherry and tinsel start to seem less-ironic and vaguely seasonal I feel justified in allowing myself to enjoy the run up to it. I get excited, I daydream and I anticipate.

I’ve been the same all my life. As a child, the countdown was marked with an advent calendar (which to the shock of my kids didn’t used to feature a nugget of chocolate behind every door, but instead a small festive picture; a robin, a sprig of holly or perhaps a scene from the nativity to mark each passing day; very low-key). Not content with the calendar I would re-read festive books and re-watch favourite Christmas TV series’ and movies; with the skills of a marketing genius I would build myself into a frothing frenzy of festive anticipation by the time Christmas day came around.

I may have matured a little to the extent that I’m able to sleep uninterrupted on Christmas Eve without listening for sleigh bells, but it hasn’t stopped me from feeling the joy of the anticipation. If anything, the sensation is heightened now. I’ve compounded it too by banning from the house all decorations, Christmas movies and music and the consumption of mince pies and mulled wine until December 1st or later. It’s not a standpoint that has won me many fans, but my motives are positive; I want to maintain a sense of perspective, to reinforce for my nearest and dearest that if we’re truly going to enjoy the end-of-year festivities and celebrate for a few days by exchanging gifts and overeating and drinking, then surely we can confine the joy and the anticipation to just one month of the year? Better to make it one good month than a tedious two?

At risk of this descending into a ‘things aren’t the same as they used to be’ piece, I wanted to get the above disclaimer in to ensure that you don’t think of me as someone who can’t feel festive delight or revel in the anticipation of something just as much (if not more than) the event itself. Scrooge, I am not.

What I’ve been reflecting on since the Christmas season arrived, is prompted in observing the annual ritual of my kids preparing their Christmas lists.

When I was a child (there’s the statement you were no doubt expecting) I recall the challenges of compiling my Christmas list of gifts I hoped to receive. Writing it down made sure there could be no misinterpretation, and thanks to my parents who seemed helpfully to have a fast-track in getting it sent to the North Pole, ensured that at least some of the items would appear beneath the tree on Christmas morning.

As a kid, I wasn’t so much focussed on the season of good cheer, but more on the opportunity to get some new toys or to push the boundaries of my material life, to request some coveted item that would bring new meaning to my life. I can’t remember a single Christmas spent feeling anything other than delighted with the gifts I received, surrounded by love and festive joy; for that reason and many others I feel blessed for my childhood and upbringing.

As my reminiscences become wistful and my hindsight more rose-tinted it strikes me just how much the very act of preparing a Christmas list has changed. As a child, with the advent of the Internet being at least 30 years away my research was confined to toy commercials on TV, items I may have spotted in a shop or occasionally from flicking through a home-shopping catalogue. There was a logistical limit around my expectations, and on what my parents (sorry, Santa) might provide me with. It was assumed that what I wanted was available from a shop somewhere in a town near me. At a stretch, it might be something available from a shop in London (in my juvenile mind, a mysterious and wonderful place where shop shelves groaned under the weight of exotic toys the likes of which I could only dream).

Today the assumption is that pretty much any product, be that a toy, article of clothing or item of technology can be obtained for the right price and within little more than a few days priority shipping from anywhere in the world thanks to the web. Therein lays the quandary for the accommodating parent who is hoping to keep their kids’ feet on the ground when it comes to composing their list. The only limit is that enforced by the parents and their budget, and I believe the kids know and believe this too even if their belief in Santa remains intact.

I recall a particularly landmark year for my eldest daughter. She’d turned 12 or 13 that year and as Christmas loomed it was clear that she knew exactly what she wanted and expected. For context, she’s a hard worker and academically astute but like most teens, prone to taking the path of least resistance when it comes to school work. Contrast this work ethic with the time that had been devoted to writing the Christmas list that was presented to me and other members of the family and it was obvious where her priorities lay.

The list itself was truly a thing of beauty, and no small miracle of desktop publishing; A single side of A4 paper, it detailed desired items (ranging as I recall from a very specific tweed jacket through to a number of high-end make-up products) with a list of retail stockists and their web addresses, current prices and even a ranking system to ensure we understood her priorities. The finished article was rolled up like a University Diploma, and tied with string in an ornate bow. She’d even gone as far as holding initial briefing calls with her grandparents, aunts and her mother to ensure they were agreed on what each was expected to buy for her.

The arrival of the list elicited mixed emotions; I’ve still got my copy in a file-box as I want to reminisce over it in years to come alongside finger-paintings and past-school reports with a sense of nostalgic amusement. There was also a sense of slight despair though when we considered how our baby could have become so materialistic and fixated on organised material gain. The spirit of Christmas had well and truly evaporated.

As with most kids these days it was apparent just how materially focussed she had become. Far from criticising her for this (for she is a product of the world she lives in and the parenting she has received from us) I now see the same traits emerging in her younger sisters and brother (now aged 13, 11 and 8).

One evening this week, child number three (the 11 year old boy) undertook 10 minutes of maths homework with begrudging-resistance, his mantra being to get the bare-minimum done in the least time required to the lowest acceptable standard. Following this, he applied himself to a diligent hour and a half on an iPad researching and then documenting his Christmas list (the third draft) and annotating and cross-referencing the already comprehensive notes prepared the previous evening. If the work ethic applied to the two tasks were reversed I’m confident that he’d be graduating from Harvard within 5 years.

I’ll confess at this point that the rest of this article in its first draft descended into a rant over the challenge of combatting materialism in kids and how Christmas plays-to and encourages this trait. The article also reflected on the year-round frustrations I feel as a parent in response to the relative efforts my kids will apply towards the tasks that they want to do in comparison to those (e.g. homework) that they have to do.

It is somewhat ironic then that it was during a bit of lunchtime Christmas shopping today, listening to the excellent audio book ‘The Values Factor” by Dr John DeMartini that an alternative angle to this topic crystallized in my mind.

Undoubtedly modern life encourages greater consumerism in our kids who are able to identify absolutely any material product that exists in the world and which they could conceivably want. They also know that with the money and a short wait it can be theirs. I believe that social media and the cult of celebrity also tend to instil the belief that anyone can have anything they want, and no substitute should be accepted. This trait is simply a reality of modern life and it is down to the individual parent to find their own balance between giving their children the things they are able to and want to whilst (hopefully) also ensuring that the kids don’t develop a sense of entitlement or a failure to appreciate the value of things in the process.

As far as my other frustration, well when did any kid ever get on and do their homework willingly and voluntarily when faced with a choice between that and something they really want to do?

The key factor is the relationship between the task at hand and, in Dr DeMartini’s words, the child’s own higher-values. The simple and obvious aspect in each of the two scenarios that I described earlier is that my kids were doing more than just reacting to an inherent desire to accumulate more and add to their armoury of material possessions. Sure, they are kids and are allowed to be excited about Christmas and the prospect of asking Santa for new things. In each example however, they were both demonstrating this desire but in a way that brought out their passion, their values, and emphasizing and honing skills that I am sure will one day become a large part of their identities, their adult lives and their work.

In the case of my daughter, she was using her passion and skill as an artist to create a list that was not only filled with facts and information to convey her wishes, but that was also visually appealing and tastefully presented. Over-engineered certainly, but pretty, nonetheless. She is now an arts student at college and I’m sure that whatever she does in adult life, she will always tend towards the visual and the aesthetic in whatever work she produces, especially when trying to convey a subject or relay content that she is passionate about.

In the case of my son, he has a keen mind for detail and an encyclopaedic knowledge on topics that fire his imagination. He may not leap with joy at the sight of a sheet of mathematics problems, but he can relay details of the 2015/16 Manchester United Football season (and the one before it) to an impressive level of detail and he can identify and recall the key skills and signature moves of hundreds of superheroes at will. In researching the content of his Christmas list to the level of detail that he did, he was demonstrating diligence and an attention to detail on topics that align to his higher values and interests that I’m sure will serve him well in life and his career. Similarly, his skills in employing modern technology to collate his list with zero assistance and supreme focus demonstrate just how seamlessly technology and its use is embedded in him and how he thinks.

As with many things I’ve learned (and continue to learn) as a parent, it’s very easy to jump to conclusions when your child does (or doesn’t do) something. Understanding the cause doesn’t always excuse the action (or effect) but at least it can help offer an alternative perspective and aid your understanding. In some instances, like the above, it can also help you recognise the positive traits and behaviours arising from the situation which are to be encouraged, not quashed. In turn, that can help you to plan future strategies so that when you are next confronted with a similar challenge you can adapt your behaviour or expectations rather than blindly hoping for something different. That is my lesson learned for today.

I have numerous memories of Christmases past, and many that are no doubt artificially vivid thanks to oft-viewed family photos. One such memory (and possibly representing my best ever Christmas present) was of a Cowboy dressing-up costume comprising a fringed trouser and waistcoat combo made by my Mum and a Leather pistol holster crafted by my Dad. At the age of about 5, the photo of me and my sister that Christmas morning (she wearing the nurses outfit with similar home-made provenance) epitomises to me the sentiment that I want to recapture for my kids in giving them memorable Christmases for years to come.

That isn’t to say that I’ll be ignoring the lists they’ve all so diligently crafted and eschewing the crowds heading out to Black Friday sales in the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy, in favour of hand-made gifts. Or maybe I will, after all there’s that other adage about gifts and giving;

“It’s the thought that counts!”

Toby Hazlewood

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