After you've searched 42 stores in 12 different malls, stood in line for hours, and shelled out a huge bundle of hard-earned cash to buy your kid that extra-special Christmas present, some parent-education professional like me comes along and says you spent too much time and money, missed the true spirit of the season, and encouraged your child to develop a seriously flawed value system.
You've heard all that before; you don't need to hear it again.
Let's face it. No effort or expense is excessive if it brings happiness to your child. You know it, and nothing I can say is going to stop you. So I won't unleash yet another tirade against rampant materialism or sermonize about the real meaning of Christmas. If you're willing to do whatever it takes to bring a smile to your child's face, go ahead and search the stores. Stand in line. Shell out big bucks. You should be congratulated, not condemned.
But before you go, let me tell you a story. It's the story of my middle-class parents spending an enormous amount of time and money in order to give me the best Christmas gift I ever received.
I was 12 years old, and my life revolved around baseball. Since my idol was Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees, I was determined to be a catcher. Unfortunately, I was left-handed, and baseball wisdom dictated that southpaws not be positioned behind the plate. (Because most players bat right-handed, a left-handed catcher might have a slightly obstructed view when throwing to second or third base to nab a potential base-stealer.) In fact, there was no such thing as a left-handed catcher's mitt.
However, the coaches were impressed with my powerful and accurate arm, and besides, no one else wanted to play that dirty and dangerous position. So equipped with improvised extra padding in my regular glove, I took the field and squatted behind the batter's box. I was so proud of my new position, I could almost ignore the sharp pain I felt every time a pitcher's fastball plopped into my palm.
There was only one problem. My shoes. Everyone else on the team wore cleats just like the pros. I had to wear sneakers. A pair of cleats cost more than 20 dollars?a princely sum in those days. Neither I nor any of my teammates could afford to purchase a pair on our own, even if we supplemented our allowances with the profits from our paper routes. But after ardent begging, pleading and promising to clean out the garage, every boy on my team had convinced his parents to buy him the special shoes.
It wasn't like my mom and dad didn't have the 20 dollars to spare. They spent that amount every week for my violin lessons?which I hated. For cryin' out loud, they had spent ten times that much all at once to buy the stupid violin. But 20 dollars for a pair of shoes that I probably would grow out of in less than six months just to play a game? Not a chance. As far as they were concerned, large sums of money were for food, clothing, shelter, education, and cultural enrichment?not for dressing up a boyhood pastime. My five-dollar sneakers would just have to do.
When I first whined that I would be the only kid on the team without cleats, I knew my pleas would fall on deaf ears. My parents never understood anything that was really important to me. They paid a lot of attention to my academic abilities and musical skills, but they did virtually nothing to encourage my athletic pursuits. They were incredibly old fashioned and totally out of it.
But I badly underestimated their resistance. After the usual begging, pleading, and promising failed, I tried several weeks of surliness and prolonged sulking. When that didn't work, I got desperate. I did additional household chores voluntarily, raised my grades in school, and even forced myself to play my violin with all the false enthusiasm I could muster. All to no avail.
Then the holidays rolled around, and my hopes soared. Surely they couldn't resist the generous spirit of the season. My drawers were well-stocked with socks and underwear, there were plenty of warm sweaters in my closet, my shelves held a sufficient supply of books, and I hadn't even hinted I might want anything other than those cleats. They had no choice. They had to buy me the shoes.
As soon as the religious observances were completed and we retired to the living room for the gift-giving ceremonies, I began to rummage feverishly through the pile of neatly-wrapped presents to find the box with my name on it. When I found it, I was taken aback for a moment. It was bigger than a shoebox. Then I remembered my mother's penchant for practicality. She had obtained a larger container so she could place a bottle of polish and a spare set of laces alongside the cleats. The smile returned to my face as I eagerly ripped at the paper and ribbon.
Much to my surprise, there were no shoes in the box. My body went numb from disbelief; and despite my determination to remain stoic, my eyes filled with tears. But I wasn't disappointed, I was delighted. There, cradled in my trembling hands, was a left-handed catcher's mitt.
A minor miracle had been performed. After visiting every sporting goods store within a 50-mile radius, my parents realized that, indeed, there was no such thing as a left-handed catcher's mitt. Then, after numerous long-distance calls to every baseball equipment company in the country, they finally found one that would manufacture a custom-made model, rush it through production, and ship it special delivery so it would arrive in time for the holidays. Adding the price of the glove itself to all the automobile mileage, telephone bills, postal charges, and time taken off from work, that mitt must have cost them close to $250?more than they had paid for my violin.
But more important was the major miracle that occurred. For the first time in my life, I recognized that my parents really cared about me? and had cared about me all along. I thought they weren't paying attention. I realized they were just concentrating on what was truly significant. I thought they would never let me have anything I really wanted. I learned they were just letting me know that nothing could ever stand in the way of my getting what I really needed.
I still felt uncomfortable being the only kid on the team in sneakers. And later, as a senior in high school, I finally scraped up enough money to buy a pair of cleats. But even with my fancy footwear and one-of-a-kind glove, I never got more than a passing glance from the pro scouts. Then again, even with another half-decade of unrelenting lessons, I never became much of a virtuoso on the violin, either.
But throughout the tumultuous teenage years, my parents and I enjoyed a relatively calm relationship. Instead of seeing them as unreasonable adversaries, I could view them as occasionally inscrutable advisers. And instead of feeling that they were constantly correcting and controlling my behavior, I could sense that they were dutifully guiding my development. Sure, we had our differences and tense moments. But we never lost the special something that came with the left-handed catcher's mitt. And in the long run, I think my teammates envied me a lot more than I envied them.
So go ahead. Search the stores. Stand in line. Shell out big bucks. Just make sure all the effort and expense is justified. Make sure you're bringing genuine happiness to your child and not simply offering a little relief from peer pressure. And make sure you're investing in the future and not just buying a present. In other words, keep in mind that it's not the time and money ? it really is the thought that counts.
Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D., is executive director of The Epicenter Inc., a family advisory and advocacy agency based in Lindenhurst, Illinois. He and his wife, Eilene, have seven children and nine grandchildren.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian Parenting Today.