One of the first articles I ran across, this morning, was from a woman bemoaning the fact that her children had picked up extravagant, over-the-top expectations for every holiday, real or imagined. This phenomenon isn’t as new as she thinks it is. I have slightly cringe-worthy memories of taking custom-made, white chocolate lollipops shaped like Charlie Brown’s head to school on my birthday in grade school. No one wants their child to be “shunned” for bringing the wrong treats, or no treats, but that was over-the-top and most of the kids in my class would have preferred clumsy, homemade cupcakes with milk chocolate frosting or a handful of Tootsie Pops. They weren’t going to think I was less nerdy or unfashionable just because I brought expensive, custom-made, white chocolate treats in a Hershey bar world. It didn’t make them forget to taunt me for wearing ankle socks in a knee socks era.
Valentine’s Day was a traumatic exercise in creatively and kindly saying, “I don’t know you, you probably hate me, but here’s my heart, please don’t spit on it.” And then having to show off how many (or how few) cards and candies were snagged in a pathetically decorated, brown-paper lunch sack. Ugh. It’s not always joy for the little ones, either.
Holidays should be fun, and I don’t believe in telling others how to celebrate theirs. Family traditions build special memories. But they should be extracurricular events celebrated at home, with family and friends who love us. There’s no need to turn them into competitive sport – to practice one-upsmanship against other parents that our children will feel compelled to carry on, in turn. This isn’t “liberals trampling on time-honored traditions and trying to ban holidays in our schools.” For the love of God, everyone needs a break – parents, teachers, teachers’ helpers – but most of all, the kids. And school is meant for learning; it’s not a place for trying to outdo other parents in “who can send a child into a sugar coma first.”
My favorite Easter tradition? Getting up before the crack of dawn to watch the sun come up over the lake. Quietly dying eggs. Nibbling chocolate bunny ears (the solid kind, not those crumbly, hollowed-out, giant bunnies, but the small, hard, solid bunnies that lasted all morning and well-into the afternoon). My favorite Christmas traditions: walking through crunchy snow to stare in wonder at a neighbor’s (admittedly over the top) yard decorations and lights. Baking cookies for Santa and laying out carrots for his reindeer. Singing carols at church, at midnight, while being trusted to hold a candle and not burn anything down. When you’re a kid, just getting to stay up past your bedtime is a big deal – or should be – and dressing up, going to church, singing carols by candlelight just adds to the awe. I won’t lie; I loved opening presents, too. But it didn’t have to be 100 of them.
While we’re at it, when did Christmas get to eat all the other holidays? When I was a kid, we were forced to wait until the day after Thanksgiving (not yet dubbed “Black Friday”) to hear or sing Christmas carols. The streets were decorated, overnight, magically transforming them into a wonderland of colorful lights and toy trains and tacky holiday signs and ornaments – not professional, slick, beautiful-but-soulless citywide tableaux. It felt more personal, less artificial.
We all love Thanksgiving. Why? Because it’s about family and food. And remembering to be grateful for what we have. Sharing with those less fortunate. It hasn’t yet turned into a shopping frenzy. It quietly refuses, and we love it all the more for that. We even angrily (and successfully!) defend it from the encroachment of Black Friday. It seems clear that we all need a break, and a quiet little holiday to focus on the things that really matter to us.
The problem with setting extravagant expectations is that there’s so little to look forward to, as kids grow older. This has extended to life, in general. Where our parents could reasonably hope that with a good education and a decent work ethic, we’d have a better and more affluent life than they had, our kids don’t stand a chance. With an overpriced education, precious little work experience or time to obtain it, and over-the-top expectations, they’ll need a hefty double-whammy of opportunity and luck simply to attain the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed, any time within the first or second decade of independent adulthood. We forgot to tell them about the “hard work over time” part, and they weren’t around yet, or old enough, to watch us struggle in the early stages of our careers.
Is it any wonder that “real life” is a shock to their systems? Is it any wonder the “special snowflakes” start to melt down? The only escape – the only place that can possibly live up to the hype – is in the imagination. And what ritual better stimulates the imagination, revs up the dopamine, than video games? Books would be great, but television and video games have set up expectations – and have not taught the value of patience and effort. Is it fair to say, “Back in my day, our parents would kick us out at dawn and lock the door till dusk, saying ‘Go outside and play!'” when our kids have grown up with us afraid they’d be lost forever, kidnapped, molested, beaten, robbed, shot, or hit by careless drivers if they hung out in the park a mile or two from home or rode their bikes on neighborhood streets? Where neighbors call the cops to check out the “noisy kids playing” – and risk them being arrested or killed – or to arrest their parents for failing to supervise them? When we can see, on a map, where all the neighborhood sex offenders live among us? We’ve kept a generation or two home and fed them a steady diet of passive entertainment and carefully orchestrated extracurricular activities. They hardly know what to do with themselves, now – and they’re tired, too.
But we’ve told them they can be and do anything, and we’ve overcompensated for the confinement of childhood with treat bags and presents. Now we wonder Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy?
It’s not just the holidays we need to take down a notch.