‘Tis the season for… grotesque displays of poor parenting. I know this is an old story but I think it bears repeating: Well-off parents go full-bore nuts during the holiday season. (And meanwhile, is there a socially acceptable way to say ‘well-off parents?’ Are we supposed to say, “Affluent parents?” The condescendingly counterfactual, “Educated parents?” “Middle class-when-we-really-mean-Upper-Middle-Class parents?”)
Anyway… those parents, which is to say: my children’s parents.
They’re just awful. They might be worse than the public screamers who’ve got their kids on leashes at the mall. At least those benighted folks appear to be struggling. And they’re not pretending to be something loftier than a harried, intermittently hostile ATM card. It’s the fancy parents (Who me?) that send me over the edge with their holiday “stress” and their meaningful gifts.
Does Dad really need a vintage silver hip flask? A gift certificate for Microbrew of the Month? Does Grandma want another purse made from recycled Indonesian tires? (Or was it soda cans? I forget.) How about another over-priced scarf from the MOMA gift shop? Seriously? Or a flock of geese to feed a village in Malawi? I don’t know about your mother but mine is the proud recipient of a hearty menagerie of goats, cows, rabbits, chicks, bees. We’re thinking maybe a llama this year. Mom loves this stuff. Really! And we sleep safely confident that our hearts are in the right place. Win-win!
Ditto the presents we’re buying for the kids at the shelter. For the uninitiated, here’s how it works: you pick a bunch of kids whose parents – let’s face it: whose mothers – have selected a few options from which to choose. For example: “Barbie doll.” And if you’re a do-gooder spendthrift like me, you’ll feel that ‘Barbie Doll’ (retailing around ten bucks) sounds a little meager. So you buy Barbie accessories (unicorn, hair salon set, princess gowns) and then you realize you don’t know the ethnicity or race of the child and you wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity to promote healthy self-esteem at that critical age. (Let’s leave aside the self esteem-crushing experience of living in a homeless shelter for just a moment, shall we?) So you buy the black princess Tiana doll. And then it occurs to you that maybe this kid really wants the golden tressed, long-limbed shtick. How can you deprive a little girl of her socially constructed fantasies? You throw in a glossy blonde fairy Barbie.
Then you notice that a lot of the shelter moms are requesting electronic educational toys for their toddlers. Bless them. But the thing is, you’re an early childhood educator, and you know these things aren’t, in fact, educational. So you throw in a few extra toys… the kind that allow for what we call ‘open-ended narrative play.’ Blocks. Who doesn’t like blocks? (How about the exhausted children living in a homeless shelter watching flashy things on TV.) Then you wonder about the floor space in the shelter, and how clean it is, and what will happen when the moms transition (we hope) into something (temporarily at least) more stable. Do they haul the blocks and activity tables with them? And what about the kids who didn’t get the present they wanted? And shouldn’t the shelter have some stuff on hand for kids to play with at other times of the year, not just Christmas? So many dilemmas! So many consumer opportunities!
You start discovering – I did, anyway – that it doesn’t matter one whit who you’re shopping for. The consumer gene kicks in quite indiscriminately. (My husband knows a famous social scientist who believes that the single most important “engine” of civilization is a desire to shop. He says apes are hard wired to shop too.)
It just feels so satisfying somehow. And so much easier than thinking about work conditions in those nasty Bangladeshi factories where women are burned alive making ironic hipster T-shirts, right? God forbid we should actually feel impelled to effect some not-just-symbolic social change,
ie pay more for our Nikes and laptops…
And forget about just giving impoverished people money directly to make their own choices. According to experts at GiveWell.org, it’s the most rational and cost-effective way for rich people to make a donation. Turns out people in abject misery (or those merely down on their luck) can figure out exactly how to meet their needs when given the cash. Quelle histoire! Are you kidding me? What, and deprive unctuous First Worlders like myself from our warm Christmas crack high? Listen up! I’m giving you choices here: You can have cleft palate surgery, a bee hive, anti-worm medication, or Barbie Dolls. Oh, and don’t forget the stolid wooden blocks. Take your pick. But no way I’m paying for your soap and cooking fuel.
I do most of my shopping online. (Lazy. Misanthropic.) But don’t think I’m not mowing people down at the mall, too. I take advantage of the extended hours to further my quest. I enjoy the convenience of ample parking. (I haven’t stooped to valet service yet but I do manage to sneak in a few self-care respite stops at Sephora.) I’m an inefficient and hapless shopper. I profess to hate malls. Really. So depressing, such dysfunction! Look at
me, I mean, that family snarfing down the hot pretzels and pizzas. Can’t that dad see the baby needs a nap? Ohmygod, is somebody getting a real spanking?
The Christmas shopping season brings out the best in me. I spread joy everywhere I go.
And my middle son… honestly, I could disown him. He never wants ANYTHING. He tells me he already has everything he needs. If you ask him what’s on his list, he says: I guess I could use some more boxers. That’s a red flag to a bull; I sense a reproach in there somewhere. Clearly, the acorn fell some distance from the tree. I squirrel around, hoping to scare up a few enticing morsels, and it’s not easy: he’s the kid who constructed his own board games out of wood scraps as a child and played outdoors for hours on end, digging holes in the ground and laying traps for stupid adults to fall in. I decide ‘vintage’ may be the way to go this year for him: used books, clothes. But it’s so damned time-consuming buying distressed merchandise. And, seriously, what kind of 17 year-old doesn’t want new toys??? (Full disclosure: probably the 17 year-old who has plenty already, including iPhone, drum set, healthy allowance, summer camp and travel experiences, and nice clothes.)
Oh, the phyllo layers upon layers of abundance, guilt, selflessness. Abundance-guilt-selflessness. Larded with more guilt; yet more abundance; running a little dry on the selflessness; add a little more guilt. Shut up! Just buy the smart phone for your nine year-old, already. We don’t care. I like spending money: shoot me. And I’m not even the worst offender, I’ll note defensively. A couple years ago, our family foreswore official present-giving entirely, opting only for the small asterisk known as “stocking gifts.” (Turns out you can stuff a lot into a stocking with a little ingenuity.)
All of my kids are nice people, honest. They do volunteer work with disabled children. They make birthday gifts to Smile Train and run bake sales for Haiti. They get tearful when I read the Globe Santa stories. (“A pair of pants, please. Any color.”)
At least I’m not Beyonce, trademarking my baby’s name for a line of handbags, diapers, sunglasses, moisturizers and whatnot. Then again, no one is offering to buy my children’s names. (I’m guessing I could be bought off pretty cheap.) Have you heard of Elf on a Shelf? It’s a new Christmas tradition. Coax your children into believing they’re being surrveilled at all times and won’t get the loot unless they meet certain conditions known only to the creepy Elf-on-a-shelf. Sign me up. And, meanwhile, I’ll keep on buying my note cards from the battered women’s cooperative in Guatemala, too. I don’t know what else to do! Here’s the truth: I love Christmas. I hate human misery. Joy. Sadness. Repeat.