I'm dreaming of a white Christmas,
Just like the ones I used to know...
Amongst the many framed family photos in my home is a photo of myself and an oversized stuffed animal that was taken, I'm sure, sometime during the 60's. In it, I am probably 7 or 8 years old, my eyes wide with joy, with our humble Christmas tree brightly lit behind me. I'm looking at that photo now, as I pore over my children's letters to Santa (although, truth be told, I think my oldest is pretty much going through the motions to entertain the innocence of his younger sisters). Hoverboards and PS4s and designer clothes pepper the lists, and my wife and I are hard-pressed trying to figure out what exactly to get them - trying to figure out what they deserve - and trying desperately to keep them young and fresh and new.
And, it's hard, friends and neighbors. It's wicked hard.
Terrorist attacks in Paris, school shootings, earthquakes, rsunamis and other natural disasters, parents divorcing... my children are absolutely unshielded from what the world has turned into, and this frightens me as much as any parent, which begs the question: How do we protect them from the world and keep our Christmases a pure as the undriven snow?
How do we keep our Christmases white?
STEP ONE: TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN - Our children are not stupid. True, they are sometimes riveted by what we think are mindless cartoons and tv shows, but they are also watching the news bulletins and news commercials that are oftentimes sandwiched between advertisements for the new toy or next blockbuster motion picture - and these news items can be pretty scary. I cannot begin to tell you how many times my children have sat down to breakfast with my wife and I and hit us with some pretty difficult questions about the goings-on in the world. "Is that going to happen where you work?", they will ask, or, "Is that going to happen at my school?". And, while it is good parenting to educate them about the dangers of the world, it is also good parenting to know that what they are actually asking is, "Am I Safe?". In my household, that answer is almost always, "Yes", and it is always followed by conversations that obliterate inaccurate information (children spread fear like gossip; running interference on terrifying propaganda is a huge part of good parenting) and help them understand that this information will change as more facts are revealed and that it is important that we come together as a family and share the information so that we can act on it as a family: Together.
STEP TWO: GO OVER SANTA'S CONTINGENCY PLAN - This is my way of couching our own emergency plan into the conversation. Santa's job is to make sure those gifts get delivered, no matter what, and it is our job to make sure we are together when that happens. Living in Los Angeles, my children are no strangers to earthquakes. If we are ever separated and far from home, my children know where our Family Meeting Place is, and they know to direct the adults in the area to get them to this Meeting Place once it's SAFE. As an added incentive, our youngest knows that - come hell or high water - this is where Santa will be rerouting his sleigh if anything happens. Incentivizing Chaos may seem cruel to a layman, but you obviously know nothing about my children; they will crawl through broken glass to get to an X-Box. Throw an American Girl Doll onto the pile and these kids would take on ISIS.
All kidding aside, though, children respond to structure. It smashes fear in the face of danger and helps them become more goal-oriented. They react to tragedy differently. You will find they have problems paying attention and concentrating. They become irritable or defiant. But, they are always better able to cope with difficult situations when they have the facts. Good parenting demands that you be the one providing those facts. They will feel safe knowing that you will be coming for them and, barring that, knowing that there is a place that they are supposed to go when it all hits the fan.
STEP THREE: THE SHELL GAME - The resiliency of children is pretty much common knowledge by now. Children endure deep suffering when it comes to death and loss, but they also leap readily - miraculously, it seems - into the period of growth and renewal that must always follow such destructions. And, more often than not, they do so with the help of an adult.
To this, I say know your child. Trust your feelings when it comes to your child and know when to act on those feelings. My children aren't always sure what they're afraid of, and it never serves us when I suggest what they might be afraid of; it merely gives them something else to be afraid of. The conversation has to come from the child. It is up to you to create a safe, non-judgmental space where they can feel comfortable asking the questions they need answered.
My youngest is 9 years old, and she had questions about Paris, a place my wife and I had often spoken of someday taking the family. Her questions were fraught with misinformation and I will admit, a few of them had me worried. Halfway through the conversation, I realized - with not a little sadness - that we would have to table our travel plans to Paris for the moment.
Because family comes first, my inner voice reminded me; family always comes first.
Then, without hesitating, I started a pillow-fight with my daughter, and sent her squealing with glee into our backyard. The winters in Los Angeles are unlike any winters anywhere in the world. The bright sunlight smashed through the trees in shafts of gold as we chased each other around the patio furniture, laughing and playing until I collapsed onto the grass, still smiling while catching my breath.
"Merry Christmas, Daddy", she laughed, and delivered one last final blow before collapsing beside me.
Resilient, I thought as I lay there, breathing hard and watching the clouds roll by. All she needed was a little redirection.
Our relationships with our children are fleeting ones; they grow up so fast, it seems. But, I think that's why it is so important for us to help them protect their innocence and vitality and sense of wonder about the world. Because, for all of its shortcomings, it is still the only place in the cosmos that the human race calls home; and it is still the only place where, for the briefest of times, we can all come together in peace and harmony and celebrate what it means to be a family, and what it feels like to love one another unconditionally.
And it falls on each and every one of us to promote this idea to our children while we still can; because if we can't find it within ourselves to believe that there is good - true good - in the world... then neither will our children.