The holidays are a great time to share and share alike. When my boys were about 4 and 6 I took them Christmas shopping for my sister and a cousin about their age. We walked up and down the aisles of a local store. At first, the boys excitedly pointed toward things they liked or wanted and asked, “Can I have this?” I answered, “We’re not shopping for us, please pick out something for Aunt Carol.” James grabbed a toy for himself but nothing for Carol. Ben just stopped where he was and refused to walk any more or pick out any gifts.
I tried again with a bit of forced enthusiasm, “Com’on, let’s pick out something really cute for Aunt Carol.” Now annoyed, James said, “No, I want a He-Man for me!” Ben kept it simple with, “I don’t want to.”
I then tried switching recipients to the one closer to their age. “Okay boys, how ’bout we get a toy for Michael Paul? What do you think he’d like?” At this point, James really dug in his heels and Ben got down in the floor and loudly whined for a Transformer.
Finally, a thought flew through my head. I wonder what would happen if I let each of them choose one present for themselves before choosing presents for everyone else? I gave it a try. The second a He-Man and a Transformer hit the bottom of the shopping cart, both boys became cooperative and eager to choose gifts for both Carol and Michael Paul. They were engaged, involved, and happy to give.
In the store, tired, frustrated, and ready to go home, I felt so relieved by the immediate shift to cooperation that I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what had led me to let go of the idea that allowing them to get something for themselves was teaching them to be selfish, but I have contemplated it many times since. Was it really selfish for the boys to want something for themselves first before they were ready to give?
Looking back, I don’t think so. If they had only wanted to shop for themselves and not anyone else, that would have been selfish. Because my initial denial of their request left us stuck in a spot in which it appeared they were only interested in themselves, I didn’t realize I was only seeing part of the picture.
Both Ben and James were excited about giving when they felt they had been cared for. It was my assumption that they were behaving selfishly that created the situation in which they appeared selfish. All the boys were trying to do was let me know that they needed to feel like my priority, loved, and cared for. It just sounded different to me because of the context and their age appropriate inability to verbalize their feelings.
Was allowing them to choose a material gift the only way to fill the void they were feeling? Of course not. In fact, in many situations a material gift could have increased their feeling of emotional distance. The important thing was that I was finally able to hear them with something more than my ears and my head. I heard them with my heart which signaled my head, and I just “knew” what to try.
The holidays bring so many chances to listen with our hearts and give appropriately. Why is it then that we often feel a sense of dread, confusion, inadequacy, loneliness, longing, or disconnection? Is it that we need to shift our focus? Is it that we listen to old family patterns instead of our hearts? Is it that we try to buy our way out of feeling inadequate? Is it that we yield to peer pressure or marketing messages? Is it that we don’t understand that the best gift we can give is to keep our hearts open and share best selves?
If you had 6 empty jars to fill with the gift of connection, how would you choose to fill them – with a coupon for a Saturday of baking cookies with your granddaughter, a list of the qualities you admire in your son, your favorite family recipe, a calendar of dates you’re available for a lengthy conversation with your mom, your favorite holiday memory, symbols of a special shared memory with your spouse?
This time of year reminds us to share and share alike. The way we choose to share can make all the difference.