Tales from the Trenches - Lessons Learned

by brenda maas

Someone once said “I was the best parent I ever was before I had children.” I believe that particular observation is especially meaningful during the holiday season of gift-giving and cheer. Although my husband and I don’t consider ourselves veteran parents (the teen years ahead), we do have ten years of “Christmas With Kids” to draw on when offering the following bits of advice. And, the old dogs are still learning new tricks.

     Cookie exchanges are the way to go. I’m all for teaching kids to cook and giving them responsibility. But, let’s be honest—baking five or even ten different kinds of cookies with six or more helping hands does not equal a stress-free holiday season. So, save the cut-outs for a snowy day with the kids, and crank out eight-dozen of your favorites to exchange with your girlfriends—along with a glass of holiday cheer and belly laughs.

     Christmas at your house is not going to look like a Norman Rockwell painting nor like the Pottery Barn holiday catalog.  A local counselor told me that expectations, especially during the holidays, are our own worst enemies. I concur. Although you can plan ahead, be ultra-organized, blah, blah, blah….we are only one mommy and one daddy with many hats to wear. Throw in a sick kid, a cranky boss or a car with a dead battery and it’s a Halloween script instead of peace among men.

     When the toy store offers to assemble the item (bike, Barbie House, 4-wheel jeep)—DO IT! My husband and I learned this the hard way. The Christmas when our older boys were three and two and we were feeling a bit more lavish, we decided to have Santa give them two “biggies” to share—a two-seater motorized Jeep for outside play and a train table for our rapidly-growing Thomas fascination. And, although we had splurged, the additional $30 charge to assemble was over the top. Either that, or testosterone spoke these words, “No, that’s easy. I can do it.” I heard death bells tolling in my head.

      Fast-forward to Christmas Eve, when the children finally have sugar plums dancing in their heads. My husband retreats to the basement to begin assembly (I think he was more excited than the kids) and I quickly wrap his gift, stuff the stockings, and set up breakfast for the next morning. Before hitting the hay around 11pm, I checked on his progress—or non-progress. Now, my husband is not a slouch in the home improvement/tools department. But, hearing his grunt and seeing what seemed like hundreds of tiny parts lying around the Jeep carcass, I, like the wise wife that I am, threw out the obligatory, “Do you need anything?” and scurried off to bed.

     I later learned that he worked diligently until 4 a.m. to assemble that dang Jeep for the munchkins. Although their squeal of delight was a huge reward, the nap later that day helped even more.

      If it doesn’t fit in the stocking, it is not a stocking stuffer! Although “The Gimmes” strike every family during holidays, you do have the power to control it a bit. I come from a large family, so there is no concern that our children will be lacking for gifts. Early on my husband and I decided that our children will receive one gift and one book from us; Santa will deliver a “biggie” and a few stocking stuffers overnight. Now, I am known in my social circles as a bargain queen, and I have to say that I’ve managed to live by this rule. However, when I’m splurging on my nephews, nieces and neighbor kids, the stocking stuffer rule does not apply!

      Santa (disguised as Fed Ex or UPS) does deliver to offices, neighbors or grandma’s for safe-keeping. Although this obviously was not a problem at first, my boys recognized Geoffrey the Giraffe on the side of a bag or delivery box from an early age. As a result, I became devious and deceitful—and, the older they get, the more devious I must become. Try hiding three personalized bean bag chairs for a month and you’ll know what I mean.

      Christmas shopping is a great reason to have a day-time date with your spouse. This one started mainly because we both worked outside the home for several years. We rarely hired babysitters, so we concluded that taking a day off of work to Christmas shop while the kids were in daycare was an elf-ish thing to do. We discovered that weekday holiday shopping with an organized list is both productive and a great way to play hooky—plus, we re-connected in our shared mission. Throw in lunch that does not include chicken nuggets or a fight over pop versus milk, and I’m a fan. Now, ten years later, it’s still one of my favorite holiday events.

     So, as we hurry about in holiday madness, I urge everyone to live by a lesson from our children:  less is often more. And, throw out the Pottery Barn catalogs.

Brenda Maas, a transplant from Wisconsin, has been writing since she covered her high school basketball team for the local paper.  She and her husband, Brett, now live in Billings with their three boys.