Experience, they say, is the best teacher. Actually, it is more of a tutor: it only teaches one on one. The things we have learned from experience are just about impossible to impart to anyone else unless you have a very willing pupil.
Remember the first time you fell in love? Did someone, speaking from the depths of their own experience, shake their head and try to tell you that perhaps this first love was not the only love that you would feel in your life?
If someone did, I’m sure you treated that old fool and the opinions expressed with the contempt that they so obviously and richly deserved. …And then you went right on to prove them correct.
All of which brings me to raising children.
Looking back, it seems to me that as a child I was a hair-trigger bundle of emotions, able to go from joy to tears in between heartbeats. My wants were equally speedy. I could fall instantly in love with some glittering toy which would fill my tiny body with pangs of desire. I would be suddenly consumed with the need for that toy.
I would communicate this obviously vital need to my parents in the shrillest of tones, breathlessly explaining how wonderful the desired object was and how I would promise to do anything, absolutely anything, if only they would buy it for me. I would beg and beg, saying “Please!” over and over again, tirelessly, lengthening the word in a steadily rising treble tone. (Oddly enough, I thought this would be persuasive.)
My parents, having been through any number of these sudden and overwhelming lusts only to see them fade away (slowly if denied the object of my desire, much faster if I actually got it), would steel themselves to deny me. Both sides then settled in for a protracted siege.
“Please!” would alternate with, “But, why?”, pronounced with the same rising treble. Denied, enough tears would come to literally soak my pillow as I wallowed in the injustice of their blind inability to understand that I just had to have it.
Today, my sympathies are on the other side.
The simple truth was that my working parents could hardly afford to buy me every toy the advertisers convinced me I needed. With no very clear idea where money really came from, “because we can’t afford it” conveyed nothing to me. Another truth, that even if they had been wealthy enough to cater to my every whim, the result would have been a disastrously spoiled child, had no strength either, although my dad foolishly tried it a few times.
Depending on how long the siege lasted and the degree of hysteria I achieved, my parents might finally be driven to confront my hysterical But…WHY? With an equally irrational argument: Because I’m your parent and I say so!
Lord, how I hated that one. The sheer, naked arbitrariness, the equally naked abuse of superior force and position, used to make me crazy.
The problem, of course, was that I, who had no particular rational tools and no experience, was being forced to confront a part of the real world.
The truth is that in this real world, desires are often thwarted. That things have costs and that sometimes the costs are more than we can afford to pay. Above all, that to dream in the real world is to expose yourself to disappointment and, quite probably, to painful loss.
I suppose those are lessons we must all learn.
And yet. And yet.
While all of the above is true, it is surely not the whole truth. Yes, even while we are protecting our children from reality, we are also, inevitably, introducing them to it. And, yes, it is a part of human nature that our reach does exceed our grasp and most of our dreams are doomed to a fair measure of failure. That is true.
But it is also true that dreams breed hope, perhaps the best of human gifts. And it is true that without our dreams our lives would be barren and our futures bleakly the same as today. It is only from our hopes and dreams that we create a tomorrow that is better.
But how do we teach our children that? How do we prepare them for all that inevitable disappointment while still teaching them that in this life it is not always so dark and that dreams sometimes come true?
In my own home, we had a recipe. It went something like this: There was this magical time called Christmas. And to go along with Christmas there was this magic book (OK, so it was the Sears Christmas Toy Catalog). We kids would eagerly await its arrival and then would pore over every page, drooling at each wonderful toy displayed in brilliant color. After careful (and agonizing) cogitation, we were allowed to circle the items that we really, really wanted. The wonderful part was that we were guaranteed that at least one of them would find its way under the tree.
But that was only half the magic.
We had another tradition in my family that every year we would get one really big, really super present. It was never in the magic book. It was always a surprise. It was something my parents had discussed and planned for long after we had gone to sleep. I remember once, when I was about seven or eight, my best friend and I were given matching football uniforms (his was red, mine was blue…an obviously superior color), complete with helmet and pads. Another year I awoke to find a sparkling new Raleigh three-speed bicycle standing in the living room.
So this was the one time of year when we were positively forced to dream. When “We can’t afford it” was suspended and “Because I said so” was never heard. From the arrival of the magic book till Christmas day itself, anything was possible and the future held not just promise, but the guarantee of fulfillment.
I suppose there are lots of very good reasons for Christmas, from the family reunions to the religious events of the season. But let me suggest that one of the best reasons is that it teaches our children what a good thing hope is and that they live in a world where some dreams come true.