Monday, December 8, 2008

The Greatest Gift

As the holidays draw near, you may be wondering what gifts to buy for your child. What’s the popular gift this season? Where are the sales? What are the best catalogs?

But the greatest gift of all, the one your child wants more than anything, is free. You just have to make it.

You may wonder, “What supplies do I need? Do I have the skills to create this gift? What could I possibly make for my child that’s better than what’s on sale in the stores?”

I urge you to think back for a minute to your childhood holidays. I, for instance, recall my father strumming a mandolin and teaching my four siblings and me Ukrainian Christmas carols. I remember the smells of the traditional 12-course Christmas Eve dinner that my mother cooked for days in advance, and the stories my father told every year just before dinner, stories about Ukrainian Christmas traditions and how he celebrated Christmas “in the old country.” Like my father, we’d excitedly watch for the first evening star before sitting down to the traditional candlelit Christmas Eve supper. I remember well the time my parents spent with me; I can’t recall many of the gifts I received.

The time you give your child is the greatest gift of all. Children need you far more than they need any material thing. As your gift, make the time to spend with your child.

Make an annual tradition of going out to cut down your own Christmas tree. Or create a wreath with your child and hang it on your front door. Start a tradition of making ornaments for your tree. Or bake Christmas cookies together to give away. My own children remember our cookie-baking times far better than they remember any particular Christmas gift. Although I, too, recall the clouds of flour in the kitchen during this process, baking cookies together ever since my son was old enough to hold a cookie cutter has been a favorite and much-looked-forward-to event for all of us. And we don’t bake just once. During the holiday season, we measure flour and sugar and butter every few days, mix and roll and cut, decorate and bake, then do it all over again. We give away many of the cookies we bake, but it’s the process more than the eating that the children enjoy.

Making time for your child should not be a one-day deal or simply an annual holiday event. In the end, the time you spend with your child is the one gift you give him that makes the most difference in his life.

Your time on this earth is limited like a pad of paper from which you tear off one sheet at a time, slowly, continuously, until the pad is gone. But you don’t know how thick a pad you were given at birth. After a day, a week, or a year is gone, you can’t change how you spent it. And only you control how you spend your time, how you use up those sheets in your pad.

Each one of us is free to spend our time as we please — within limits, of course — so the way you choose to spend your time says a lot about you and your priorities.

Because we each have a finite amount of time, the time you spend doing something is a sign of your priority. You do something because you feel that it’s worth the expenditure of part of your pad of paper. When you truly enjoy doing something, you want to spend a lot of time doing it, so time equals love. It’s hard to convince children with whom you spend little time that you love them.
The next time you think of agreeing to another community activity or project, or of accepting a promotion that will keep you away from home even more, think of your pad of paper: you never know just how thick a pad you have left.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I worked as a technical writer in a department where the highest positions were held by a husband and wife team whose son was in a Montessori school. Both worked hard and kept long hours, often picking up their only child late from Child Care, having kept the staff overtime.

A few years later, after I had left on-site work to write from my home office, I heard from a mutual friend that the husband had died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was 41.

After her husband’s death, the wife cut down on work hours and turned down a promotion that required lots of business travel. She and her son later moved out of state to be close to her family. But I often wonder if she doesn’t have regrets about how little time they spent together as a family when her son was young and her husband was alive. Does she now think that focusing so much on their careers was worth it?

When I hear stories like this, I think about the odd twists and turns of fate. We live life for the moment as best we know how, but not always in the wisest way. We never know just what will happen in ten years, or even in two. You can plan all you want, but an event that happens unexpectedly tomorrow can turn your life upside down. My brother's death in September was such an event.

With all three of my kids now teenagers, I already look back nostalgically on their childhoods. I feel fortunate that I realized back then that the interactions with my children are the precious moments in life, the memories I’m already looking back upon wistfully. So I chose to work from home when they were young because that way I could come out of my home office any time of day and spend time with the children. I recall my son Jacob catching the first ants that came out one long-ago spring, putting them in his critter cage, and taking them to his bedroom to admire and lay next to as he and his sister Alexandra each drank a bottle of warm milk — but I don’t remember any of the work projects I was working on at the time. I remember watching from my office window as the children caught toads in the backyard, then splashed with them in the wading pool and swung with them on the swingset — but I have long forgotten the tight deadlines and late-night meetings with clients that took place at that time.

In one sixth-grade classroom, a teacher was surprised to hear her pupils say that they would really like another Depression. The pupils realized that a Depression meant lack of material things. “Why would you want a Depression?” the teacher asked her pupils, puzzled. The answer surprised her. “Because my parents would spend more time with me!” Children all through the classroom echoed this response. That says something about our society — and about children’s true needs.

Money and the stuff money can buy is no substitute for time. Time is your most precious commodity, so spend it wisely. Your children need you, and your greatest gift to them is the time you spend with them.

Homeschooling parents already know this. They give this gift throughout the year.

What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
— Albert Pike, Scottish Rite Freemason (1809-1891)