It was near midnight on Christmas Eve. My husband and I sat and stared at the heap of presents extending well out into the living room. They glittered like a mountain of foil. My husband turned to me and said, “We’ve got Mount Everest for toys, and Death Valley for a bank account. Look at this stuff. I feel sick.” We had a sinking feeling that we’d exchanged our Christmas gold for tinsel.
Christmas Day was no better. Although it was clearly a day to spend with the children, somehow we realized when it was over that we’d done about everything except spend time with our children. Something had to change.
We reflected on the genesis of Christmas gift giving. Wise Men honored the Christ child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Those small but costly items were probably obtained at some sacrifice by each of the Wise Men. We suddenly realized that we had been caught up in the idea that gifts had to be costly—and in large quantities—to be acceptable. We had sacrificed our budget for the children. Was this the spirit of Christmas? Perhaps the idea behind the Wise Men’s gifts was their sacrifice, not only in terms of value freely given but also in terms of the significant amount of their time to journey to visit the child Jesus. This was a sobering idea to two parents seemingly overwhelmed by the demands of rearing several children and shouldering other responsibilities.
That Christmas season we determined to give our children more than things; from then on we would also give them the gift of time. We determined that Christmas Day would be an honest-to-goodness “Kids’ Day” at our house and that during the coming year we would also give each one a time period once a week for time alone with Mom or Dad. Spending time alone with the children has proved to be the best of all Christmas gifts for our family.
In my work as a family therapist, I have seen the good results that come to families who have learned to lovingly give gifts of time rather than gifts of substance. One family concerned about their fourteen-year-old daughter explained, “Our daughter doesn’t talk to us. She used to come to us about everything. Now we never know what she’s thinking unless she’s fighting with us. We felt so close to her until this last year. Now there’s a wall between us, and we wonder what she’s hiding. She shows no interests in her old pursuits, and we worry that she’s experimenting with harmful substances. At least once a week we get calls from the school counselor telling us she’s in some kind of trouble.”
As her parents spoke, the daughter rolled her eyes and then said, “I just want my parents to stop criticizing me.”
My suggestion for them was to give their child the gift of time alone. I told them that parent-child relationships are like bank accounts. Parents desire to bring up their children in light and truth, and so they make deposits of time and love. Then, with the best of intentions, they withdraw repeatedly from their children’s accounts by asking them to clean up bedrooms, get good grades, wear appropriate clothing, get home before curfew, internalize good moral values, and so on.
Such interaction between parents and children works best if the emotional deposits of time and love are greater than the withdrawals. Spending time alone with a child, one on one, is a way of making a significant emotional deposit into his or her account.
After giving the family some tips on how to make their time alone with their daughter worthwhile, they left. A few weeks later I met them in a shopping center and asked how things were going. The mother reported with a broad smile, “Oh, much better! No trouble at school, fewer fights at home, and she’s talking to us again.”
There are few gifts we can give to our children that mean more to them than our own time freely offered, sometimes at personal sacrifice. “You are really important” is the message that such acts convey.
In our family we’ve found that some simple guidelines help us make the most of the unique gift of time spent together.
Just as I enjoy being phoned from my husband’s work and invited out on a date, my children like to know we’ve planned to spend time with them and have a sincere desire to share their company. Shortly after that memorable Christmas Day, I invited one of my younger children to take a walk. I said, “I’d really like to spend some time alone with you. Would you like to take a walk and build a snowman with me?”
My daughter hesitated, suspecting she was in trouble.
“I really want to be alone with you,” I said, offering her my hand and biting back the worry of the ten things I had to do before company came that evening. We went outside and played.
I got my first insight into the importance of the activity when my daughter saw her friend next door and called out to her, “My mommy is taking just me and nobody else for a walk!”
This idea of selecting an activity that the child will enjoy was expressed by President Gordon B. Hinckley when he counseled fathers to give love and encouragement to their children and raise them with a rod—a fishing rod (see Ensign, Nov. 1994, p. 53).
Doing things with children that they enjoy opens doors to better communication. My husband and son were walking in the woods by our house and sat on a log by a small stream to study raccoon tracks in the mud. As they sat among the trees, my son opened up and talked about his friends and eventually his testimony. “Dad, this is great. I love sitting here talking to you like this.”
We have spent some unfruitful time-alone sessions with our children when we haven’t made the extra effort to leave the house or to at least escape from the telephone, television, and other family members. Using the time to run errands for the family will probably defeat the purpose because it sends a message that your child is of secondary importance.
In one family the father spent many hours playing board games with his son and many more hours faithfully attending every single swim meet his son participated in. In spite of all the time the father sacrificed, the son rebelled. After their heated arguments, the father would ask himself, What am I doing wrong? Here I am spending all my free time with this kid. Why does he hate me?
A closer look revealed that although the two were doing things that interested the son, they were always with other people. They were never alone together. Time is only a partial gift when it is divided among many people.
My teenage son can pretty well count on being reminded, encouraged, and challenged about his grades and his chores all week. But when his time alone with Mom or Dad comes, he wants to relax and have fun—and so do his parents! He has come to look forward to his time as respite from his parents’ usual checking up and occasional lectures. During this time he knows he can discuss football, rollerblading, or his own musical preferences. He is greatly disappointed if something comes up to delay his weekly time with Mom or Dad.
Discussing your children’s interests is vital. It puts you both at ease, enlarges your common ground, and strengthens your relationship. Never use these precious time-alone moments to criticize, lecture, or discipline your children. There is a time and place for that, but not when you’ve set aside time to enjoy each other’s company.
During our special time together, I get to be my children’s friend in a way that they appreciate more than at any other time. For example, recently my daughter wanted to spend our time together on a walk to “dump the garbage” about a basketball team she joined this year. She started to cry and explained, “My coach doesn’t play me enough.”
My first thought was to encourage her to practice harder, but I bit my tongue.
Then she sobbed, “Katie didn’t show up to practice, and she got to play almost the entire game! I can sink baskets as good as she can.” I immediately felt like calling the coach and having a word with him. Again I resisted the impulse to jump in and “fix” the problem.
Instead I said, “Danielle, you feel cheated because you were at practice this week but played only a few minutes of the game. You think it is unfair that Katie got to play, and you feel confident that you can make the points.”
“Yeah, Mom,” she sniffled. Later she crept up behind me and gave me a big hug.
Our rules for time alone with the children come from James 1:19: “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (emphasis added). Being swift to hear and slow to fix is even better. The older the child, the more he or she needs someone to listen and understand. Our children need our parental concern and counsel, but they also need our friendship. True friends don’t jump in and fix our problems. They listen and help us understand so we can fix them ourselves. There is something exquisite about being completely heard and understood. It’s a gift we can freely offer all year long.
Like depositing a paycheck, spending time with our children should happen regularly. As a family, we committed to keeping our “family days” free from other engagements. Sometimes we sit down as a family and plan our time-alone dates; other times the children think ahead and develop ideas of what they want to do. My husband and I share the fun and responsibility by taking turns spending time with each child.
One memorable Christmas Day I learned that the gift of time worked both ways. My daughter had received her first “real” mountain bike for Christmas. I asked her what she wanted to do for her time alone with me, hoping it would be something in the warm house. But oh, no—she wanted a genuine bike ride.
My heart sank. Thankfully there was very little snow. She headed for a steep hill and whooshed up like a gazelle, leaving her frozen, huffing mother behind to negotiate occasional ice patches. After an hour-and-a-half climb, we reached the top. Laughing and exhilarated, we watched the sunset paint pink streaks above the snow-capped mountains. How different from that tired, letdown feeling I often had when all the presents were opened on Christmas afternoon. Suddenly I realized that our time together was my real gift to her that day. The parent-child bond being strengthened during that time together could never have been purchased in a store.
Eleven Christmases have come and gone since we stared in disgust at the pile of Christmas gifts we had labored so long and hard to amass. The decision we made to give a gift of ourselves has proven to be our gift of Christmas gold.
This article may furnish material for a family home evening discussion or for personal consideration. You might consider questions such as:
What gifts might our children want and need from us that cannot be purchased?
What would we need to do to spend more time alone with each of our children on a regular basis?
What activities can we engage in on Christmas Day that will help us honor the occasion while making warm memories for our family?