I wrote this nine years ago after a weekend with “my guys” (there were only three then.) It was subsequently published as a Commentary in the “Birmingham News.” I still think about it every year. Out of the mouths of babes. . . .?
“I thought this was going to be fun.” It’s a familiar sentiment, particularly in December and January, when all the money spent and parties attended leave us financially and emotionally exhausted rather than exhilarated. In life the sentiment can be a product of expecting too much, leaving us with a sense of too little.
Four days before Christmas those words were uttered by my 6-year-old grandson, in the humblest, most disappointed of voices; not because of his big expectations but because my expectations were spoiling the fun. And, in response to his words, a sense of guilt permeated my heart well into the next day.
December 21 was the end of a long weekend visit from three precious grandsons. There was running and laughing and playing, baking and decorating – cookies, a gingerbread house, the Christmas tree. It was a joy, but my 62-year-old body was fading in the face of young boy energy. Ethan’s disappointment came minutes before I set off to return them to my daughter, with mixed feelings of sadness and relief.
Before they left I wanted a picture of them with the gingerbread house. Toys had been put away, only specks of Play Doh remained on the floor, the car was packed. I put the house on a small table by the tree and herded them into the living room for a “quick picture.” But a “silly session” ensued. Two-year-old Alex picked at the candies, 9-year-old Eric made “bunny ears” behind his brothers. Ethan giggled incessantly at their antics. I had snapped about six shots and, thinking that none had been successful, in a firm, too harsh, voice I admonished them to “just behave!” It was in response to my rebuke that I was in turn rebuked with, “I thought this was going to be fun.”
The immediate source of guilt was obvious. My desire that a Christmas memory be captured in a posed picture took away the fun. But, there was something bigger, and I couldn’t get a handle on what that was. It seemed there was something to be learned that might ease the holiday stress and perhaps some of the stress of life. Many times I had responded to life – disappointments and tragedies, large and small, near and far – in similar terms.
More practical souls might scoff at the idea that life should be “fun.” Life’s about hard work and responsibility. Learn and follow the rules in order to thrive and survive. Keep your nose to the grindstone. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Life is serious business. Furthermore, can any adult, all too aware of the hands that life deals, really consider life to be “fun?”
As I continued to mull over the incident, I recalled a recent classroom exchange that seemed to be the antithesis of this incident. Near the end of last semester, as I explained “extrinsic motivation” (working for a reward) and “intrinsic motivation” (working for the joy of it), I asked students how many had been paid for good grades. I was dismayed by the number of raised hands. Not revealing my dismay, I asked what they thought about such payment. One response left me, as a teacher, feeling particularly sad: “It’s a good thing, because we’ll have to work to ‘pay the rent’ and this teaches us that you have to work hard to get paid.”
Was she right? Is hard work only motivated by reward? Would children work for the fun of it? I think the answer is to be found in watching a child learning to walk. We all learn and we all fall down, over and over. It’s work. Is it fun? Watch a toddler’s face as they explore their world; then you tell me.
Children know how to work and have fun, all at the same time. Sure, their fun is dependent on someone paying the rent and buying clothes and putting food on the table. That is, indeed, our job and, in addition, we must prepare little boys and girls for their future life as grown-ups. But, as we do grown-up work and prepare our children to be grown-ups, what happens to the child in each of us? Must we squelch that child, take away the fun, in order for the grown-up to emerge?
Back to Ethan and the gingerbread house pictures. I think I understand what it was I sensed in that moment: Giving the child within us permission to have fun is what Christmas should be all about. And, what kind of fun does a child have? It’s cheap and it’s simple. It doesn’t overtax our credit cards or our calendar. It’s about living in the moment, being open to the surprises and joy of life, to the gift of life itself. We live in an affluent society. It takes a hard-working grown-up to earn a share of the affluence. But, we can become a slave to that affluence, and the stress and depression often associated with modern-day Christmases may be a hint of what our “dreams” are doing to us all year-long. You’re right, Ethan. Christmas and life itself, even good hard work, is supposed to be “fun.” And, in a world where there’s too much disappointment and tragedy, we have an obligation to have fun whenever the occasion presents itself. That reminder was your Christmas gift to me and I’ll do everything in my power to make sure we all use that gift – all year long.