A million Christmases ago, when my now-teenagers were little, besides the special wishlist items we put under the tree, I added a fairly simple gift of my own. I gave each of my sons a coupon for a 45 minute block of one-on-one time with me each week.
I don't recall thinking that this was THE gift, but I hoped it would help me carve out time to give each of my very different children what they needed.
On Christmas Day, the scrolled-up coupons were quickly discarded for the shinier, more exciting gifts. But a week later, among the have-to-have presents now casually scattered around the room, my one son found a scroll and asked about it. Right then, I took out a calendar and wrote each of their names on designated days and times for the month of January, and we began our experiment.
I don't remember exactly how we filled the time but I'm sure we played games, and probably read books and built LegoÃƒâ€šÃ‚Â® creations. Surprisingly, my kids enthusiasm for this activity far outlasted their interest in the other presents they got that year. Not only did they pester me regularly about when their day was, they were equally concerned that their brothers got their slots too. It turned out that while it didn't look that impressive under the tree, this special time was the best gift they got that year.
As much as I'm glad I gave them that gift, it is doubly sweet when this kind of present comes from a quality (and functional) relative, neighbor or teacher. Making the effort to take my child out into the world, teach them life skills, and share stories, insights and history while creating fond memories - is powerful stuff and helps a child feel important. (In fact research shows that children who have at least one strong adult mentor do better in life.)
From my own childhood, growing up in a large family, it wasn't easy to feel special. Of course, it didn't help that my sister had the coolest godmother. Once a year Aunt Patsy came to our house and took my sister out for her birthday. And while my godmom gave me gifts at the right times, she lived out of state and didn't take me out to lunch until I was in my 30s.
My husband's sister is like my Aunt Patsy. But just as much as her attention is wonderful for my kids, it is the best present she could ever give their mother. There is nothing more awesome than knowing that someone other than you notices, cares about and is willing to make time for your child.
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Of course like the other presents from that Christmas morning, those special times didn't last. That is the nature of raising kids. It's not one idea that gets you all the way through their childhood, it's all the ideas and moments put together that add up.
Now that my sons are older, finding these opportunities is more of a challenge. Apparently they're not as keen on hanging out with their old mom. (Or having their mom use the word 'keen'.) Luckily they still like me enough and I still buy their clothes which gives me access to some bonding. My husband also has a tradition that my boys love - father-son early morning breakfasts out.
And we can always hope for the occasionally, too-sick-for-school kid - to sneak in an odd chance for connection. In fact, my 16 year old was home sick while I was writing this article so I asked him if he remembered that gift from 10 years ago. His memory wasn't as sentimental as mine but as we talked, his recollection came back and I could see a fresh appreciation for that long-ago present.
It was a nice conversation. Not a big deal, but an opportunity to talk - just he and I - one-on-one. And add one more moment to the pile.