The day after Christmas, my 5-year-old announced that she was going to have a sugar cookie for breakfast. She was wearing a blue Elsa princess nightgown that she got the morning before. On the table, was a plate of sugar cookies that we’d made on Christmas Eve.
“No,” I said. “Maybe after lunch, but not for breakfast.”
Norah looked me in the eye and gave me her brat face, a straight look of defiance that she adopted about a year ago. When I told her not to drink too much water before bed, this was the look she gave me as she drank more water. A few weeks ago, when we were at her older brother’s basketball game and I told her not to run into another court to see her friend, this was the look she gave me before defiantly strutting away.
Norah reached up with her grubby little hands, snatched a snowman-shaped blue cookie from the table, and began eating. Then she gave me half a twisted grin that seemed to say, What do you think of them apples?
Most of the year Norah is a sweetheart. But the days leading up to Christmas are stressful for a child, particularly with all the reminders that Santa’s watching. Norah had just spent 25 days feeling like she was right on the line between naughty and nice, making Christmas day a sensory overload.
But now it was all over, and she’d come crashing down to normal life.
The truly sad part of this whole event was the fact that I’d had two sugar cookies before Norah got up. It was just after 7 AM.
So much of parenting is about contradictions and double standards. I tell the kids they can only have one can of soda a week, while I drink several a day. I tell them they can’t eat before bed, while I usually have a bowl of cereal after they are asleep.
I regularly tell myself that the kids will never know, and assume that I am older and wiser and more than qualified to pull the wool over their eyes. But the sad fact is: I get caught breaking the rules all the time, and it’s this inconsistency that is most likely the reason Norah thinks she can get away with something like taking cookies after I told her not to, and then giving me her brat face.
Back in our kitchen, Norah placed her cookie-free hand on her hip, stomped her right foot, and said, “Princesses can eat cookies in the morning! That’s what makes me a princess!”
I laughed under my breath.
“Kiddo,” I said. “That’s not how a princess acts. Put the cookie down, or I’m going to put you back to bed.”
Every year it’s like this. Every year my kids turn into demanding, whining, little jerks the day after Christmas, and I wonder if it’s because they think the clock reset on good behavior, and suddenly, they don’t have to worry about Santa watching them.
I was tired from getting up way too early to unwrap gifts, driving around to see friends, helping to make a big meal, and staying up too late watching a movie with the kids.
There was also the fact that my wife Mel and I had scrimped and saved to give the kids a good Christmas. I’d taken on extra work the months before, and we’d spent a lot of late nights shopping online, trying to find the best deals. What this all boiled down to was that I wanted Norah to show me a little gratitude for placing so many gifts under the tree.
I put my hand out, palm up, and waited.
How could she act like this after I’d given her so much? I thought.
I sat with my hand out for a while, and in the silence, I thought about how, when I give my kids a happy Christmas, I expect them to appreciate it. I want them to love me more for it. I want them to understand my long hours of extra work, and tight budgeting, and deep thought that was put into each gift.
But kids don’t work that way. When I think back on my childhood, I didn’t think about any of that. I didn’t think about the fact that my mother was single, and worked at a music store, and cleaned houses in addition to her full-time job each Christmas to earn extra money. I only realize her sacrifice now, as an adult.
So much of all this parenting stuff is about perception, and I see things very differently now that I’m an adult.
Part of me wanted to go into some cliché tirade about other kids in other places and other families that didn’t get Christmas presents. Part of me wanted to give her a guilt trip, like my mother would’ve in this situation. But it just didn’t feel right.
“You know I love you, right?” I said.
Norah didn’t move for a moment. Then she reluctantly nodded.
“Good,” I said. “That’s why I bought you all that awesome stuff for Christmas. That’s why I wasn’t home all those nights. I was working to pay for all that stuff.”
We sat in silence for a moment, Norah’s eyes moving side to side. I don’t know if she was starting to realize what we’d done for her the day before, or if she was just getting more pissed off, but what I do know is, that she placed the half eaten cookie in my hand.
“Thank you,” I said.
She looked at the ground.
“Tell you what. Let’s have some cereal, and then we can have a breakfast dessert. Just this once.”
Norah smiled and got the Cheerios from the cupboard.