That famous story by O’Henry is often revisited at this holiday time of year. A young couple who are struggling financially have no money to buy each other the beautiful gifts they would like to give. Each of them has one possession they treasure; the husband, a gold watch that belonged to his father, the wife, her amazing long hair that reaches her knees. When the holiday arrives and they exchange their gifts, it turns out that the husband has sold his watch to buy special combs for his wife’s hair, while the wife has sold her hair to buy a special chain for her husband’s watch.
It might seem as though the moral of the story relates to the foolishness of the couple in their wish to buy gifts and going beyond their means to do so. Actually, it is really about the gift of love, which at times is expressed through self-sacrifice. It is interesting to think about this in relationship to parents and children. Holiday time is often one when parents who may be struggling financially, scrimp and save in order to buy things that will please their children.
On the other hand, even parents who have the means to buy the gifts their children want may feel concerned about the magnitude of the things to which their children are exposed through media and advertising. Asking parents about the gifts their children want, the most frequent answer has to do with some aspect of technology, iPads, iPods, smart phones and the like. It may feel as though the idea of a gift of love is lost in the commercialization of giving and its focus on creating a desire for material things.
In an earlier time, the preparation for holidays seemed to focus on making things to give, in which people expressed more of themselves and in which children could more readily participate. Such participation seems to have become the role of schools, where making things for parents becomes part of the curriculum and children may be more interested in what they will receive than in what they will give. It is difficult for parents to maintain more traditional values in this modern era, especially since the advent of all the technological goodies that seem largely to have become children’s toys.
Along these lines, a new book, “A Country Called Childhood: Children and the Exuberant World” by Jay Griffiths, an award winning British writer who has lived in and studied a diverse range of cultures, addresses the “loss of childhood.” The idea that childhood has been lost has been expressed in numerous ways with numerous examples – even to the point that children dress like miniature adults. According to Griffiths, this has happened because of today’s ever-present consumerism in which children have lost touch with the natural world.
Griffiths believes that children today are “enclosed” in school and at home, in the transportation that takes them between the two, by rigid time schedules, by fear, poverty and surveillance. A risk-averse, overprotective society prevents them from testing their environment. She writes from her own Welsh childhood experience of greater freedom and being carefree.
Other writers have offered different theories about the seeming loss of childhood. Neil Postman, in “The Disappearance of Childhood” also holds modern media responsible by having eroded the barriers of secrecy that once protected the young from a world of adult violence and sexuality.
On the other hand, Philippe Aries, writing about “Centuries of Childhood,” makes clear that our ideas about childhood actually are part of the modern age. In early times, children were dressed and treated as infants until the age of 7, at which point they were considered adults and sent to work. The idea that children were immature and needed time to develop was a product of education and of child development research.
Our contemporary age has also brought many changes, particularly those wrought by technology. Modern society moves at a great speed, the population has exploded and the reality of urban life does not include a free exploration of nature in Griffiths’ terms. The nature of modern violence has also led parents to be more watchful, and in the eyes of some like Griffiths, overprotective.
Undoubtedly, current changes will cause children to grow up differently than in bygone days. Some of the changes will be to the good, while others cause us to long for the “good old days.” As parents, we can only be clear about our own values, believing that whatever other influences come to bear, the ones we give our children with our love will prevail. This remains the true gift of the Magi.
Happy Holidays, everyone! Will return after the New Year.