As though Ebenezer Scrooge himself had descended upon our household, this December I found myself overcome with a sense of compassion and sadness for my six year old as she sobbed, “Mommy! Is Christmas cancelled? Is it?!? Is it? Christmas is ruined! This is the worst Christmas ever!”

What had happened was simply this: for the first time ever, our Christmas tree had fallen down. Our many years reused, artificial, found in the crawlspace when we bought our house, yet beautiful-to-us, ornately decorated tree that my daughter and her daddy had only just happily put up earlier that afternoon.


Surveying the damage

While it took a while to sort out what happened, eventually my daughter told us that she might have accidentally brushed up against the tree while she was playing behind it. In the process the Christmas tree stand snapped which meant it couldn’t be put back up right away.

My initial urge (once I allowed myself to get over my initial feelings of horror and panic) was to wrap her up in my arms and tell her everything would be all right. And, as much as I wanted to, I knew this was a valuable learning opportunity. An opportunity to learn what it means to ruin something she really, REALLY cared about, and not have anyone rush to the rescue and make it all better.

So I waited a minute, simply offering her a loving presence while she felt her grief. While eventually cradling her in my arms, I still was careful not to sugar coat the situation. So when asked me, “Will Santa still bring me presents?” and “Do you think he will understand?” I did not rush to answer her. Not out of a desire to make her feel guilty, AND wanting to give her an opportunity to introspectively look inside and consider what had led to what had occurred, I asked, “What do you want Santa to understand?” She looked back at me with confused and wondering eyes, not sure what to make of what I had said.

Picking up the pieces

While it would have been easy to act out of frustration, and I will share that I too in the past may have struggled to manage mine in similar situations, I am happy to say that is not what happened. My husband, Richard, who had done the bulk of work in erecting and decorating the tree, had responded initially by saying, “Liliana, I’m very upset with you! You know you are not supposed to play behind the Christmas tree!” That, though, was as tense as things got.

Moments later, in his typical practical way, after surveying the damage, he said, “The tree stand is broken. The stores could still be open. They might have one, although probably not, because they don’t make stands like this anymore.” On that faint hope, out the door he went.

bulbsWhen he returned with no stand, the Christmas tree could not be erected and the holiday could not as a result be ‘made right’, at least not yet. He did though get a box and asked Liliana to put the bulbs that had fallen off of the tree into it. Which delighted me. This giving to her natural consequences instead of punishment, that is. Meaning letting children experience the natural fallout that occurs as a result of their actions.

A framework for dealing with the fallout

The reason I was so excited about the giving to Liliana natural consequence is as follows. With the several parenting books that I had been reading (and sharing with Richard I might add), I had come to learn that punishment (in any form, no matter how mild) does not work. Punishment only breeds resentment, revenge, or feelings of inadequacy in children, as discussed in Honey, I Wrecked the Kids by family therapist Alyson Schafer. None of which I, or I imagine any parent, wants. Liliana’s sense of what needs to happen in this and future situations would most ideally be driven internally by what she most deeply wants and cares for. No amount of reprimanding or lecturing from her parents could bring this about.

If either of her parents had rushed in to ‘fix’ things and comfort her in her early moments of despair, she would not have had the opportunity to develop her internal ability to comfort, hold and regulate herself in the face of life’s adversities. She might have gathered the takeaway that somehow mom and dad can be relied upon to make everything better, and that she does not need to try and regulate her own self.

By us also remaining relatively calm and not acting from a place of anger, Liliana was experiencing others not judging her and consequently also not becoming wallowed with grievance. The latter of which, for clarification, can be defined as “a wrong considered as grounds for complaint” or “a complaint or resentment, as against an unjust or unfair act” ( Whereas a grievance lingers on, we were showing her that we could get past our anger, pick up the pieces, and move on.

That did not mean withholding from letting her know how we felt about what happened – it was only natural and important to let her know that we were upset and hold space for those feelings. How else could she learn empathy for others’ feelings if her parents never allowed themselves to show her theirs?

A time to move on

The impact of all of this on Liliana was nothing short of incredible, at least as far as I was concerned. At first she was nervous to talk to her daddy after what had happened, given that in the past he might have been still upset. However, Richard too has been working on learning many of the ideas I have been studying. Seeing how he was approachable, she went up to him on her own and said, “Daddy, I’m sorry about the tree.” And happily, he accepted her apology. (I had suggested to her that she say was ‘sad’ about what had happened. Sorry implies feelings of guilt, as though the one harmed has the right to feel a grievance against the harmer. And at least they were communicating, which, considering the disaster that had just happened, made me ecstatic!)

The fog of what had occurred gradually lifted from our household, and by day’s end, Liliana and her dad were laughing and goofing around like they often do at that time. The damage was only material while the emotional connection was still alive and well. She ran to me joyfully later in the evening and said, “Mommy, when I was playing with daddy, I forgot all about the tree!”

That, I must say, was fine by me. A time exists for crying, experiencing growing pains, and reflecting. And a time exists for laughing, playing, and being in the present. What is more, I feel great happiness, or you could say glad-itude, for the universe giving us the opportunity to experience both. Glad-itude for how, despite life’s inevitable challenges, we were able to manage our impacts on each other and create the loving, wonderful time around Christmastime, that we so deeply want. And I feel deep wonder at the mystery of life and how it unfolds as a result.

As for why I posted this on my environmentally-focused blog, I will share with you that I struggled with whether it made sense to do so for quite a while. I feel I have good reasons why I did this though, and will explain in a couple of posts to follow. I look forward to sharing these posts with you soon!

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