The closer to Christmas it gets, the more kids start to act like little angels. “Em” has always been pretty well-behaved. I have rules for her and consequences for bad behavior. She knows these rules and follows them and rarely has to sit through the punishment of going against the rules. But she also knows who will enforce the rules. While she doesn’t run rampant and go crazy when left with adults who aren’t authority figures to her, she does know which buttons can be pushed on which people and during which situations. A friend took “Em” to Disneyland one day while I was out of town. My rule for “Em” at Disneyland is that she must walk the whole time (barring really crowded situations); if she asks to be carried, we go home. When my friend “D” took “Em” with her, the minute they stepped off the tram to enter the park “Em” told “D” that her feet hurt and she asked if “D” would carry her. They only stayed at the park for a few hours.
I know that when “Em” goes up to “Jake’s” house in the summer or for a holiday, there is bound to be a lack of rules, if only for them to make her feel welcome and loved and not neglected. After a few weeks up there, it takes about 2 to 3 weeks to get her used to the rules of our house again. But she eventually gets back into the rhythm of things.
This year, due to financial struggles, “Em” stayed here for Christmas instead of flying to “Jake’s” house. Christmas here is more than just a one-day event. This year, “Em” was a sheep in our church’s Christmas pageant. Practice for the small production began about a week or so after Thanksgiving. Each time the kids and youth got together to practice was another reminder to “Em” that Christmas was getting closer and closer. Wednesday night we had the first service with the pageant that “Em” was in, and afterward we had some people from church over for dinner. A few of “Em’s” friends came and when it came time to serve dinner, “Em” all-of-a-sudden wasn’t hungry. It took some persuasion, but we finally got her to agree to eat with her friends. She was just too excited to eat; she didn’t want to miss a moment of the excitement. Later in the evening, during the down-time before the late service, “Em” dozed off for about 1o minutes, but she insisted that she wanted to go to the service. She slept during the last 25 minutes of the service, too; she just couldn’t stand missing anything.
When we got home and got “Em” ready for bed, I discussed the rules of Christmas morning with her. “Em” was not to go downstairs until everyone was up and ready. When it was time to go downstairs and open presents, I or my parents would let her know. But of course, with any four-year-old, it’s hard to remember the rules on Christmas morning. In the morning, she crept downstairs and put on the slippers Santa left out for her. She said she’d only gone downstairs to play, but when you’re 4, it’s hard to control the excitement. She repeatedly interrupted adults in conversation. At dinner, she again claimed that she wasn’t hungry. The day was topped off at bedtime by discovering she had an accident earlier in the evening, but had neglected to let anyone know. She just didn’t want to leave playing with her new toys.
But when or where do you draw the line? Do you just let the rules slide because it’s Christmas? Or do you enforce the rules no matter what and risk being the mean parent? I tried gentle reminders during the day, but the accident at the end of the night was the last straw. I had to enforce the normal consequences, even though it meant having “Em” cry. She had to sit in the penalty box, and instead of taking a toy away for a week, she will not get to use the light projection feature on her brand-new alarm clock for a week. And she did not get to have a story read to her. I felt bad, but I still needed to make sure “Em” understood that rules don’t go away just because of one exciting day. But it almost felt like she knew that Santa had come and gone and that she could let her guard down for a bit. While she doesn’t have a complete concept of time (a whole year before another Christmas is beyond her), she probably does know that Christmas is here and won’t be back for a long time. Somewhere in her head, she knows that it’s a long time before Santa’s “really watching” her. Of course, it could just be the excitement. But you can bet that Santa’s going to be watching year-round, just to make sure “Em’s” following the rules everyday with everyone.