The Gift that Keeps on Giving
This Chanukah, Hashem put an amazing idea in my head. The light bulb went off exactly when I needed it to, at the moment when I was feeling tired and exasperated and at my wits’ end.
You see, the weeks leading up to Chanukah were contentious weeks, ones that were heavy with the kind of sibling rivalry that can break a parent’s heart. Normal stuff, typical stuff, baruch Hashem, but frustrating and hurtful, nonetheless.
Maybe it’s because it was cold outside, so there was a lot more family bonding time once everyone got off the school bus. Maybe, like seasonal allergies, there are times of year my kids are more sensitive to the things that annoy them about their siblings. Or maybe they were getting into the Chanukah spirit a little bit early, reenacting the war between the many and the few, the strong against the weak, by picking on their younger siblings and aggravating their hapless mother.
Whatever the reason, every time my kids were in the same room, I was accosted with a cavalcade of complaints that sound something like this:
“Why does he have to review his Chumash so loud? He’s so noisy!”
“Why does she have to have friends over all the time? I have no space!”
“Can you tell him to cover his mouth when he sneezes? He is so gross!”
It felt like I was spending more time refereeing than I was spending folding laundry – and that’s a lot of time.
At night, when I was feeling completely defeated, I kvetched to my husband (maybe they learn how to kvetch from me?), not only because the refereeing exhausts me, but also because it devastates me. My husband tiredly assured me that fighting among siblings is normal and then regaled me with all the horror stories from his own childhood (my poor mother-in-law). He reminded me that he is super close with all his siblings today, so I had nothing to worry about.
Try as he does, he can’t reassure me. Because I know that sibling rivalry is normal and typical and unavoidable – and will probably (hopefully!) dissipate before they reach old age – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make me sad.
That’s when I started hatching my plan. While my husband snored contentedly, I brainstormed. What if it’s my job as a parent to facilitate their friendships, whether they like it or not? What if, instead of constantly haranguing them to just get along, I could give them an incentive to start liking (or at least tolerating) each other?
That’s when I thought of it: Their Chanukah “assignment” this year was that they each needed to do something nice for each other.
And I was willing to pay for it.
We’re not big on Chanukah presents in our house, but I was happy to make an exception this year. So, one night, when things were particularly combative around the dinner table (“He touched my fork!” “She took the last chicken wing!”), I called a ceasefire and announced: “This year, we’re going to be giving Chanukah presents, for a change.”
The response: mostly joyful cheers.
But my fifteen-year-old knows me too well (and also inherited my cynical streak). He asked, “Is there a catch?”
I nodded calmly. “Tatty and I won’t be the ones giving out the presents. Instead, we are going to give you each $25 dollars per sibling, and you need to come up with a meaningful Chanukah present for each other. You need to buy a gift that your brother or sister will actually like.” (Sorry, boys. No smelly socks wrapped in wrapping paper).
The response: Mostly disgruntled groans.
Their, uh, generosity of spirit was evident from the start. One of my little guys asked me, “If I only spend $20, can I keep the other $5 for myself?”
(Good math skills. Bad idea).
Another bigger guy inquired, “Can I get myself noise-cancelling headphones, so I’ll let her sing as much as she wants, and I won’t have to listen?”
(Unkind comment. Not a bad idea).
I even caught my seven-year-old whispering to his older brother that he would be very happy if his Chanukah present was a new football.
“Hey! No leading the witnesses!” I yelled, but on the inside, I could feel my hope beginning to sprout. Maybe there was reason to believe we would see a Chanukah miracle? My kids were talking to each other without fighting, and that was almost as unexpected as finding the pach shemen!
That hope continued to take root. Suddenly, the kvetching got quieter, and the brainstorming got serious. Now, the kids were coming up to me when their siblings were out of earshot, eager to run their ideas past me.
“Ma, do you think he would like a new pair of slides? The ones he has are pretty scuffed.”
Wow! So nice of you to notice!
“Do you think she would appreciate a new knapsack? She complains all day that she has so much homework!”
Skillful! You managed to get an insult in even as you thought of a good idea!
“I’m going to get him a CD by his favorite singer, but I’m going to give it to him on condition he only plays it in his room.”
Baby steps! I’ll take what I can get!
My husband has gotten to sleep soundly these last few weeks because I don’t have to keep him up with my kvetching. Instead, I’ve been basking in the fun whirlwind of activity: hiding Amazon boxes as soon as they arrive, breaking out the wrapping paper and pretending I know how to wrap, urging the kids to write cards and responding with composure to the inevitable question: “Do the cards have to be nice?”
Now that Chanukah is finally in full swing, I’m waiting with bated breath for the moment of the gift exchange. I hope my kids will be happy with their presents, but more than that, I hope my kids will feel happy as they give their presents.
No matter their reactions, I’ll keep reminding myself that sibling rivalry is normal, that fighting is natural, and that one day, b’ezras Hashem, they’ll see themselves as friends.
But the Chanukah gift I gave to them (and to myself) is that at least for a moment, they stopped and considered what they can give to each other.
And I need to keep davening that it will be the gift that keeps on giving.
A freilechen Chanukah to you all! I’ll let you know how it goes!