This column was written by Steve Majors, Communications Director at Family Equality Council.
Give. Get. Those are the words scrawled at the top of my daughters' holiday gift wish lists. That's the way we encouraged them to think about their "Santa" list this year -- a list of what they want to give to someone as well as what they hope to get.
They learned that lesson clearly this year in a neighborhood coffee shop and that lesson was not lost on me.
Scrambling out of the cold into the corner shop and clutching their one-dollar allowances, my eight-year-old and seven-year-old approached the counter. Fifty years ago, their noses would have been pressed up to the glass of the candy display. In 2012, their hands left streaks on the baked goods case.
"I want a bagel. What's a raspberry scone? Daddy, can we get an apple fritter? Banana Nut Loaf, Banana Nut Loaf, I want the Banana Nut Loaf!"
The cries over confection were the tipping point. "Enough," I yelled -- apparently too loudly, because the double-income-no kids crowd in the café peered at me over their espressos. But I didn't care. It was time for one of Daddy'ss life lessons. So began a 3 minute lecture about why I was tired of hearing "I want"; about how using the credit card was the same as spending money; about how they couldn't expect to get everything they wanted and about how much we had spent already this weekend.
Frustrated by their blank stares and the stares of the woman behind the counter, I rolled my eyes, grabbed their dollar bills and slammed down my credit card.
"$4.25," the woman behind the counter announced. It seemed like the two extra dollars I spent was not worth the amount of energy I was spending on this argument, but I had come too far now. I was trying to make a point!
Sullen and sulking, they sat and munched their bagel and muffin at the table while I still fumed. What was the point of having an allowance if I was just going to have to subsidize it all the time? Why couldn't they be more grateful? A request for a bottle of water didn't quench my frustration at all. It just fanned it. Digging in my heels, I told them if they wanted water to march up to the counter and ask for a free cup of water instead.
"Can't you come? I don't want to go myself, please!"
Nope, there's nothing free in life, I announced. If you want that water, the price you're going to pay is to walk up there yourselves and ask for it. Daddy's not always going to be there to give you what you want. So go.
I watched as they held hands, dragged their sneakers and looked back at me one last time wistfully. I noticed I wasn't the only one watching. The double-shot, no foam crowd looked from me to them.
Aha, I thought. They're seeing a good dad teach his daughters the importance of independence and self-reliance. In truth, they were thinking something completely differently.
But at that point, my eyes were on the prize. Someday my kids will look back on this day and remember it. I just knew it.
One spilled glass of water and a few more frayed nerves later, we were ready to leave. At this point, everyone in the coffee shop had learned a lesson in parenting -- apparently except me.
Until, the woman behind the counter leaned and beckoned me nearer. I was prepared for a lecture about no more free water, or the crumbs on the table. Instead she smiled and asked me if she could give my children the two free hot chocolates she was holding out to me.
Later, my kids would describe how my eyes popped out -- not in surprise but in exasperation.
Immediately, I knew I'd been trapped. All their pouting and my shouting had led to this showdown. Clearly the woman behind the counter, and everyone in the double garage, no limit credit card crowd were waiting to see what kind of dad I would be.
Would I be the cheapskate dad and say, "Why sure they can have it. It's free!" Or would I be the spineless dad and say, "Please, that's ok, I'll just pay for it" Or would I be the crazy dad and say, "Free? Free? No way! only if they earn it by washing the dishes!"
I was in a no win situation and I only had myself to blame. The question for me, it seemed was not what I wanted someone to give to my children, but instead what I wanted them to get out of this.
Resent the rigidity of heartless ole dad or appreciate the generosity of kindly ole shopkeeper?
So I curled a tight smile and said, "Tell the nice lady, Thank you, kids."
Clutching hot chocolates, and skipping back out into the cold, my children were clearly enjoying the lesson they had learned. Look forlorn and you're sure to get a free gift. Great.
At that moment, a woman pushing a shopping basket full of her entire worldly belongings stopped in front of the coffee shop. She paused and then walked in to use the bathroom.
My kids looked at her through the window and then at me. We didn't have to say a word to each other. I pulled out their confiscated crumpled dollar bills and tucked them into her shopping cart.
Clutching their hands, we huddled together and walked down the street and I thought about the lesson my children had just taught me.
We shouldn't obsess over how much we give our children. What's more important is to think about what they're getting from us -- a great memorable morning out where Dad treats them to something special or an unforgettable morning where Dad lectures them over four lousy bucks.
So, as we prepare for Thanksgiving and get ready for the season of giving, I will give thanks for my children, give thanks for the coffee shop worker and even give thanks for the judging coffee shop patrons for teaching me how to be a better parent and a better man.
They reminded me to teach my kids it's not the gift, but the thought behind it that counts.