When I was about 4 years old, my dad came home from work early one day. Still in his coat and tie, he quickly ushered me into the car, said something to my mom so that she wouldn’t worry, and whisked me away to K-Mart to buy my mother a Mother’s Day gift.
K-Mart wasn’t his idea; he had asked me the night before where I thought we should get something for my mom. At the tender age of 4, I loved my mother very much, but also had a hard time getting the concept of Mother’s Day under my skin. Her job, after all, was to be my mother. It didn’t make sense to me for there to be a day where we simply reward her for being good at what she is already supposed to be good at.
So I suggested K-Mart because they had cool toys that my parents were usually willing to be talked into purchasing if I used my sad puppy-dog eyes; I decided, therefore, that this was a win-win scenario. My dad and I would head to K-Mart, I’d have a pretty good chance of getting a new action figure, and I’d get all the adult-like kudos for picking out a gift for my mom because she was my mom and that’s what I was supposed to do.
Looking back on this, it occurs to me that this sounds rather selfish. But then again, I’m looking at this memory through the lens of a [hopefully] fully-formed adult. If I put on my kiddo psychiatrist hat, my attitude makes perfect sense to me. My mom, because I was very fortunate, was good at being a mom (she still is, for that matter), so I took her presence and attention more or less for granted. As callous as this might sound, this attitude is entirely consistent with sound development.
As fate would have it, you had to pass through the plant section of K-Mart before you got into the main shopping aisles. With the impulsive wisdom that perhaps one only truly and confidently possesses between the ages of 2 and 5, I decided on the spot that I would ask my dad to buy my mother a rubber tree plant. What’s funny is how clearly I remember the plant: it was about half my height, with three healthy leaves, and a teeny baby leaf about to unfurl. My dad, as eager to leave K-Mart as I was to visit the toy section, grabbed the plant and prepared to pay for it—and then caught sight of my puppy-dog eyes. I’m sure I ended up getting some kind of toy, but I don’t remember what. I just remember the plant.
This memory was newly conjured for me just the other day as I was having a little disagreement with my youngest child about what to do on Mother’s Day this year.
“We’re going to take Mom to breakfast on Mother’s Day,” I explained.
“Why?” she asked.
“What do you mean, ‘Why’?” I responded.
“I don’t wanna,” she said. “Can’t Mom have cereal?”
Thinking back to that K-Mart trip more than 30 years ago, I offered a bold-faced bribe to my little one.
“We’ll get a toy on the way home,” I said.
She agreed. Plus, she had those darn puppy-dog eyes.
In the spirit of preparing parents and kids for this yearly celebration of all of the good that moms do, we thought here at The Clay Center that we’d offer some guidance for the various—and sometimes surprising—ways that kids might view the recognition of Mother’s Day as they progress along their developmental trajectories.
Little kids (ages 2 to 5ish)
Little kids might not get it. Then again, they might. Remember: at this age, kids are trying out different attitudes, and watching to see how others respond. There’s certainly no shortage of advertisements for Mother’s Day, so kids have all sorts of templates beyond the ones you or their schools might offer. Most of these templates will be interpreted in rather concrete ways: We get something for Mom on Mother’s Day because we love her, and because it’s the right thing to do. In fact, most kids don’t remember what they give as much as they remember how their mother’s eyes lit up at receiving the gift. If a teeny bribe is needed to make it go smoothly, it’s OK; there’s no real benefit in making Mother’s Day a time for disciplinary precedent.
School-aged kids (ages 5ish to 12ish)
These are some of the best years for Mother’s Day. Kids have gotten big enough to truly appreciate their moms, and to be comfortable expressing that recognition. It’s not that when they were younger that they didn’t appreciate Mom; it’s just that when they were younger, they were busy needing Mom to help them do things—like stand up, eat and take half-decent baths. With independence sometimes comes a slight melancholy (though rarely a painful one) that Mom is needed now for more complex moments. How do you negotiate difficult social circumstances at school? How do you manage your growing homework burden when faced with the call of a beautiful day? With these memories, and with appreciation for Mom’s increasingly nuanced job, kids often go all out on Mother’s Day. A little help from adults or older siblings, and these become the Mother’s Days characterized by homemade projects and breakfast (albeit often burnt), brought proudly to bed where Mom has been given the freedom to sleep in. Just sit back, parents, and enjoy the unfettered goodwill that is most common for kids this age as they ring in Mother’s Day festivities.
Adolescents (age 12ish and up, depending on much your kids have matured!)
Remember how we said that little kids are trying on different attitudes? Well, adolescents are doing the same thing. Developmentalists have even referred to these changes in behavior as the “second separation.” The first comes when you’re little and you try on different styles, looking for your parents’ response. The second, now ripe with acne and the occasional surly retort, is more about seeing how peers respond. There may be great ambivalence about Mother’s Day during teen years. This isn’t necessarily because teens are unable to appreciate Mom, and in no way does it mean that teens take their moms for granted. It means, instead, that the simple recognition of all that Mom does brings back memories of simpler times, and those simpler times are both longed for and soundly eschewed. Here’s where, if you encounter resistance, you might raise your voice a bit if your teen wakes up on the wrong side of the proverbial bed with regard to properly acknowledging Mother’s Day celebrations. Remind them that they’ve got to do something. Take them shopping for a gift, or let them browse the Internet; have them use some of their own money, if needed. Kids this age are also pretty sophisticated—they can do some pretty cool stuff. A photograph a teen has taken, framed up and nicely presented, will, with all likelihood, end up on the bedroom wall for Mom.
Mother’s Day is fun. It’s no accident that it happens in the spring—a time characterized by rebirth, flowers, new energy in the air…this is all the stuff that moms bring to us.
And that rubber tree I got for my mom? She still has it. It’s gone through trimmings, and repotting, and new leaves, and droughts and times of rapid growth, but still it thrives…all thanks to my mommy.
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