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"It's the Thought that Counts . . ."

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You've heard it all before. After searching through forty-two stores in twelve different shopping malls, standing in line for hours, and shelling out a huge bundle of your hard-earned bucks to buy your kid that extra-special present for Christmas, some high-falutin' parent-education professional like me says you're spending too much time and money, you're missing the point of the season, and you're encouraging your child to develop a seriously flawed value system. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Let's face it. No effort is excessive if it brings happiness to your child. You know it, and nothing I can say is going to stop you. So I won't unleash yet another tirade about rampant materialism, sermonize once more about the real meaning of the holidays, or even supply an additional lecture about choosing politically correct toys. If you're willing to consider whatever it takes to bring a smile to your child's face on Christmas morning, go ahead. Search the stores. Stand in line. Shell out big bucks. You should be congratulated, not condemned.

But before you go, let me tell you a story. Don't worry. It's not the tired tale of poor but devoted parents purchasing a simple, inexpensive present that their child cherished forever. It's the story of my middle-class mother and father spending an enormous amount of time and money in order to give me the best gift I ever got.

I was twelve years old, and my life revolved around baseball. Since my idol was Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees, I was determined to be a catcher. Unfortunately, I was left-handed, and standard baseball wisdom dictated that southpaws should not be positioned behind the plate (because most batters are right-handed, a left-handed catcher might have a slightly obstructed view when throwing to second or third base to nab a potential base-stealer). In fact, there was no such thing as a left-handed catcher's mitt.

However, the coaches were impressed with my powerful and accurate arm; and besides, no one else on the team wanted to play that dirty and dangerous position. So equipped with improvised extra padding in my regular glove, I took the field and squatted in the back of the batter's box. My immense pride helped me overcome the sharp pain I felt every time a pitcher's fast ball plopped into my palm.

There was only one problem. My shoes. Everyone else on the team wore cleats just like the pros. I had to wear sneakers. A pair of cleats cost over $20--a princely sum in those days. Neither I nor any of my teammates could afford to purchase a pair on our own, even if we supplemented our allowances with the profits from our paper routes. But after ardent begging, pleading, and promising to clean out the garage, everyone had convinced his parents to buy him the special shoes. Except me.

It wasn't like my mother and father didn't have $20 to spare. They spent that amount every week for my violin lessons--which I hated. For cryin' out loud, they had spent ten times that much all at once to buy the stupid violin in the first place. But $20 for a pair of shoes--that I would probably grow out of in less than six months--to play a game? Not a chance. As far as they were concerned, that was not merely improper, it was ridiculous. Large sums of money were for food, clothing, shelter, education, and cultural enrichment--not for dressing up a boyhood pastime. My $5 sneakers would just have to do.

I had anticipated their reluctance. When I first whined that I would be the only kid on the team without cleats, I didn't expect them to surrender right away. After all, they never understood or appreciated anything that was really important to me. They paid a lot of attention to my academic abilities and musical skills, but they barely acknowledged and did virtually nothing to encourage my athletic pursuits. They were incredibly old-fashioned and totally out of it.

But I badly underestimated their resistance. I assumed the usual begging, pleading, and promising wouldn't be enough, and I was right. I then tried several weeks of general surliness and prolonged sulking. When that didn't work, I got desperate. I did additional household chores voluntarily, raised my grades in school, and even forced myself to play my violin with as much false enthusiasm as I could muster. All to no avail.

Then the holidays rolled around, and my hopes soared. Surely they wouldn't be able to resist the generous spirit of the season. My drawers were well-stocked with socks and underwear, there were plenty of warm sweaters in my closet, my shelves contained a sufficient supply of books, and I hadn't even hinted I might want anything other than those cleats. They had no choice. They had to buy me the shoes.

As soon as the religious observances were completed and we retired to the living room for the gift-giving ceremonies, I began to rummage feverishly through the pile of neatly wrapped presents to find the box with my name on it. When I found it, I was taken aback for a moment. It was bigger than a shoe box. Then I remembered my mother's penchant for practicality. She indubitably had obtained a larger container so she could place a bottle of polish and a spare set of laces alongside the cleats. The smile returned to my face as I eagerly ripped at the paper and ribbon.

Much to my surprise, there were no shoes in the box. My body went numb from disbelief, and despite my determination to remain stoic, my eyes filled with tears. But I wasn't disappointed. I was delighted. There, cradled in my trembling hands, was a left-handed catcher's mitt.

A minor miracle had been performed. After visiting every sporting goods store within a fifty-mile radius, my parents realized that, indeed, there was no such thing as a left-handed catcher's mitt. Then, after numerous long-distance calls to every baseball equipment company in the country, they finally found one that would manufacture a custom-made model, rush it through production, and ship it special delivery so it would arrive in time for the holidays. Adding the price of the glove itself to all the automobile mileage, telephone hills, postal charges, and time taken off from work, that mitt must have cost them close to $250--more than they had paid for my stupid violin.

More importantly, a major miracle had occurred as well. For the first time in my life, I recognized that my parents really cared about me--and had cared about me all along. I thought they weren't paying attention. I learned they were just concentrating on what was truly significant. I thought they were ignoring my persistent demands. I learned they were just nurturing my ultimate dreams. I thought they would never let me have anything I really wanted. I learned they were just letting me know that nothing could ever stand in the way of my getting what I really needed.

My parents could have taken the cheap and easy route by purchasing a pair of shoes. That would have brought them some temporary affection and admiration. Instead, they took the difficult and costly route of getting me a left-handed catcher's mitt. That earned them my undying love and respect.

It turned out to be quite a bargain. I still felt uncomfortable being the only kid on the team in sneakers. And later, as a senior in high school, I finally scraped up enough money to buy a pair of cleats. But even with my fancy footwear and one-of-a-kind glove, I never got more than a passing glance from the pro scouts. Then again, even with another half-decade of unrelenting lessons, I never became much of a virtuoso on the violin either.

On the other hand, throughout the ordinarily tumultuous teenage years, my parents and I enjoyed a relatively calm and solid relationship. Instead of seeing them as unreasonable adversaries, I could view them as occasionally inscrutable advisors. I could sense that they were dutifully guiding and goading my development. Sure, we had our irreconcilable differences and tense moments. But we never lost the special something that came with the left-handed catcher's mitt. And in the long run, I think my teammates envied me a lot more than I envied them.

So go ahead. Search the stores. Stand in line. Shell out big bucks. Just make sure all the effort and expense is justified. Make sure you're really giving and not merely giving in. Make sure you're bringing genuine happiness to your child and not simply offering a little relief from peer pressure. And make sure you're investing in the future and not just buying a present. In other words, keep in mind that it's not the time and money . . . it's the thought that counts.

Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed. D., is executive director of the Epicenter Inc., "The Education for Parenthood Information Center," a family advisory and advocacy agency located in Lindenhurst, Illinois.


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