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Poor Kids and Guilt at Christmas

People think you can buy kids off at Christmas with presents. I recently saw a Christmas episode of "Bewitched" where the people on Samantha's street were taking in the kids at a local orphanage for Christmas eve and day, as if this was so great for these kids. Do you know how freaking HUMILITATING this type of thing is for the kids involved? People with money take poor kids out for a day, then ship them back to the cold institutions with a new toy, whoopee...
Poor Kids and Guilt at Christmas
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)

It is interesting what we remember and do not remember about Christmas' past. One of the strangest and most pronounced memories I have of Christmas is one year when I was about 10 years old and we were dirt poor. I interacted with other poor kids, trying to somehow soothe my own discomfort. I dressed up as Santa and wrapped some of my toys which were still in good shape. I took them to the home of my babysitter, who was also dirt poor and had 3 kids younger than me. You might think my memory would be warm and fuzzy, that I was doing something kind for another in the Christmas spirit. But the feeling that lingers for me, is how awkward, how disenfranchised, the poor people, kids and adults, I knew and interacted with at Christmas felt.

When my parents got divorced, I became a two-income kid. Following the fault lines of institutionalized sexism, my mom was left on welfare in destitute poverty and my dad fought paying child support and was a well-to-do aerospace engineer bachelor. Due to my father's higher class level than mine and my mom's, the guilt was really horrible as a kid. For instance, my dad would not help me get a present for my mom. He did not want me giving anything to my mom, ever. He kept books and shoes and clothing at his house for me, and I literally shed my old self on the weekends for him. But since I always had to be sent home to destitute poverty and hunger at the end of every weekend, I always knew I had to put my "poor" clothes back on to go home, and I felt awkward at the places we went with the kids who lived in those worlds 24/7.

After the weekend with dad, I felt bad, as a child, bringing home leftovers from big food feasts to my mom's empty home and hungry belly. I felt icky bringing home nice presents my mom could never afford to get me as a kid, always coming from my dad. If he had paid his court-ordered child support, my mom, herself, could have bought me food and presents, but instead, all funneled through him, which made my mom very bitter. Christmas has always had huge guilt issues around class for me. I knew that getting nice things at Christmas had huge political overtones, even as a young child. If I loved a gift my dad gave me, my mom felt bad, as she could never afford those types of presents. So even if I got a present that was really cool, that I liked, I felt obliged to show no joy over it, so my mom would not be hurt. As a young child, this type of social monitoring for the adults involved is distressing and exhausting.

When I look back on Christmas' past, the only ones without weird guilt feelings are the ones spent with my mom when we were poor, but her family would send us a yearly cache of baked goods, homemade maple syrup, hand-knitted items, etc. Out of all the presents of all my childhood Christmas', the ones I seriously remember loving most were the Barbie clothes my grandma would knit me, oddly. Everything else seems to be a blur. I really did like a small electric organ I got one year, and I liked the Lite Brite too, but again, I associate a lot of dark, guilt feelings with those items as playing with them made my mom mad, reminding her of my dad.

People think you can buy kids off at Christmas with presents. I saw a recent Christmas episode of "Bewitched" where the people on Samantha's street were taking in the kids at a local orphanage for Christmas eve and day. Ms. Kravitz, and Sam and Darin took home kids as if this was so great for these kids. Do you know how freaking HUMILITATING this type of thing is for the kids involved? People with money take poor kids out for a day, treat them like kids people care about, then ship them back to the cold institutions with a new toy, whoopee. I, also, was in a state child protection institution at age 8, in Los Angeles, called McLaren Hall. (McLaren Hall is a notoriously rough and abusive asylum setting where unwanted kids were warehoused and abused by the state in the 1960's-2003). When we, the kids, were finally allowed out of there to be shipped off to foster homes, they gave us, the kid prisoners, basically, a big box of toys, as if somehow that made the previous weeks, months or years of torture go away.

When I left McLaren Hall, and they gave me that big box of toys, I was in such shock and trauma by then, that toys were no different than dirt to me. Seriously. I remember sitting in the car as we drove away from McLaren Hall, and not being able to hear the social worker's words in the car... I could only think about how the telephone poles were moving as we drove and I think it meant I was perhaps finally out of there. I was not excited about the box of new toys. I did not give one crap about them. I am sure some corporations donated those toys for charity brownie points and tax write offs, but they meant nothing to me. And I am not alone. As I have talked to adult survivors of McLaren Hall, I have had more than one of them express ANGER at the box of toys they gave us when we left. One guy sent me an email about McLaren Hall after reading an article I wrote about it, and the subject line was "F*ck McLaren Hall's Teddy Bears!"

Myself, and other kids there did not find that box of toys comforting or endearing, it angered us in ways. It seemed as if those toys were supposed to somehow buy us off, to make us not talk about the horrors we just saw inside McLaren Hall. Toys were so far down the list of what we needed... we needed safe parents, families, homes, food, clothing, school... Kids from McLaren Hall had much more important things on their minds than toys. Even as an 8 year old, I smelled something funny about those toys. And why would I want to play with something from there, once out of that place of terror? It would only remind me of that hell! The McLaren Hall box of toys had a creepy vibe to it. Although I am not comparing McLaren Hall to a concentration camp, it is kind of like giving kids a box of toys when they leave a concentration camp. What good are those tainted toys?

So my toys from dad were filled with guilt from my mom. And my dad did not want my "poor" things from my mom in his world either. And toys from McLaren Hall reminded me of the scariest place on earth. By about 8, I pretty much gave up on toys for comfort due to the adults around me and the political significance of the toys given to me.

When I was 10, as I said, I tried to help my neighbors' poor kids not feel what I had felt. I tried to wrap up my old toys, and to visit them, giving them maybe a little extra Christmas joy, as I knew their parents were struggling just for food money. But after that effort, I had an epiphany. I realized that little band-aids can actually emphasize what we do not have somehow. I realized how weird "charity" can be. I realized that it is not the presents that matter, honestly. It is the caring. And a token caring for a minute at Christmas, can actually echo as a reminder of how much people do not care the rest of the year. You do not see the kids I described in this article on those warm Christmas TV ads. I have talked about poor kids and unwanted, abandoned kids in this article. Although a toy may have a slight significance for an "underprivileged" kid, what they really want and need is stability, health, a home, reliable food, a loving support network, and an opportunity to get presents on their birthdays too, not just on Christmas. To be "included" for a token moment just doesn't cut it. Kids are smarter than that. Temporary charity is for the giver's benefit, honestly. That is what I learned, as a ten year old, one Christmas in 1970.

homepage: homepage: http://www.kirstenanderberg.com


toys aren't love 18.Dec.2005 15:07

sneeka

My father died near xmas when my siblings and I were very young and people just went apeshit giving us presents, I guess because they didn't know what else to do. I don't know what would have helped, maybe actual human contact, but toys from strangers didn't do the trick and was actually pretty creepy.

charity vs care 18.Dec.2005 17:47

RedTree

This posting had me thinking all day about what charity is and about what the mad dash to 'toy up the kids' means at this time of year. While I would not want any child to go through Christmas without any toys, I had never really given thought to how the children feel about getting 'things' from strangers. It is not like a community Christmas party, is it? How would you suggest we make life better for the needy? Don't tell me that we should have social programs in place, because many of the very people who donate toys are the same people who continually vote against all social programs and school funding. They are the folks who don't mind seeing libraries closed for days on end because, hey, they have plenty of books and the Internet at home. Maybe this is cynical, but it is what I am seeing.

countering the guilt and madness of christmas 19.Dec.2005 00:29

st

First of all, it must take a very dedicated or delusional level of wishful thinking to accept that fucking Bewitched re-runs provide a commendable example of how to address deplorable circumstances that some kids in orphanages face at christmas. Christmas, as the united states generally knows it, particularly through the lens of hollywood, is really "merry" Chistmas; candy canes, Santa Claus, fancy packages around a shiny sacrificed conifer, shopping at F.A.O. Shwartz.

Even though this commercial invention works for a lot of people, its not a substute for what I imagine is the purpose Chistmas is supposed to serve, assuming, as I do, that it is supposed to serve some good purpose. Anyway, I don't want to debate that and all its permutations, except I think there are some people who really could bring lonely orphanage kids into their house for a couple days for a truly uplifting rather than awkward and humiliating experience.

There might be a noticeable absence of the commercial christmas regalia. Tell bing crosby to stuff it for a couple days. There'd be well rested, clear-headed, friendly people, adults and children, with time and interest to listen and talk to the kids getting a respite from less than ideal circumstances. There'd be decent, healthy food, and maybe a nice fire in the fireplace to sit around. Rather than the dubious present of some violent video game, the kids might go home with...well, I'm not too good about picking out the right toys, but I'd say they'd get something they would feel good about, plus, they'd hopefully also go home with some new ideas, information, and inspiration that might give them some hope for the future, and I don't just mean the jc kind.

I don't think it's a formula you can really rely on a script for to appeal to the needs of someone who is lacking in some way. It takes real people who aren't addicted to the santa claus myth, who are prepared to test their capacity to show consideration for others in a greater than short term capacity.

Of course we reading Kirsten Anderberg's piece can't possibly know all the circumstances surrounding the relationship she and her parents shared during her childhood, but it seems like the relationship was an example of a bad one. Amazing how some parents in their post divorce relationship find it reasonable to indulge in the kind of cruel, superior minded, machiavellian behavior towards their spouse and children that her father did. Mr. Scrooge to the 10th power.

Ms. Anderberg shouldn't sweat anymore over the shortcomings of her old man. Got a feeling, when he had her over to his place to put on the fancy clothes and shoes he bought for her, to him, the person she really was, wasn't actually there. To him, she was just the image of a forgotten memory, long gone with the control over his ex-wife, who'd become a doll, a voodoo doll he could use to exact a bitter revenge on someone, the true identity of whom he may not even have been truly aware of.

Apologies to Ms.Anderberg in advance if this sort of creative theorizing seems out of order. The snow gives leave to flights of deep thinking.

I think a lot of the seasonal toy giving is well intentioned, but true, much of the effort is for the benefit of the giver, and too some degree, also reflects anxiety, and a sense of helplessness and naivete on the part of the giver. Many really, sincerely want to do something helpful for people in need, but lacking the personal experience or savvy, blunder by following the reccomended practice of those they imagine should know how better than they, what kind of care to offer people.

I think the answer to the unhealthy syndrome of ill advised toy bombing is complicated. It really calls for a collective exercise of effectively applied compassion. The united states isn't a collective, and doesn't exercise its compassion that way. It does so bureaucratically, which can often be cold and ineffective, sometimes permanently so. A better future for homeless kids might be in the hands of people who do things differently.

If you can do it, and you really have the qualifications...really have them, not just the law saying you have them, one idea is to actually adopt those kids, and give them a real home.

adult kids who age out 19.Dec.2005 09:54

kirsten

This does not really stop with childhood. Kids in the child protection/foster care program often go from one family to another, as I did, never get adopted then "age out" as teens and we get drop kicked onto the streets as I was at 15 1/2. Rosie O'Donnell has coined the phrase "living orphans" for kids and adults like me with living parents we never see or talk to.
For those of us without family, even as an adult, it seemed every holiday I was invited to "crash" other families' holidays. It got really old spending holidays with different families and NEVER my own. I do miss my cousins and uncles and stepsisters, etc...but that shit ended in my teens on the street. I wish it was not awkward, but it is. One family has money, food and shelter all year long, the other doesn't but for a few days a year and we have to pretend all is fine...that is how it feels. First my dad was a greedy pig and my mom and I were poor and hungry then society turned out to be greedy pigs and I went hungry and cold in "protection" institutions and on the streets...some system. My adult son and I decided we were sick of being at other families' lavish christmas gatherings all the time and have opted for our own celebrations in the last few years instead. I know people mean well when they invite me to their family holiday dinners but IT HURTS ME! CAN'T THEY SEE THAT? They have FAMILY, something I have NEVER been able to achieve! It HURTS as if it is rubbing it in my face for me to go to others' loving family gatherings. People with family do not understand how totally BIZARRE it is to not have family in this society. And there is this shame, like it is our fault we have no family. I held that shame most of my life. It is shameful in America to not have family and kids from protective services, well, we had no choice! And my son, now he does not have family, because I have no family...yes, we have friends, etc...but I mean those people who are related to you...we don't see them ever. It IS something missing, no matter how cynical you are about flesh family...

I know that Bewitched is a TV fiction, but the point is something as mainstream as THAT had an episode on something that heavy. Because I am from an institution background, I have been keenly aware of sitcoms growing up that had episodes re this. The My Three Sons show had interesting stuff re that when they were just adopting Ernie...they did not want him to go back "there..." there are a few shows that have dealt with this topic. Actually ROsanne, the TV show, did an EXCELLENT job re this topic with the David and Mark characters...Rosanne let David become one of their family when she realized he had an unstable home life. I loved Rosanne for that on that show. It is just interesting seeing how society represents and notices/talks about/deals with this topic. It is quite hidden on the whole. The Little House on the Prairie also had a boy they adopted on that show...I have been really aware of those characters as a kid growing up. I related to the runaway adopted kid on that show, not the characters like Laura or Mary on the show.

My midwife and I made a pact that she would be my family and me hers and we would forever have a safe place for holidays, where we felt welcome and safe. She found out I did not have family when she found me crying over my college graduation as there was no one to watch me graduate and no one to take my kid so he could watch me graduate and I could not afford the cap and gown and I had worked so hard, it was a mess and I was humiliated and I would go to campus and all over were signs about things to buy "Your grad" as grad presents, and it was just ripping me apart. All these kids, with glowing proud parents and I was crying in the dark trying to work it out. She caught me and I broke down and told, in humiliation and she vowed that would not happen again. She took my son to my graduation and had a grad party for me and even gave me a graduation present, a watch. At first I was resistant to open up to her, but she did birth my child for free at home, and I did trust her, and I realized I would never have anything if I turned everyone away...so I let her in. She got cancer in 1995 and passed away...back to square one...

Thank You 20.Dec.2005 09:03

sandiego@narchist

Thank you so much for writing this Kristen. This is the first of your articles that's actually made me cry.

I grew up with the same exact situation as you. With my father buying us things like stereos for christmas, and non paying child support, and my mom just barely finding enough money for food. When she did find, or really borrow, money for christmas presents, they were always weird toys from the drugstore down the street, as she usually didn't have a car to go buy presents with. She always tried so hard ot get us presents for christmas, though, and was willing to spend her last $5 on a toy for me. She did once, it was a red GI Joe boat that I wanted and she actually spent her last $5 on it.

Anyway, christmas is obviously a time that brings the extreme class divisions in this country to light. Thanks for writing about it.

Thanx 20.Dec.2005 11:58

Working Class Mama

Thank you Kirsten for writing this. There are so many times that I read your work and I cry because I relate.
As a parent, this holiday is mostly a dreaded time that we have to brace ourselves for. It's a time when money gets suffocatingly tight. I had to put off a few bills this month to cover presents and I'm not sure if I'll have enough to cover them next month. Oh sure I could try to pull some 'oh we don't do presents cuz it's a consumerist holiday, blah, blah, blah'. But try explaining that to a starry-eyed hopeful 7 yr old. My child already gets to hear about all the wonderful toys and things that all his friends have at home all year long. This holiday really smacks it to him that he's not like the other kids. So we try to make this day, the one day out of the year that we can live it up(well, as best as we can within our means). I do try to emphasize the importance of family and how wonderful it is that we at least have eachother because I didn't have that growing up. But it only means so much to a child that young who's most respected peers have it all. This society sends the message that material value is everything and if you don't have it you are inferior/outcast. Children are extremely sensetive to these messages. Especially during this holiday because that type of marketing etc. is precisely directed at them. I don't let my child watch tv or view advertisements but the messages are enforced by the children that can.
I'd like to second the notion that sending anonymous toys and crap means very little to a needy child. How would you feel if you received a present from a stranger that said "For Boy/Girl Age 7-9". Would you really feel like anyone gave a shit about you as a person? Toy drives are a marketing scam. Whoever promoting them gets their brownie points, the toy companies get their brownie points and sales, the purchaser/donater gets that fuzzy feeling without the mess of actually interacting with dirty poor people or giving back the needless amount of wealth that they have because of those same poor peoples' cheap labor. The child gets a meaningless object to remind them of what they're missing out on and the parent is reminded of what they cannot provide for their child.
If you want to really help people, start a revolution. Topple the system that creates inequalities like this. We don't want your token trinkets, your pretty beads. We want stability. We want freedom. We want time with our families away from work. We want homes. We want food. We want health. We want caring communities that respect eachothers dignity and take care of eachother through mutual aid, not top-down charity. We want to be able to organize these things without being asassinated for threatening the capitalist system.
You may try to right me off as just another angry woman. But my anger is not without purpose. It is righteous, it has a reason. If you have any honesty in your heart you will look to see what that reason is. Then look to see what you can really do to really change what is happening at its root cause.

guilt re poor presents from mom too 20.Dec.2005 16:07

kirsten

The comment by sandiego@narchist reminds me that another flip side of this is not only do you feel guilty if you play with the nice stuff dad gave you in front of mom, but since mom spent her last $5 on you, you feel obliged to only play with THAT toy she bought you! Or heaven forbid you should break the one toy mom spent her last $5 on. You will then, as the kid, try to hide it so mom doesn't know but then she will see you not playing with it, and you get hives as a child, like I did, trying to navigate all that guilt and trouble. It is such a complex psychological mess for kids!

And Working Class Mama, I am right beside you regarding that revolution. We don't need those trinkets, is exactly right. Or as Autonome.org says, "We don't want the bread. We don't even want the bakery. We want the whole damn wheatfield back."