On christmas morning during my sophomore year of high school, I eagerly peeked into my stocking. The oversize sock was heavy and full—a sure sign of abundance. Except, it wasn’t. Onions, lemons, and a lump of coal replaced the customary chocolates, fresh oranges, and beautifully wrapped gifts. I searched my parents for a reaction—surely the swap was in jest—but their eyes lacked any mirthful twinkles. I flushed with shame as images of my recent interactions with them—the stonewalling, the bickering, the stomping—flickered through my head. The message was clear: They weren’t having it, and I had better change my surly attitude in a hurry.

I was a good kid, generally speaking. I did well enough in school, minded my manners, and didn’t stir up much trouble. That was, until a couple of months before the holidays. My friends and I started doing what I came to understand were stupid, self-indulgent things, like breaking into a friend’s grandmother’s house to empty her liquor cabinet. (I can still taste that god-awful blackberry brandy.) My parents insisted (rightfully so) that I write a letter to the grandmother and apologize in person. I had never been more embarrassed.

There were other instances of poor judgment—disobeying my curfew, sneaking out, lying about it—but the break-in was certainly the most alarming. Despite being grounded, and knowing full well that I had lost my parents’ trust, I made it my mission to be ornery. I spoke only when spoken to, and when I did talk, I did my best to answer in monotone, clipped sentences. I moped about and personified what can only be described as teenage angst. It must have been maddening for my parents. I ignored all of their efforts to communicate, yet they stood firm—which was maddening for me.

Hence the stocking. It was a tactile symbol of what I was abusing (hard-earned trust), what I was railing against (authority), and a reminder that my parents were still in charge. I’m sure a conversation ensued, though I don’t recall a word of it. What I do remember is viscerally understanding that I had bitterly disappointed my mother and father. Was I suddenly a reformed teenager? Yes and no. I was still a moody, independence-seeking kid, but I became more aware of my actions and their impact. I guess you could say I began to grow up.

Today, as a mother of two young girls, I admire my parents’ decision not to sweep aside my reprehensible behavior in the name of maintaining peace during the holidays. Had they showered me with a bountiful stocking, they would have been condoning my wretchedness. It was a lesson in tough love. I hated it, but I learned from it.

I have never heard of another child receiving coal for Christmas. Perhaps other families are able to reach their children in more conventional ways. But consider me proof: The difficult path of discipline is entirely worth the discomfort. I have filed this tactic away to use when, God forbid, my daughters exhibit similar extreme disobedience. It’s simple really, but sometimes action reaps rewards that words cannot.



If your kids made the nice side of the list this year, check 5280.com/stockingstuffers for some gift ideas.