You know the drill: The "gimmes," the sugar meltdowns, the "are we there yets?" Then there is the awkward problem of divorce and how to apportion time and attention. Kids reach a high pitch of excitement and sometimes invent surprising new behaviors that require your best holiday parenting skills.
"Parents should start with their own expectations," advises Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychology professor at Rutgers University in News Brunswick, NJ, and author of Make Your Children Feel Special Everyday, tells WebMD. "Some parents want to be sure their children get everything they want so there will be no tears. This is an unrealistic goal. Parents, especially with younger kids get lost in the hype."
Don't try to please everyone, Newman continues. Someone -- a parent, grandparent or in-law --will be unhappy. But, as a rule, the children will not be -- and it's the little things that they will remember, like time spent playing a board game or teaching you to operate their toys. "We played Chutes and Ladders last Christmas with my older kids," Newman says, "and it was so funny!"
Give the Pleasure of Giving
"Children will model your behavior," Newman says. "If you bake for the homeless shelter (and they help) or if you visit people in the hospital, they will remember that. These patterns stick."
"I like cooking with kids," Bunni Tobias, host of the syndicated radio show, Solutions for Simple Sanity, tells WebMD. "At my house, each child has a specialty, one was King of Cookies; one was on top of the veggies." Over time, each household develops a list of favorite holiday cookies and treats -- these are repeated each year.
Many schools and churches have programs for kids to make gifts or contribute to the less fortunate -- you can suggest some of the kids' allowance be used, instead of just a handout from dad.
Children can also help wrap presents -- so what if they aren't straight out of Vogue? "Kids have to see that everything doesn't come from a store," Newman says. Wrapping also creates a sense of excitement and is a good time to talk.
Making gifts is also a good way to give kids a deeper sense of the holidays. Going to the craft store, planning a project, and gathering around to make things is also a good time for parents to give kids extra attention. So often the holidays involve grown-ups reuniting and catching up -- kids get shunted to the sidelines.
Tobias recommends that children should be encouraged to make their own wish lists -- but to also describe why they want each item, to think a little. This way, parents can gently modify expectations before the fateful unwrapping.
Start Your Own Traditions
Besides joking about Mom's annual nervous breakdown, you can start some other traditions:
Go to the Nutcracker, a lighting ceremony or just drive around to see house lighting
- Build a snowman
- Open an Advent card
- Go to church or synagogue
- Let kids' choose holiday music and parents can dance with them
- Start a tradition of holiday meditation geared to short attention spans
- Bring out the ornaments, if you have a tree, and reminisce about each one
Some other suggestions:
- Put the kids in charge of videotaping or picture taking. Let them interview everyone each year. Landscape photographer Franklin B. Way suggests starting with disposable cameras. Encourage several shots of each subject before offering advice. Send kids out to take pictures of objects of one color. It will give you some free time.
- Be flexible -- if kids want a traditional candy cane and gingerbread man tree, alternate that each year with your designer special covered in fiberglass and festooned with your collection of antique racing car ornaments.
- Encourage kids to make New Year's resolutions. Share your own hopes for the coming year.
Coping With Divorce
The best time to consciously create new traditions, Newman says, is when the family has been touched by divorce, death, or some major change. "Even if it only means having dinner at a different time, try to differentiate between the past and now."
Marilyn Coleman, PhD, professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, suggests divorced parents create a separate holiday just for the family, one that is neither Christmas or Hanukkah, so kids won't feel guilty for spending time with one parent and not the other.
Mary Jo McCurley of the Dallas law firm McCurley, Orsinger, McCurley & Nelson, also suggests parents firm up the visitation schedule in advance, no surprises. Try not to overschedule kids, she advises -- they are already moving around. Help you child shop for your ex-spouse and be positive about the other parent. Don't convey feelings of anxiousness about your being alone on "the big day." Also -- don't compete for the affections of the child by breaking the bank with a "big gift."
Keep Routines as Best You Can
Newman suggests bedtimes be maintained, even if relatives plead, "Let them stay up, it's the holiday." People need sleep, she says, even adult people. "The next day is a holiday, too," Newman says, "no one wants to deal with sleep-deprived kids. You do them a disservice if you allow them to stay up."
Kids also should not be allowed to OD on sugar and snack food. "Ask the grandparents to go easy," smiles Newman.
Most of all, be inclusive -- if kids are included in an event, introduce them, coach them to use proper manners, and if they need you off alone for a few minutes, make the time.
There's a payoff. If the kids are less stressed, you will be, too. That's the best present of all.
Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.