‘Tis the season to be jolly. Yes, well, and stressed, tired, overfed, overindulged, greedy, spoiled, and cranky. No, I’m not a Scrooge, but I spend a lot of my time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s working with families who really struggle during the holidays. I get it. This is not my favorite time of year by a long shot. Far too many seasonal demands are piled atop my already very busy life. This is true for just about every adult this time of year, even those who do not observe the December holidays. Fortunately, there are many ways to combat the craziness of the holidays and minimize the impact on your family. Here are some suggestions.
Maintain rules and routines. Children (and adults, for that matter) thrive when life is predictable.
- Just because your kids are out of school for a week or more, there is no requirement that you suspend bedtime. Instead, consider making it a half-hour later or alternate the regular bedtime with later nights. This is especially good for young children who may not have mastered the adolescent art of sleeping in.
- During what my husband has dubbed The Season of Eating, there will inevitably be more sweets around the house. Stick with the usual household rules regarding treats and desserts. The excitement should be about the added variety (pies, candies, cookies, etc.) and tradition (candy canes, gingerbread, eggnog, etc.) of the yummies rather than about gluttony.
Focus more on giving than getting. Just about every parent I know bemoans the commercialism of the season as well as the “I want, I want, I want” attitude of many children. Yet when I ask these same parents to describe their children’s Christmas or Hanukkah gifts, I often hear long lists of high-end items.
- Make sure that your words and actions align around the values that you are trying to teach your children. If you really want them to believe that it is better to give than to receive, find meaningful ways for them to give. For children, this can mean donating gently-used toys. One clever couple I know requires their children to give away as many items as they put on their wish lists. Giving can mean a service project like a canned food drive for a local food bank, helping to shop for and wrap gifts for a family in need, or donating some of the money they receive from grandparents to a charity. Hands-on activities, such as serving a meal at a soup kitchen or preparing and handing out toiletry bags at a homeless shelter, help kids make the connection between their efforts and people in need.
- Avoid overdoing the gifts. I have always liked the approach of one big gift (could be an electronic device, an expensive pair of athletic shoes, or tickets to a concert) and a few smaller ones (such as books, toys, clothing, fashion or sports accessories). Kids don’t need, for example, the newest iPhone, a Northface jacket, Kevin Durant basketball shoes, a videogame, and new skis. It’s too much! This type of excess teaches children everything about greed and indulgence and nothing about generosity and moderation.
- Have even young children participate in giving. Children as young as two delight in giving handmade gifts. Help your kids think through gift ideas for loved ones. The very first year my husband and I sent our kids out alone for Christmas shopping, my son gave me a beautiful hand-thrown ceramic mug because he knows that I love coffee and tea, and my daughter gave me a book about memoir writing because she knows I am passionate about sharing stories. The best part of these gifts for me was how clearly they demonstrated that my children had thought about what would bring me joy. Avoid letting your kids put their names on gifts you have already purchased. Expect kids to spend their own money, even if they can only give very modest gifts.
- Give experiences rather than objects. Concert tickets, day trips into the city or into nature, massages, Escape the Room, theater tickets, zip-lining, yoga or jewelry-making classes, lessons in cooking or mandolin – these are all gifts of joyful and enriching experiences that take the focus off of getting “stuff.” These gifts may be even more meaningful if they are shared family experiences.
- Think carefully about giving money as a gift. Nothing says “I don’t really know you at all but I am obligated to give you something” like cash or a check. At least store gift cards suggest you know something about the person’s preferences. This can be tricky if the individual asks for money, something many teens do. If money it must be, perhaps pair it with a small, more personal gift.
Spread the joy and the work. Remember that holidays are not just for kids. You deserve to enjoy them and to get a break from the monotony of your “regular” life.
- Make the work of the holidays everybody’s job. Whether it’s unpacking the ornaments, making the rugelach, wrapping the gifts, or dusting the baseboards before the grandparents arrive, there is something virtually every member of the family can do. My family began a new tradition a few years ago of divvying up all of the cooking tasks on Thanksgiving and Christmas so that when we finally sit down to eat, everyone has contributed and no one is completely exhausted. Then we all share in the clean up. We keep the kitchen rocking with Christmas music and keep all the chefs focused with a “no smartphones in the kitchen” rule. This new tradition is a good way of making the work joyful for our family. Create your own new traditions that work for yours.
- Allow all family members to have a say in holiday plans. Maybe each child gets to choose and help prepare a dessert for the big family gathering. Maybe a brainstorming session in which all voices are heard can yield a destination for a winter break day trip. Maybe every member of the family can make a monetary donation, no matter how big or small, and then use a collaborative process to decide which charity receives the gift.
Let your holidays be spirit-led. No matter your faith (or lack thereof), it is very important to hold up the meaning of the holidays you celebrate. This may be religious or it may spiritual. Immerse your family in the history and symbols of whatever special days you are celebrating. Without the spiritual aspects of holidays, they really are just about giving and getting stuff and eating too much.
The comment that inspired this post came from a teenaged client of mine just before Thanksgiving. I asked what her family’s plans for the holiday were, and she replied with a wince:
My mother will be in the kitchen all day slamming pots and pans and everyone else will be hiding in their rooms avoiding an argument with her. And that’s the fun part. – Maddy, age 17
Let’s try hard to do better than that!
I wish you all a safe, healthy, and relatively-stress-free holiday season filled with family, laughter, love, and the spirit of hope for a better world.