As much as we love the holidays with our kiddos, there are way too many ‘opportunities’ to practice every
trick/ bribe/ desperate parenting manoeuvre clever parenting strategy we know, in order to smooth the edges and make everything, you know, magical. This can bring more than a reasonable amount of stress during the silly season.
As well as the regular routine, new things get added to the ‘to-do’ list. There’s that magic-making thing to attend to, different routines to work around, expectations to manage, and the mammoth effort needed to avoid arguments and sugar-induced, or exhaustion-induced meltdowns. And then there are the meltdowns from our kids.
Things can get hectic. Happy, but hectic. If only we could box up the presents, the food, the stress, the queues at the checkout, the gladiatorial battles for car parks, and the military level of organisation needed for the silly season, and sprinkle it more evenly throughout the year so the other eleven months can take their share of the load. But we can’t do that, because then the silly season wouldn’t be the silly season. There wouldn’t be the looks on their faces, the squeals of pure joy, the countdowns, the excitement when the magic comes together, the stories when it doesn’t, and the ‘Santa’s watching’
threats reminders that supercharge our parenting toolkit for a while. What would be perfect, is if we could keep the good and take the stress back down to small enough. Here are some ways to do that …
Let go of the fantasy.
Don’t buy into the highly-glossed ideas of the way things ‘should’ be. Perfection comes bound together with squabbles and tantrums and hits and misses. It comes in moments. Precious, perfect moments, in between the glorious, ridiculous, chaotic mess that is real life. And those moments happen every day.
Decide what’s important – and let the rest go.
When it all starts to feel too important, too necessary and too ‘un-let-go-able’, be guided by the bigger truth, which is that more than anything, kids will remember how they felt – as in how happy they were, how loved they were, how noticed they were. They won’t care about the instagram-worthy meals on the table, the cleanliness of the floors, how many relatives they visited, or how impressed other grown-ups were with their clean faces and darling smiles. It’s easy to forget sometimes, that what matters most at Christmas isn’t the tasks, but the people – the ones who would give up pretty much anything just to have the day with you.
There are 365 days in the year. Not everything has to happen over Christmas.
There are plenty of days in the year for visits, parties, and making a good impression. Decide what’s important for you and your family and let that guide you. If it’s going to stretch the emotional or time resources of your family, rethink it. Not everything has to happen over Christmas. You can love your important people just as hard in the weeks before and after Christmas. Or in January. There’s always January.
When you’re writing your to-do list …
Don’t forget about you. Once you’re depleted, everything will become harder. But you already knew that. When you have small humans around you, taking time out to replenish can have the difficulty level of climbing Mt Everest, in heels, but a bit harder because Everest doesn’t scream and throw itself at your feet in public places if it misses bedtime. If you can, find ways to nurture your mental health together. Try exercising together (as in walking the dog type of exercise, not ‘let’s run until I can’t breathe’ type of exercise), practicing mindfulness together (taking a mindful walk, colouring in), or meeting up with a friend at the park while your kids play together. These are all ways to take pockets of time during the day to nurture your own mental health when there’s aren’t too many opportunities to take time out just for you.
Let some things drop off the list.
Give yourself permission to let some of the usual things drop off the list. Does it matter if the house isn’t as tidy as usual? And having ‘bought sushi’ for dinner two nights in a row won’t hurt them a bit. Nor will popping them in front of a movie some afternoons while you take some time out to recharge (and cleaning out the pantry is NOT time out). Whatever it takes. There’s nothing wrong with going into survival mode for a few weeks. And then a few more after that.
Keep it real.
We’ve all been there. That thing when one stupid little reindeer-shaped cookie turns into six. Or nine. But it always starts with one. And then the rest just kind of happen. It happens to all of us at least once during Christmas. Or on weekdays – sometimes it happens on weekdays. It’s very likely that over the Christmas holidays, you’ll see plenty of instances where your small humans show a breathtaking lack of self-control. If they ‘locust’ the party food, squabble with siblings or other kids, or have early evening meltdowns that have the consistency and stamina of an elite athlete, don’t take it as a reflection of your parenting. It’s not. It’s a reflection that there are some wonderfully exciting things happening that can get the better of all of us from time to time. There are plenty of opportunities for them to learn self-control. Christmas doesn’t have to be one of them. Build them up when you can (a decent breakfast, chats about the rules or good behaviour) and let it go when you can’t (as in when they are at a party with party food, because it’s a law of the universe (or if it’s not it should be) that the only ‘power greens’ that should ever be at a child’s party are jellies in the shape of teenage mutant ninja turtles. Anything else is a party food pretender.) When tantrums, squabbles, mishaps or mess-ups feel as though they are punctuating the holidays like commas, breathe, and know that these will be story gold one day.
They don’t have to get it right all the time. And neither do you.
Every moment that feels like a struggle is an opportunity to teach them something. Whether it’s how to get along with other people, how to cope with the plans changing, how to be patient, or how different they can be when they’re tired or when they’ve had a belly full of sugar. These are all life lessons that will take a while to learn, but they can come supercharged in the holidays. It’s all part of the things they have to experience on their way to being happy, healthy adults one day. Of course, it would be easier if these learning opportunities didn’t come so thick and heavy over Christmas, but sometimes you just have to go with these things. They don’t ruin the Christmas adventure, they’re part of it.
It’s really normal for kids to have trouble seeing outside of themselves. Empathy and the move away from seeing themselves as the centre of the universe takes a while to develop. In the meantime, children’s expectations at Christmas can run high – the food, the presents, the fun, the treats. By encouraging a regular gratitude practice, kids will start to learn to focus on what they have, rather than on what they don’t have. Slowly, they’ll learn to think less about themselves as the centre of everything, and more about themselves in the context of others. Encouraging them to give a gift to a charity that is collecting for less fortunate kids than them is one way to nurture this along. Another way is by helping them make a gratitude jar. Each night, ask they name or draw three things they are grateful for. They might need a little hand because at first, they might only think in material terms. (‘Well I’ll be grateful for a Scruff-A-Luvs dog when I get one but we might need two so it doesn’t get lonely.’) They might be grateful they have a snuggly bed to sleep in, they might be grateful they have people in their lives who love them and miss them when they aren’t around, they might be grateful for their pet … you see how it works. The jar is a reminder of how much they already have. The idea is that it’s harder to be self-absorbed or demanding when your focus is on what you have, rather than on what you want. Be patient though. Building beautiful humans is a process, and it all takes time.
Those little things they love – turn them into rituals.
We often put so much pressure on ourselves to make Christmas magical. Rituals can make this easier. They get the special memories, you get to make the ‘magic’ without having to come up with something new and different each year. It’s very likely that there will already be Christmas rituals happening in your family, even if you don’t realise it. Ask them what they remember most, or what they loved most about last Christmas – aside from the presents. They might surprise you with things you’d completely forgotten about, or which at the time didn’t seem to be any big deal. It can be the simplest things. Maybe they loved the way they were allowed to have ice-cream with their pancakes at breakfast last Christmas morning. If it’s what they remember, and if it lights them up, let it become a ‘thing’. Maybe they loved the magic ‘neverending carrot’ sprinkles you put on the one scrawny carrot you found in the vege drawer (because you’d forgotten to buy more for the reindeer). You’d be surprised what they remember, and what they find special. It doesn’t have to be big to feel magical.
And about getting along with other kids …
Sibling squabbles are one thing, but fights can be so much harder to deal with when they involve other kids. It’s important to remember that just because kids are related, it doesn’t mean they’ll get along. If there are cousins for example who get into a scrap every time they’re together, don’t expect that Christmas day will be the day it all sorts itself out. There are plenty of other days for that. Maybe it will sort itself out and maybe it won’t. Maybe everyone will have become a bit easier to get along with since last time they were together, but let them discover that themselves, not because it’s been forced onto them. Of course, it’s important to let them know that they have to share, be kind, not call names, and that sometimes they’re going to have to deal with people they find difficult to get on with, but let it be okay for your child to do their own thing if they want to. Don’t force them to play with the kids they struggle to get along with. It’s their special day too. None of us will get along with everyone. There will be plenty of opportunities for them to learn how to deal with difficult relationships. Christmas time doesn’t have to be one of them.
And when there’s family conflict.
If you know there are certain topics that will send adult conversation (or the entire the day) into a tailspin, try to agree that these will be no-fly zones on Christmas day. This might be politics, religion, whether football or ballet requires more skill, Kanye’s presidential potential, why your newly vegetarian daughter doesn’t have enough meat on her plate, or any other commentary on your parenting, your partner, or your children. If there is ongoing tension in your family, don’t put pressure on yourself to heal things Christmas day. Try to call a truce for the day, but don’t set your expectations too high with visions of group hugs and long overdue apologies. You can’t always see trouble coming, but when you get a hint that it’s brewing, try to shut it down as quickly as you can. Christmas is not the day to change people’s minds. Especially if they are minds that haven’t been open to changing on anything since 1967.
Manage your child’s expectations. Be clear about what’s expected, and be okay if it doesn’t quite work out that way.
When you can, start talking to your children about what to expect. ‘So we’ll open our presents, then we’ll have breakfast, then … and in the afternoon, there’s going to be a little bit of quiet time to get your energy back up for when Auntie Louise and Uncle Karl and the kids come for dinner.’ Similarly, if you’re going to somebody’s house and there are different rules, explain the rules as clearly as you can to them. ‘So remember at Grandma’s house, your feet stay on the floor and not on the couch. It’s okay to put your feet on the couch in our home, but in other people’s homes, remind your feet that they need to stay on the floor.’ This is all part of them learning that there are different rules for different environments. Their awareness of this will already be growing. For example, they would probably know it’s okay to wear their togs at the beach, but maybe not to the dentist. Similarly, they’d probably know that it’s okay to yell outside while they’re playing, but that it’s not such a great idea to yell in class.
And finally …
The holidays are a wonderland of everything that can lead to hyped up, exhausted, cranky, excited, happy kids. Sometimes they’ll cycle through all of these within ten minutes. Sugar will constantly pry their little mouths wide open and jump inside, routines will laugh at you from a distance, there will be gatherings and parties, and everything will feel a little bit different to usual. And a bit like magic.
Know that whatever happens, it’s all part of what family Christmases are meant to look like. They aren’t meant to be pristine and orderly and exactly as planned. They were never meant to be that. Christmas is about people, your favourite ones, not tasks. If focusing on the people means some of the tasks fall down, let that be okay, because that’s what Christmas is. It’s where your favourite small humans see magic happen. It’s not about proving your parenting stamina, or that you’ve raised perfectly well-behaved humans, or that your family can polish up like the catalog ones any day of the week, or that you can create restaurant quality meals and decorate the table like you were born doing it. Christmas is messy and ridiculous and exhausting and there will be plenty of frayed edges. And plenty of magic. The magic will happen the way it always happens. Not with the decorations or the trimmings or the food or the polish, but by being with the ones you love, and the ones who love you right back.