Children look forward eagerly to the Christmas holidays, while parents may be filled with a nagging sense of dread as they contemplate foot-long to-do lists, a tight budget, squabbling children underfoot, and the shops awash with relentless, commercialised Christmas cheer. But Christmas doesn’t have to be like this. With some careful planning, parents and children can enjoy calmer, easier, happier holidays.
Clarify your values
Start in early December by getting a handle, practically and emotionally, on the holiday season. With your partner (or if you are single, with a friend), spend an hour or two (in several short bursts if necessary) thinking through what the holidays mean to you and what you want your children to get out of this special time.
- Do you want to have a simpler and less expensive Christmas, helping your child to place less emphasis on receiving and more on giving and sharing?
- Do you want your children to learn and understand a bit more every year about the major mid-winter religious festivals: the Nativity, Chanukah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, etc.?
- Do you want the family to share cosy at-home “down-time” together?
- Do you want your children to realise that parents have to work long hours to pay for new toys, ski trips and designer labels?
- Do you want to make sure your children won’t be spending too much time in front of a screen or eating too much junk food?
- Do you want to introduce your children to some new experiences?
- Do you want to use the holidays to help your children or teenagers complete overdue coursework, revise for exams or sharpen up some rusty academic skills?
If you answered yes to any or all of the above questions, read on for some tried and tested solutions.
When children are fixated on what they will be getting for Christmas, parents may feel frustrated , wishing they knew how to help children experience the far deeper pleasure that comes from giving and sharing. One way to kick-start this more mature and more rewarding attitude is to establish a new tradition, sometimes called the "Christmas Clearout."
Explain to the children that as a family you will all be making room for new presents and that the toys and equipment you no longer want can be used to raise money to help people who have much, much less. Make a project of carefully scouting around the house together, room by room, including the garden, collecting up:
- all the toys, games, dolls, books and puzzles that are too babyish for even the youngest child
- any sports equipment, electronic or kitchen gadgets that no one can be bothered to get fixed
- any clothes that are too small, too worn or terminally uncool
- any unnecessary duplicates
- any toys or clothing that goes against your values.
Involve your children in every aspect of the clearout. Bring them with you when you drop off the bags at the charity shop or recycling centre, and have them help you lug them in from the car. This clearing-out project can be repeated, on a smaller scale, before each birthday. From it your children will learn important lessons about letting go, recycling and sharing.
Family meetings are a way to bring some sanity to gift-buying and gift-giving. All together make a list of everyone to whom the family will be giving presents, for example, each other, the extended family, teachers, tutors and coaches, the children's friends, etc.
Then discuss together whether you will, as a family, make or buy each gift. What would each recipient like, appreciate and use? What is the budget? Help your children to think about the cost of buying a gift as compared to the cost of buying the materials to make a gift. Schedule times for making or buying, and also schedule when you will give each present.
If you choose to buy gifts for your children's teachers, sports coaches, after-school leaders and childminders, make sure that the gifts truly come from the child, not just from you. Take the children along when you go shopping for the gifts, and help your children evaluate the pros and cons of possible purchases and think about value for money.
Instead of having the presents wrapped in the shop, help your child wrap them at home. Encourage creativity, such as using comics, pieces of cloth or tin foil as wrapping paper, using brightly coloured wool or even strings of beads as ribbons, decorating the wrapping paper with photographs, stickers, cut-outs of pictures or words from magazines, etc.
- Adjust your routines, but don’t drop them. Often parents feel that the school routine is hard on children and that they need freedom during their time off. However, even in the holidays, children still need structure, routines, rules and rewards.
- Agree on a plan for each day. To keep children from spending too much time in front of a screen, or whingeing about being bored, parents need to arrange regular activities that are purposeful and challenging as well as fun.
- Whether you are at home, in a hotel or staying with relatives, each day, right after breakfast, formally sit the children down and talk them through a step-by-step preview of what their day will consist of.
Children always stay calmer and are more willing to be flexible when they know what to expect, such as:
- where they will be going and why
- whom they will have to say hello to
- any new rules or routines
- any unfamiliar foods they might be served
- what they can and cannot play with
- if (and when) they will be allowed screen time
- what to do if a problem arises, such as an accident or hurt feelings.
- A series of treats often leaves children jaded and ungrateful and parents exhausted and resentful. Remember that less is more. At-home projects are often more relaxing, more fun, less expensive and more meaningful.
- Wherever you are, have your children do half an hour's academic work each day. Help each child start a project on something that interests them, such as dinosaurs, football or art. Work on it together daily. Also, spending just five minutes a day on multiplication facts or spellings or French vocabulary will improve basic skills and confidence faster than you might think possible. Praise sensible work habits, and be enthusiastic:
- All your letters are on the line.
- You remembered most of the full stops.
- That’s an interesting fact.
- You took the time to think carefully, so all your answers are correct.
- Television, video games and computers can eat up a lot of your children's time during the holidays. To achieve a sensible balance, I always suggest that screen time should happen only after children have tidied their rooms, fed their pets, exercised, helped around the house and garden and completed their half-hour of academic work. Time in front of a screen is then seen as a reward they can earn, rather than as a right.
Less screen time often motivates children to pursue more intellectually challenging pastimes, such as reading or playing board games.
- Don’t be afraid to expose your children to new experiences, which might be a gospel Christmas concert, skiing lessons, a Shakespeare play or a new restaurant. You can help even chronically inflexible children to be braver and more open-minded:
- Start telling them about the dreaded event days, or even weeks, ahead of time.
Familiarity soon leads to acceptance.
- Don’t give children a choice about whether they will attend. Instead, present it as a fait accompli.
- Show them pictures of similar events, to take the edge off their apprehension.
- Allow children to complain. When you state, or even imply, that your children will enjoy something, they may become determined to prove you wrong. Instead, empathise with them; acknowledge that they may indeed hate every moment of the event the first few times they do it.
- When children ask, “Why do we have to?”, respond with a question of your own:
“Why do you think we’re taking you to this event?”
- Arrange a reward for minimal moaning during the event.
- When the dreaded day finally arrives, praise even tiny signs of courage and willingness.
- Keep food treats to a minimum. Children often feel that when they’re out doing fun things, they need to have fun food too. Not only are food treats expensive, they're usually not good for kids' behaviour, either.
A maximum of three non-nutritious treats a week is a good rule of thumb. Bring bottled water, sandwiches and fruit on outings.
- Children intuitively know everything there is to know about “pester-power”. On outings, instead of succumbing to pleas for junk food or tatty souvenirs that you know will soon be forgotten, a useful strategy is to hand each child a small amount of money at the beginning of the day which she can spend however she wants. The amount you give must not be enough for a big splurge or endless bags of crisps; therefore children will be forced to consider their options carefully. This teaches valuable lessons in delaying gratification, prioritising and problem-solving. It also keeps you from being cast in the role of nay-saying ogre and frees you to have real conversations, instead of lecturing, negotiating and repeating yourself.
- To deepen your children’s understanding of the Christmas story, make a game of telling it as a “circular story”. Each person in the circle adds one more sentence, including as many details as possible.
- One way to widen your children’s knowledge of different cultures is to read them stories about the mid-winter festivals and traditions of other religions. In addition to bedtimes, an often-overlooked time for reading to children is at mealtimes. Keep it to a maximum of ten minutes so that you “leave them wanting more”, as they say in show business. Even making a special outing to the library to find books on these topics can become a looked-forward-to yearly tradition.
The above suggestions are only a small sampling of the many strategies that parents have used to create new rituals or tweak and transform old traditions. The results add up to less stress and more fun all around.
© Noel Janis-Norton 2005
About Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting: Noel leads a team of learning and behaviour specialists at the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting Centre in North London and worldwide. Noel is the author of five books for parents and two books for teachers, and the creator of “Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting.” This is a practical, solution-focused programme that helps parents address and resolve typical and atypical family issues. The Centre’s services include five-week parenting skills courses, private consultations (in person or by telephone), home visits, school visits, lunchtime talks in the workplace, free introductory talks, in-service training for schools, and books and audio CDs.