‘Tis the season to be jolly!
It’s also the season to remember that excitement, stimulation, the disruption of daily routines, traveling and social events all tend to bring out the very worst in our young children. So, the holidays are a particularly important time to remember the best piece of parenting advice I have to offer (anytime, anywhere): Consider your child’s perspective.
The early years are an extremely sensitive period when our children’s senses work really, really well. They haven’t developed filters yet, so they can’t help but absorb all the energy and stimulation in their environments. This hyper sensitivity and awareness are what make it possible for babies to make more developmental strides in their first three years than they will in all the following years put together. This also means that the types of events, outings and other experiences that might be pleasurably invigorating for adults can be intense and overwhelming for our children.
If you’re like me, you’ll need to keep reminding yourself that children are on a different frequency. We simply can’t gauge their comfort level by ours. Remembering to consider our children’s perspective is the key to minimizing their stress, avoiding overload and meltdowns, and increasing their joy during the holiday season. We do that when we:
1. Take it easy ourselves
I know, it can be so hard to say no to festivities, gatherings, rituals and gift buying excursions. Just today I said no to a commitment that I was on the fence about. I feared I’d regret letting go of it, but to my amazement, I have been literally giddy with relief all day.
Setting boundaries can be scary but is, ironically, freeing. And consider this: there’s nothing that rattles children more than a stressed-out parent. Their comfort is always dependent on ours. So, in this case, taking care of ourselves first isn’t selfish. In fact, it’s the thoughtful thing to do for all concerned.
Some sage advice I read years ago has stuck with me. It was in an article profiling some of the world’s oldest living people. They were asked to share their secrets to longevity. A supercentenarian described her two imaginary baskets. In the first she placed all the things she “should” do, and the second basket contained the things she “wanted” to do. She only ever did things from that second basket. Granted, it’s impossible to live so selfishly while we’re raising children, but more often than not, a little self-care can benefit everyone.
2. Keep our children’s rhythms and needs in mind when planning or attending events
It can help to consider: Will my child be able to succeed in this situation? And to also remember that our children don’t want to be that child making a scene at the grandparents’ or neighbor’s house any more than we do. It is kinder to prioritize our child and be protective, even if it means we’ll need to skip a couple of activities for the time being. The answer to will my child succeed while I shop at the mall? is almost a guaranteed “no”. There’s never a better time to take advantage of online shopping than in these early years with children. (I share some specific suggestions in 7 Gifts That Encourage Child-Directed Play)
Generally, afternoon events tend to be iffy for young ones, as are evenings when our child has skipped his nap or had a stimulating day. A good-natured father I once consulted with shared with me his and his wife’s dismay and embarrassment at Christmas dinner when their son displayed calamitous behavior and then had a mega meltdown …at the new boss’s house! He and his wife hadn’t considered that an adult sit-down with strangers at the end of a full day of holiday fun might be a little too much to expect of their 3-year-old. Thankfully, the boss seemed to understand, and the parents were able to see the situation in a humorous light.
3. Plan an exit strategy in advance
Which might need to be what my mother-in-law calls “a French exit,” meaning we make haste and skip bidding long adieus to everyone in attendance. In a perfect world, we’d be able to slip away quietly. In a toddler world, we’ll hope for the cover of a noisy gathering.
4. Prepare our children so they can participate as actively as possible, feel more confident and on top of the situation
Calmly and matter-of-factly preparing our children for activities and events with as many details as we know – where we are going, who will be there, what they will do, the order of the events – can work like magic to center them in even the most stressful situations. I share much more on the power of preparation in Another Parenting Magic Word and Making the Most of Outings with Toddlers. And I offer ideas for maximizing our children’s participation in holiday festivities in A Jolly Toddler Holiday.
5. Beware of excitement build-up
Note the descriptors “calmly” and “matter-of-factly” in the previous point. Those are important because excitement and anticipation can be surprisingly untenable for young children, as uncomfortable as fear, anger, and pain. As adults, we tend to love looking forward. Anticipation is at least half the fun, often even better than the actual event. But children are very different. They haven’t had many of these experiences before and without a frame of reference, anticipating Christmas or their birthday party is like freefalling without knowing where or how they’ll land. And when they do, they crash. The intensity of the feelings get the better of them, and their behavior reflects that. So, we might have to remind ourselves to try not to crank the enthusiasm up too high (“Aren’t you so excited about ___?! Just a few more days!”), and that it’s understandable for our children’s impulse control to be at an all-time low before the holidays, particularly if we’ve been winding them up.
6. Notice early signs of trouble
When our children’s behavior begins to derail, it’s seldom possible to guide them back on track at that time or in that particular situation. They’re usually showing us that they’re done (or undone) and can’t handle being there. So, I would take the slightest unwelcome behavior as a sign and then be very alert and ready to remove my child from that situation. If leaving the event completely is out of the question, I would consider escorting my child to a more private place so that she can fall apart safely in my presence. Ideally, we will have explored these options ahead of time as part of our exit strategy.
7. Designate a holiday nap or quiet time for the whole family
Full disclosure: I’ve never actually done this, but it sounds so good, doesn’t it?
8. Don’t stress out about creating traditions or making memories
In fact, I believe we should take those concerns off our holiday plates completely. It’s been my experience that the warmest memories and most lasting traditions are surprises that are sparked and kindled by our children (including our dog children). Here are a few examples from my family:
We’ve always made tree-trimming to holiday music a family ritual, and the best part has been our children’s impromptu “after parties.” The festivities have included them taking turns leaping through the air while big sister took photos, Celtic dancing mixed with acrobatics spontaneously choreographed by our son (who could give Michael Flatly a run for his money), and always, always the climactic, really loud sing-and-dance-along to my children’s favorite holiday tune, Whitney Houston’s rousing rendition of “Joy to the World” (from this CD). Whitney never fails to bring our house down and joy to our world, and the frenetic energy she helps our kids expend ushers in a few hours of sleep.
Our dog Dulce had a special fondness and talent for unwrapping presents (and chewing up paper in general). So we would always wrap up several for her and even let her open a couple of ours. The package didn’t need to smell like food for her to get into it, although she adored treats as much as the next dog. Her favorite inedible gifts were stuffed animals, particularly if she recognized them (as re-gifts of her own stuff). Dulce appreciated everything about Christmas because it meant her pack would be together, a sentiment I fervently share. It won’t be quite as magical this year without her.
Our kids (now 24, 19 and 15) always gathered together in the wee hours on Christmas morning for giggles, games, and peeks at the gifts under the tree to bide the time until they were allowed to wake us at 7 AM. In truth, I was at least half-awake already and blissfully basking in the sounds of their whispers, hushed squeals and excited footsteps. Many of their experiences became sibling lore to revisit year after year. “Remember that time you were so sound asleep that we had to jump on your bed and sing?!” This tradition has evolved (quite nicely, I’ll add) since around the time our oldest got her driver’s license. These Christmases we’re lovingly awakened… for our coffee orders! And then the kids are off to the local espresso bar to fetch us cappuccinos. A Merry Christmas indeed!
Happy Holidays, everybody!
(Photo by Basheer Tome on Flickr)