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Holidays Minus the Madness

Holidays Minus the Madness: Navigating busy times by prioritizing predictability and balance

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… or is it? Most families enter the winter holiday season with the best of intentions for celebrating with family, friends, and meaningful traditions. Then somehow the reality ends up differing pretty significantly from our original intentions. Every one of the fun ideas seems exciting and worthwhile, so we sign on for a myriad of obligations and extras that all add up to a big ball of exhaustion and over-extension. If we are weary from our tiring schedules at this time of year, what must this mean for our children?

What does the winter holiday season mean? What is it about? It’s about love and giving and community. It is about togetherness and gratitude and celebration. It is about joy and peace and humanity. It is about shopping and cooking and cleaning and entertaining and crafting and prepping and errands and pot lucks and parties and long days and rushing and fast food and going and going and going… Wait. Somewhere along the line, we went down the wrong path. What happened? And what does all this mean for our children?

Every spare moment is packed with as much as we can possibly fit in, and many days follow unconventional schedules. Finances are strained despite all of the incredible deals. We believe we should accomplish all of the tasks within our everyday responsibilities PLUS fit in a multitude of other “opportunities”. But how is that even possible since our everyday lives already seem pretty busy? Where is this extra time? And what does it mean for our children?

Often, it means unpredictability of schedule, fatigue, hype, and anticipation, all sprinkled with atypical eating patterns characterized by sugar highs and crashes. And all of these factors are likely to result in an increase in tantrums, whining, aggression, non-compliance, and extremes of energy and emotion. Fun times for all, right? We know this is not what our children deserve, and yet we are challenged by our desire to fit it all in and “make the most” of the holiday magic. Is there a better way? Is there a way to balance it all and accomplish all goals in a way that we’d even feel good about for our children?

I think there is a better way. It requires some planning and forethought, but should be well worth the effort for everyone involved. The first step is to be aware of what is happening. Be aware of the ways in which the family routine and patterns are thrown off. Anticipate how things will go if you make particular decisions. Think about your options before jumping into a plan. Consider creative ways to be responsive to the child’s needs while also accomplishing the tasks you hope to get done. And make deliberate decisions about which invitations to accept; go to the events that are truly your top priorities rather than trying to fit them all in. All of these initial efforts to focus on intentionality should help us prioritize the big picture instead of any one party, errand, or task.

The next step is planning for good communication. Children want to know what to expect. They deserve to have their feelings acknowledged. They need to know you are there to support them as they learn to regulate their emotions and behaviors. It helps to take a moment to sit in the car in the parking lot before going into the store to chat about what will happen and what will not happen: “Today we are looking for a gift for Aunt Caroline and some ingredients to make cookies. We’re not going to shop for ourselves today.” And when faced with the disappointment or tired, hangry young child, “I know. You have had a long day. Me too. We’re going into one store, and then we’re going home right after that. When we get home, we’ll have dinner and we will have some time to play.”

Thoughtful planning and communication go a long way toward respecting and meeting your child’s needs. Then there’s the concept of prioritization; the more we can let our lives reflect our values, the better. Thus, we can try to prioritize and balance all the things. Among the holiday mania, we want to preserve some normalcy and intentionally build in down time. Uninterrupted play time on the floor is critical, and these are the times that feed and balance children emotionally, socially, cognitively, and physically.

Facilitate traditions that are meaningful for the family, with the child at the center of the equation. Like holiday parties, each tradition or holiday idea sounds like so much fun, and probably genuinely is, but again- when you add them up, it’s all too much. So invest some time and energy in selecting the traditions that are most significant to your family. Prioritize those, and skip the rest. Also, let your child have a voice, and listen to what your child says about the memorable holiday moments. It is pretty tempting to focus on the traditions we, ourselves, like, and our perspectives are likely to differ from those of our children. Having said that, I want to be clear that I don’t advocate for relinquishing all control and only celebrating in the way that is dictated by your toddler; toilet paper parties and food fights are fun but probably not the way you’d like to commemorate your Thanksgiving.

As you make decisions about holiday events and tasks, keep in mind: the work and play children do every day is the most important thing they could possibly be doing. So any deviation from that should be made intentionally and with careful thought to the opportunity cost. The value of any activity or event is relative, and only meaningful in relation to the alternate options. When you choose to spend time engaged in holiday traditions and celebration, remind yourself to slow down and enjoy the time together. These activities will be such fun if you’re not rushing through them; better to give 100% of yourselves to 5 meaningful traditions than to hurry and half-heartedly do 37 of them.

Whenever possible, include the children in a healthy way in your holiday activities; enlist them and make it a fun adventure. Instead of dragging them along for everything under the sun and letting it irritate you when they inevitably slow you down or impede your progress, strategically build in opportunities to work as a team. Invite the children to help you pick out gifts and to think together about what Grandpa might want. Choose the item you bring to a pot luck party based on your child’s ability to help, and enlist your preschooler’s help in making the pinwheels. Ask your kindergartener to help you make the list for the weekend shopping plans, or give your toddler stickers to mark off items on the list as you shop. If you include the children in appropriate ways, you not only prevent the challenging behaviors and stress, but you also provide the opportunity to have meaningful experiences that embody the values you hold through the holiday season.

 About the Author
eliz Contributed by Elizabeth DeMartino Newton, Assistant Director at the UT Early Learning Center for Research and Practice. She has experienced plenty of holiday madness as a former classroom educator and also as the mother of two children, Jack (7.5) and June (19 months).