If you ask most parents what they're looking forward to this holiday season, you will probably hear about relaxing and spending some quality time with family. It's a lovely idea and something we all aspire to, but it doesn't always (or even often) work out that way, does it? Too often we spend our winter vacation feeling stressed, exhausted, and annoyed, and it's not long into the break before we start counting the days until our children go back to school and normal life resumes.
The good news is that it doesn't have to be this way. However things have gone in holidays past, it is possible to have fun, connect with your children, and emerge from winter break not only with most of your sanity intact, but also feeling – dare I say it – relaxed. Here are some ideas for making this dream a reality.
1. Set reasonable expectations.
REALLY reasonable expectations. Once the decorations go up and the holiday music starts playing, we tend to get a bit misty-eyed imagining our children laughing merrily as they open presents by firelight. The reality is that these Rockwellian scenes tend to last about five minutes before there is a fight over a toy, a burning smell from the kitchen, or a demand from a visiting relative.
Whenever you notice yourself fantasizing about the perfect holiday, remember that you'll still be dealing with tantrums and nagging and all the other challenges of life with family. Setting reasonable expectations will help you feel less disappointed and frustrated when reality doesn't fully match the picture in your head.
2. Hold loosely to your plans.
The corollary to setting reasonable expectations is being flexible with the plans you do make. Whenever I'm booking tickets or setting menus for holiday celebrations, I like to add my own twist to the old adage: We plan, God laughs – and kids vomit. You should still make plans, but be ready to let them go. And make the best of it when the baby poop hits the fan.
If a sick kid keeps you from your family's holiday table, break out the Connect Four, put on a holiday movie, and put the kids to bed early so you can have some time together with your partner. Make plans, but don't get so stuck on them that you can't enjoy the way the holiday unfolds.
3. Be consistent when you can.
One of the joys of vacation for your kids (and you) is getting a break from the norm. Staying up a little late, sleeping in, and having holiday cookies for breakfast – these treats give you all a respite from nagging and having to tow the line. It also teaches your kids about flexibility and adaptability. But in the midst of these thrilling exceptions to the rules, stay true to the parts of your children's schedules that actually impact their ability to stay healthy and function reasonably well. For example, if my older daughter doesn't get enough sleep two nights in a row, she gets sick. So, I'm not flexible about her sleep, but I'm ok with letting pretty much everything else go when we're on break. The trick is figuring out what matters for your kid (food? nap? outside time? exercise?) and sticking to it as much as you can.
4. Plan for fun and relaxation.
In the holiday exuberance, it can be easy to add so much to the schedule that there's no time to actually enjoy what you are doing. Soon you feel as rushed as you do during the rest of the year. Do you really want to spend your entire break with your in-laws? Does it make sense to try to visit every ride at Disney World in just one day? Think about how you will balance busy days with much-needed downtime.
5. Give more experiences and fewer presents.
We all love presents, but they cost money and clutter our houses. Studies also show that the more stuff kids have, the less happily and creatively they play. I'm not suggesting that you ditch gift giving entirely, but you may want to consider taking your kids to the Children's Museum or the latest Lego movie instead of giving them yet another toy that will likely keep their attention for less than 10 minutes. Bonus: You will enjoy the time together as much as the kids.
6. It's vacation. Be on vacation.
The reality of parenting is that most of us are much better at it when we're just parenting, rather than parenting and working, or parenting and unloading the dishwasher, or parenting and doing whatever else we're trying to accomplish. Multitasking is stressful, exhausting, and usually ineffective, but it's a balance that most of us must navigate most of the time. Fortunately, the holidays give us that desperately needed opportunity to take a different (and better) approach to life with children. To the extent that you can leave your work at work, let go of your to-do list, and just be with your kids for at least part of your vacation, you'll find that you all enjoy the holidays a lot more.
7. Establish holiday rituals with your kids.
Read your favorite holiday story together, bake cookies, share pictures of winter vacations from your childhood, build snowmen or sandcastles, or work on a special holiday craft project. Pour extra cups of hot cocoa and snuggle up on the couch with your favorite holiday movie. Holidays are special because we make them that way. As you enjoy your time together, you will be building family traditions everyone can look forward to for years to come.