Celebrating the holidays with children can be magical, sometimes. Other times, it can be a season of migraine-inducing family problems. We asked a few experts to sort out some of the most vexing, such as navigating expectations, handling family drama, teaching children gratitude and figuring out how to explain Santa. Here’s hoping this advice gets you more joy and less jaw-clenching during the next few weeks.
How many gifts is too many?
Meredith Gelman, a Fairfax-based clinical social worker who works with parents and families, said when parents have different ideas about gift-giving, the approach should be broken into three phases: creating a recipient list and budget, discussing each other’s expectations and reasons for giving, and negotiating.
“Identify ways that you and your partner might combine each other’s gift ideas: Can you still buy at the toy store while also purchasing toys and clothing for a local needy family?” she said. She suggested involving children in the conversation, too, so they begin to understand the underlying reasons for giving gifts.
Be sensitive about Santa.
If your family has children of mixed ages, keep the Santa Claus myth alive for the youngest, said Meghan Leahy, a D.C.-based parent coach. “You take the 4-year-old to pictures [with Santa], you write the list with her, you listen for the hoofs. As the parent, you use your imagination.
“As much as a preteen would maybe love to get negative attention [for spoiling it], you simply hug him and say, ‘I believe in everything good about the holidays, and Santa is part of that in our house. Especially for your little sister,’ ” Leahy said.
For families who celebrate Christmas without Santa, Leahy warned against asking a preschooler to keep the secret that there really isn’t a Santa. “It is a truism for all kids that if you look them in the eye and say, “Please, please don’t tell the kids in pre-K that there is no Santa,” that child will march right into school with an important announcement: “There is no Santa!”
Instead, she said, “concentrate on what you do believe in as a family and say things like: ‘Some families believe in Santa, some don’t. We really believe in giving back in this house. Can you help me make a list of people we can help this holiday?’ You will notice that there was no refutation in that sentence. You simply want to highlight what the family values are.”
Christmas and Hanukkah: A peaceful coexistence
Hanukkah (starting sundown Dec. 20) and Christmas overlap this year. That makes it a good time to focus on the similarities between the two celebrations, said Jennifer Kogan, a D.C. clinical social worker.
“Parents can talk with their kids about common religious principles or themes. For example, both Christmas and Hanukkah tell the story of a miracle,” she said.
In terms of deciding which traditions to continue, she said it can be helpful for each parent to think about what they loved most about their childhood celebrations. “Is it the different kinds of cookies your mom baked in advance of Christmas? Playing the dreidel game? The scent of a Christmas tree? Latkes frying on the stove? Reading stories or singing songs with family?” The answers can provide a template for the idea of interfaith celebration for your family.
Keep family drama at bay with planning, flexibility.
Parents have to understand the traditions of extended family while protecting the needs of their own children, said Stacy Notaras Murphy, a D.C. psychotherapist and advice columnist. Talk about logistics “as early as possible,” she said, “and with as many of the key players as you can, starting with your partner or spouse.”
“Spend some time thinking about your own expectations of what, if anything, needs to change now that you are bringing small kids into the holiday scenario. . . . Don’t abdicate the decision-making to your mother-in-law. The result might be a meal schedule that simply does not work for your child,” she said.
At the same time, make an effort to be flexible on less important issues. “Kids learn how to negotiate the world based on the behavior modeled by their parents,” Murphy said. “If the holidays mean arguments, conflict with in-laws or passive-aggression for the adults, guess what kids end up believing about holidays?”
When sharing custody, stick to a schedule.
Child custody negotiations can be smoother when former spouses consider the holidays from the child’s point of view, said James J. Gross, an author and divorce lawyer in Chevy Chase. “Think about how you would feel if you sat down to Christmas dinner with one family, then had to be whisked away for Christmas dinner with another family,” he said.
Gross offered two possible schedules. In the first, parents alternate each year, from 6 p.m. on the last day of the school year until 4 p.m. on Christmas Day and from 4 p.m. on Christmas Day until 6 p.m. on Jan. 1. In the second option, one parent has the children for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and the other parent has the children for all other holidays and school vacations.
“Children also frequently feel like the separation of their parents is their fault,” Gross said. “It is important during the holidays to take time to talk to them about their feelings and reassure them.”
The key to well-mannered kids: Practice, practice.
Sara Hacala, author of the recently published “Saving Civility: 52 Ways to Tame Rude, Crude and Attitude for a Polite Planet” (Skylight Paths), pointed out what a parent may not want to hear: “Your children’s manners are more likely to shine during the holidays if they have been incorporated as part of their daily rituals, not as a last-minute attempt on a car ride on the way to an event.”
Still, Hacala said, if the kids haven’t been training for months, you can try a few last-minute strategies. “If your dining style at home is informal, but you’re concerned about a party where more formal behavior and attire is expected, have a practice dinner at home beforehand.”
Talk to children about what they can expect and what will be expected of them, whether it’s sitting quietly through a long meal or helping to serve and clean up or avoiding a food fight. She suggests role-playing at home, too, to practice introductions with eye contact and simple, polite conversation.
Get kids to say thanks and really mean it.
If Thanksgiving didn’t teach your children about gratitude, you have more opportunities this month. “During gift-giving occasions, it is important to talk about this with your kids at home before a gift is received and opened, particularly if the giver is present,” said Hacala.
“Teach your child to say, ‘Thank you, Aunt Susan’ with a sincere and appreciative tone of voice, even if he wished that Elmo were in the gift box rather than a sweater. With older kids and teens, remind them that facial expressions often speak louder than words. Regardless of age, teach your child to hand-write thank-you notes to show appreciation and gratitude; it is an admirable life-long habit.”
Hacala said children may be more likely to put pen to paper if parents explain the meaning of saying “thanks.” “It should be taught to kids that gratitude expresses appreciation for and acknowledgment of other people in our lives, which is why saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are so important, whether a person has opened a door for you or given you a gift. Doing so shows someone that you are not taking his or her gift, gesture or presence for granted.”
Marguerite Kelly’s column will return next week. Read one of her past holiday Q&As, including topics such as calming kids on Christmas morning, here .