Tips To Get Your Kids Through The Holidays Graciously And Gratefully

A recent conversation between my 7-year-old son and my mother-in-law went something like this:

Mother-in-law: “I have a friend whose grandson visited last year for Thanksgiving. She had worked for days to make a big, beautiful dinner for everyone. After all of that work, she sat the food down at the table and her grandson said, ‘Ewww! I don’t want that. Yuck!!’ ”

My son sat wide-eyed, taking in her tale. He nodded. “Okaaaay.”

I jumped in and we talked about trying a bite of everything on the plate. And even more important, we talked about why that was not a nice thing to say to someone who worked so hard to make a beautiful meal. We told him that this is a special time to be together as a family, to sit and talk for a while. In other words, this is not the time to bounce out of the chair for one more game of catch. And hey, we added, the sweet potatoes will have marshmallows on top!

“I don’t like sweet potatoes,” he announced casually.

Well, we’ll see how this goes.

The holidays are a time of traveling, cooking, cleaning, planning, cooking more, making lists and counting chairs and napkins. But it is also the time of year when parents are considering how their 2-year-old will hold up during a Thanksgiving meal that starts at 7 p.m. Or how their 10-year-old daughter will react when she opens a present from Great Aunt Edna to find a puppy sweater that she would have liked when she was 3. Or whether their 7-year-old son will understand the importance of togetherness, love and thankfulness when the family gathers around a table.

It’s a stressful time for many people. And even though we love our kids and they are lots of fun, they often magnify that stress. Even worse, our stress can trickle down to them, turning a happy holiday into a Noel nightmare.

I tried to break it down (another list!) so we can all do more than just get through the holidays. Here are ways to help children — and let’s face it, ourselves — think about what it means to be generous, kind, loved and loving in the coming weeks.

Speaking of food . . .

Megan Barna is an outpatient dietitian at Children’s National Medical Center in the District. She often hears from parents who say that they want their kids to stop eating sweets but then admit they have a secret stash of soda for themselves. If you want them to eat well, she said, you have to eat well. Children model their behavior after ours. She shared several suggestions to encourage children to sit and eat (yes, really) with the rest of the family.

Depending on their age, take them with you when you shop for the holiday meal and ask for their input. Obviously, they don’t get to dictate what will be served. But this is the time to show them your list and then give them choices: Should our vegetable be carrots, broccoli or cauliflower?

Let this time of year be a big experiment. We want our children to appreciate food, and the holidays offer great opportunities, Barna said. So talk about the food, explain what’s coming and what it will taste like. So they don’t usually eat Brussels sprouts? I didn’t think I liked them either — because my mother used to boil (blech) the odd little veggie. I will talk to my kids about that and how we will prepare them differently, roasting them so they are crispy and tasty instead of dull and mushy, like when I was growing up.

Bring the kids into the kitchen. Not only will having them come into the kitchen help them understand and appreciate all the hard work that goes into family meals, but also, the more children are involved in the process, the more they will try new foods over time. And yes, children of any age can be involved. Give your toddler a spoon and ask her to help mix something. Have your second-grader tear up the lettuce for a salad. Give your tween a sponge and have him wash the table. “Make them feel like you’re on the same team,” Barna said. They will have pride and ownership in the meal, which will entice them to sit longer and, hopefully, try a few new things.

Eat normally leading up to the big meal. I don’t know about you, but I try to not eat much leading up to family dinners on big holidays, in an attempt to “save room” for all that good food. Don’t do that. Make sure that you — and the kids — eat normal meals and snacks that day, Barna said. Incorporate fiber and protein. You want kids to not feel crazed with hunger, particularly if they aren’t going to eat much on their rather different-from-usual plate.

They will follow your lead. Remember that your behavior will influence your kids. If you don’t want them to eat so many sweets, don’t go gorging on the pumpkin pie in the corner at cleanup time.

End the day on a healthy note. Take a walk with everyone after big family dinners. You can enjoy one another’s company, fresh air or the pretty neighborhood lights.

Minimizing stress

Eleanor Mackey, a child psychologist, also with Children’s, said parents need to recognize that as much as this is a time to enjoy, all of the hustle and bustle and togetherness also might create stress for kids. “Planning ahead can go a long way to help prevent problems,” she said. “The last thing anyone wants is a meltdown at a big family gathering.” Here are her suggestions.

Think ahead. Figure out what you can do to structure the event for the least negative impact on the family’s typical schedule, and prepare the kids for what to expect. In other words, don’t do dinner at 8 p.m. if you have children who go to bed at 7:30. Explain to them either before you go to a gathering or as the holiday nears how things will work.

Let kids know what your expectations are. Give them a timetable, such as: So when we get there, you’ll have time to play with your cousins. And then when it’s dinnertime, we all will sit at the table. I expect you to do that for at least 30 minutes. Then you can go play with everyone again. “Preparing kids ahead of time and coaching them about what’s appropriate goes a long way,” Mackey said.

About that weird present. Again, preparation is key. Kids have bad impulse control and may slip when they get a pair of fluorescent Santa socks for Hanukkah. But tell them before you go out that if someone gives them a present, it’s because “they like you, and sometimes they might guess wrong. It’s really important that they just thought about you, and they thought they were getting you something you would like,” Mackey said. Then demonstrate what you would say: It was so nice of you to think of me when you got this. Boom.

Be realistic. Set developmentally appropriate expectations of, for example, how long your child can actually sit. Or how much conversing with adults will actually happen. Think your child can realistically sit nicely for 15 minutes? Let that be the thing you focus on. Want your son to speak kindly to an aunt he doesn’t know? Practice that conversation in advance. It may help you, too, so you don’t get unreasonably annoyed when your 5-year-old wants to leave the table before everyone is finished.

Add a dollop of gratitude

Related: How to encourage kids to ‘give back’

Here’s the part that gets me the most about holidays. I want our sons to understand that there’s a reason it’s called Thanksgiving. And that just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean everyone who comes to our door will be bearing gifts (please, goodness, NO).

So I spoke with Richard Weissbourd, co-director of the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard. His mission is to help parents, educators and communities raise kind children. Here are his suggestions for serving up a side of gratitude with your holiday meal.

Have a gratitude action. Weissbourd suggests you ask your children to think about someone outside of the family who has helped them. Think about people you don’t normally thank — the custodian at school, the mail carrier, the bus driver. Then do something to express appreciation, whether that’s a note, a gift or an offer to do something helpful. “It’s like putting people on kids’ radar who they aren’t normally grateful for,” he said. And hopefully, these specific activities will spur ongoing activities beyond the holidays.

Commit to a service or organization as a family. Talk to one another about what you most care about. Homelessness? Animal welfare? Then find an organization you can get behind, and make a promise to do something monthly for that group or that cause. “I always worry about the one-shot things,” Weissbourd said. And that’s true — just look at the food-bank volunteer wait lists at this time of year. Spread it out, and remember that these places often are asking for help year-round.

Don’t inundate kids with gifts. When you give too many gifts, the appreciation goes out the window. “You want them to be thankful for gifts, including thankful to you,” he said. “They often assume gifts from the family don’t deserve to be noted. But kids should note them.” And kids of any age should say thank you when they get a gift, he said. Which they will certainly understand if we do the same, right?

Encouraging Your Child to Read

As parents, we know that throughout their lives, our children will benefit in so many ways from well-developed reading skills.  That’s why we start teaching them when they are little, sitting and reading to our kids, pointing out words and pictures.  And young children typically experience joy when first learning to read.  But as they get older, many kids stop being readers.

As an elementary school teacher, I would often hear from parents that getting their child to pick up a book was a huge challenge.  My first question was always: “Do you read?” Unfortunately, more often than not, the reply was “no.”  As parents, we all know that each minute of the day is precious, and that the to-do list is endless.  And we also know that children mimic what the adults in their life do.  So, if you knew that it would help your child become a reader, would you make time to read?  For most of us, the answer of course is “yes.”  And the reality is that if the parent is reading, the child often will as well.

Ways to Encourage Independent Reading:

  • Incorporate a half-hour of reading time into the bedtime routine.  Set up a designated space and time when you are both reading.  When you’re reading, you’re modeling the enjoyment and value of this behavior for your child.  Remember to keep distractions to a minimum.  You’ll quickly find that reading time becomes something you both look forward to.
  • Take your child to the library.  If you do not have a library membership, look into getting one; oftentimes they are quite inexpensive or even free.  Make going to the library a weekly adventure.  The library provides access to a large selection of material with various mediums and topics.  Allow your child to select what they would like to read, and make sure you are browsing the collection as well.  Take advantage of any programs the library has for younger children, as it allows them to interact with their peers and makes going to the library fun.
  • Use periodic rewards to keep kids interested.  Build a chart using construction paper that can be posted in a visible spot.  Let your child put a sticker, or color a square, each time they complete a book. You can use various forms of rewards, depending on the age of your child.  Some suggestions are a special snack, a movie night, a little extra time at the playground, or maybe a friend over to play.
  • Have kids keep a reading journal.  In the journal, put a column for the date, the title and the amount of time spent reading.  At the end of each page, total the amount; you’ll both be amazed by the number of hours and books!  Children often would come to school to tell me they had read 10 hours this month, or finished 20 books.  It was a great accomplishment for them.
  • Let kids read a variety of formats and materials.  One myth that surrounds reading is that it must be a certain type of material to be considered reading.  I totally disagree with this!  Does it really matter if your child reads a catalogue, a magazine, or a novel?  I don’t think it does.  All formats can encourage them to read.  There is nothing that dictates that reading material must be the same for everyone (at home, that is!).  Encourage sampling a variety of formats, including magazines and audio books.

Reading skills infiltrate every part of life.  Encourage your children at a young age to be readers, and it will serve them their entire life.

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Transitioning to Solids

You’ve determined that your baby should begin to eat solid foods; now you’re wondering, what should I feed her?

Rice cereal is a classic first, but some parents like to get creative as soon as their babies seem ready. Here are some inspiring ideas for fun first foods.

Making Your Own Baby Food

You don’t need to be intimidated by the idea of making your own baby food. It’s the simplest cooking you will ever do, and allows you control over the ingredients (and amount of sugar, salt, and fat) in your child’s meals. Jars and pouches are convenient, but more expensive than homemade, and you’ll find less variety and more wasteful packaging on the shelf.

Many moms use a blender for pureeing cooked foods, but you can also just use a fork to mash them up thoroughly. You can prepare these simple purees just for your baby and introduce new foods one at a time to monitor for allergic reactions, but once you’ve determined that allergies are not an issue, an even easier approach is to blend or mash up whatever the rest of the family is eating. One mom favorite is to puree pasta primavera or chicken with veggies — just about anything that’s soft enough for babies to chew or gum.

Experimenting with New Flavors

Babies like variety as much as adults do. Try a range of foods to expose those fresh taste buds to many flavors. Don’t be afraid to try out breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snack-time favorites, at any time of day! One mom started her baby on small, easily grasped and chewed foods like chunked avocado, sweet potato, and banana, eventually adding steamed squash, pears, and apples — anything she would eat herself, but prepped for few-to-no teeth. And when your baby has graduated to foods that require more chewing, consider scrambled eggs, steamed green beans, or even wheat toast.

The idea behind experimenting like this is that you’re helping your baby get ready to join the rest of the family in eating fresh, healthy foods.If you introduce baby now to a version of your family’s regular meals, you won’t have to force a second transition later to “grown-up” food.

Finally,don’t forget that your baby might make a “yuck” face when introduced to a new flavor. This is more a reaction to the discomfort of new things than an indicator of his flavor preferences. Keep offering it; with repetition, babies often warm up to new tastes.

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What is a doula?

The word “doula” comes from the ancient Greek meaning “a woman who serves” and is now used to refer to a trained and experienced professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to the mother before, during and just after birth; or who provides emotional and practical support during the postpartum period.

Studies have shown that when doulas attend birth, labors are shorter with fewer complications, babies are healthier and they breastfeed more easily.

A Birth Doula

  • Recognizes birth as a key experience the mother will remember all her life
  • Understands the physiology of birth and the emotional needs of a woman in labor
  • Assists the woman in preparing for and carrying out her plans for birth
  • Stays with the woman throughout the labor
  • Provides emotional support, physical comfort measures and an objective viewpoint, as well as helping the woman get the information she needs to make informed decisions
  • Facilitates communication between the laboring woman, her partner and her clinical care providers
  • Perceives her role as nurturing and protecting the woman’s memory of the birth experience
  • Allows the woman’s partner to participate at his/her comfort level

Research evidence shows that the quality services of a postpartum doula can ease the transition that comes with the addition of a baby to a family, improve parental satisfaction and reduce the risk of mood disorders.

A Postpartum Doula

  • Offers education, companionship and nonjudgmental support during the postpartum fourth trimester
  • Assists with newborn care, family adjustment, meal preparation and light household tidying
  • Offers evidence-based information on infant feeding, emotional and physical recovery from birth, infant soothing and coping skills for new parents and makes appropriate referrals when necessary

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*This post is not meant to promote nor dissuade from using a doula, nor are we advocating for any specific doula agency. It is meant to be informative on a topic in which many of our mothers have shown an interest.

15 Great Play Date Ideas

You’ve set a date and hand-picked the perfect crew. All that’s left is to find something to do! Whether you’ve invited besties only or planned a new faces get-together, these creative play date pick-me-ups will help you go beyond the everyday gather and gab.

1. Be crafty. Need a reason to finally start in on those adorable kid-friendly crafts filling up your Pinterest board? Make one (or more) the focus of your next play date gathering. Click here for ideas for awesome autumn leaf crafts. Set up materials ahead of time to keep things on track. Then cut the kids loose. 

2. Happy hour. Invite the play group to belly up to the neighborhood bar (i.e.: your place) for a pre-nap happy hour of the virgin variety. Grab a mocktail recipe and shake up some fun. Bonus points if you serve with mini drink umbrellas!


3. Toy swap. One tot’s trash is another tot’s treasure, right? Have the little ones bring an unused toy to swap for something new to them. Let parents join the fun; they can bring accessories like jewelry, scarves or ties to trade out, too.

4. Paint the town. Transform this parents’-night-out favorite into an at-home activity for petit Picassos. Grab some smocks or old t-shirts and set up a few finger painting stations around the kitchen table for invitees. Get the grownups in the action by offering them small canvases to paint on with acrylics. Plan for a mess and then let it go!

5. Animal house. No one parties like toddlers with their stuffed toys. Transform your living room into an animal sanctuary complete with an animal hospital, dog park and petting station. Then let the little ones and their furry friends explore the animal kingdom.

6. Do it like the Dowager. Indulge your Downton obsession and play Countess Grantham by hosting an afternoon tea for little lords and ladies. Dressing up is part of the deal in this play date twist, with fancy hats, formal ties and white gloves topping the countess-approved dress list. Be sure to whip up some tea and PB&J finger sandwiches for this grand occasion. Pinkies up!

7. Time for a field trip. Is there a new museum, restaurant, or play space you’ve been dying to explore? Invite everyone to join you at the newest, hottest off-site location. Exploring unchartered waters is always better with friends!

8. Sprinkles on top. With the wintertime just around the corner, it’s a great time to host a cookie decorating play group. We suggest rolling, cutting and baking sugar cookies ahead of time for this one. Then set out sprinkles, jimmies and an array of colorful icings in prep bowls for the mini baking crew. Clean kitchen? Probably not. Delicious cookies? For sure!

9. Throw a leftover party. Every parent has them packed away somewhere. Those odds and ends leftover from years of birthday bashes where more than eight but less than 16 (or 24 or 32 …) kids were invited. Dig through the cupboards and clear out your closet stash to find old themed party plates, hats, favors and more. Then send out an invite and use the unearthed hodgepodge of goodies to throw one sweet play date. Less mess and more friends is always a reason to celebrate!

10. Walk on the wild side. Plan your meet-up at a local park or forest preserve with stroller-friendly trails. It’s a chance for the kids to get their run on, collect colorful leaves or play hide and seek among the trees. For parents, it’s a chance to enjoy some fresh air and outdoor fun.

11. If you build it…They will come. Set up construction stations for budding builders with LEGOs, Duplos, wooden blocks and more on the family room floor. Then let them construct while parents catch up on the latest neighborhood news.

12. Nail it. Get out the polish for a mini-mani party. Have friends bring their favorite color. You set out manicure tools, lotions and some sparkly embellishments. Parents can paint alongside the kids or play manicurist for the group.

13. Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It’s the time of year when cardboard boxes start arriving on doorsteps. Start stockpiling them now for this play date activity that allows adults to enjoy some uninterrupted conversation, while the wee ones let imaginations run wild with their blank cardboard canvases. You supply markers, glue, stickers and doodads, and let the little inventors take care of the rest.

14. Host a book club. Hosting a book club for little literatis is one more way to gather the gang with a purpose. Check out this article on how to host a kids’ book club.

15. Have a snowball fight. You don’t need snow for this indoor, year-round activity. Use cotton balls, marshmallows or even crumpled paper for this playful twist on a winter fave. Older kids can incorporate forts and hiding spots into their play, while toddlers will giggle by just tossing soft “snow” balls at each other. Turn down the heat–coats and mittens required!

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Easing Parenting Disagreements

My partner and I were raised differently, so we disagree on parenting a lot. How do we get on the same page?

Every couple is going to clash on a few of the millions of decisions they need to make together. “There’s no one right way to do almost anything as a parent,” says Shoshana Bennett, a clinical psychologist. “It’s really important to respect each other’s ideas. That doesn’t mean you have to agree, but you should avoid being critical.”

Ask, “Is this a big deal?”

If you disagree on something little, like how to dress baby or whether to bathe him in the sink or the tub, it’s not worth a fight. “If it’s a huge safety or health issue, then it’s important to discuss it,” Bennett says, “but arguments between parents typically aren’t about whether to put a seatbelt on your kids. They’re more about parenting style.”

Stay calm and listen

Don’t flip out as soon as you hear your partner’s take. React as calmly as you can. If it’s 2 a.m. and baby’s screaming, table the discussion for daylight hours when you feel sane enough to have a civil conversation. Then, ask why. You might find your partner has a good reason for his stance.

Give your partner equal footing

Accept that your partner has a different style than you do, like he lets baby play independently (while supervised) and you like to play along with baby. Bennett says it’s actually good for babies to be exposed to different people who speak in different intonations, point out different things to baby and involve baby in different activities — all this helps baby developmentally.

Start fresh

Most of us swear we’re going to raise our kids differently when we become parents. Then we become parents… our parents. Why not focus on the fact that you’re a new family, and develop new ways to interact together and start new traditions together?

Expert: Shoshana Bennett, PhD, is a clinical psychologist specializing in family issues

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4 Easy Ways to Build Your Child’s Self Esteem With Your Words

“If you want your children to improve, let them overhear the nice things you say about them to others.” – Haim Ginott

Children rely on us to interpret the world:  “That’s HOT, Don’t touch!… Now we wash our hands…We can walk now that the light is green…..We always… We never…. This is how we do it…..The sky is blue….”

What happens when they hear“You’d lose your head if it wasn’t glued on…..That was a dumb thing to do….You drive me crazy ….Why can’t you….You never….You always…..”?

Or overhear: You won’t believe the day I’ve had with that kid….He’s so irresponsible….She never does her chores without me hounding her…..He can’t control himself….She has such a temper….

They believe it. Even if they don’t show it, even if they act like they don’t care, on some level our children believe everything we say.

This could demoralize every one of us at times. But it doesn’t have to. Instead, let’s use our children’s trust in what we say to empower them to become their best selves. Our words don’t have to be perfect. But what if we practiced these four habits?

1. Empower your child by seeing her best self.  Research shows that kids’ beliefs determine their behavior.  When you observe something positive about your child, tell her what you see. “You’re working hard on that…. Hey, I saw you got frustrated with your brother, but you were able to stop yourself from yelling….Wow, you read that whole book yourself!….I’ve noticed that you’re remembering to brush your teeth now without being reminded most of the time.”  Notice that these are specific observations about what your child is actually doing, rather than global pronouncements like “You’re smart” which aren’t provable, and which kids may argue with in their own minds.

2. Empower your child by problem-solving instead of labeling. If you’re offering your child guidance about something, stick to what’s happening right now and empower your child to solve it. “You always forget to …” makes him the problem, and programs him to keep forgetting.  “How do you think you can help yourself remember tomorrow?”  helps him move from being the problem to becoming the problem solver.  Just focus on how he can remember this time, and he’ll start to see that he’s a kid who can support himself to remember, more and more often. Comment especially on any progress in the “right direction,” even if it isn’t perfect.  We all need encouragement to keep plugging away towards a goal.

3. Empower your child by helping her keep “failure” in perspective:  Kids are creating beliefs about the world from every experience. When things don’t work out as they hoped, they often draw global conclusions and “I got all these words wrong” becomes “I’m just no good at spelling….I’m not a good student.” Help your child reframe to see that any given setback is temporary and she has some control over whether things will work out next time: “You’re really disappointed that you didn’t know these words….What could we do next week so that you know the words before the spelling test?” Give your child as much support as necessary to be successful — which is very different than doing it for them. Seeing that their actions have a big impact on their success helps kids try harder next time, instead of giving up on themselves.

4. Empower your child by letting him overhear you saying something positive about him to someone else. When you try to convince your child directly, he may resist what you’re saying. After all, he sees evidence to the contrary. But when he overhears you saying it to someone else, he begins to believe it might be true. “She was so helpful today…..I think he’s finding that focusing on his homework helps him enjoy school more….He and his sister are learning how to work things out….I just so enjoy being with her….More and more often, she does her chores without me even reminding her…..I am so blessed that I get to be his mother!”

Your child believes everything you say.  And acts on it.
What an opportunity!

Enough said.

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