We are fed months of ads showing children’s gleeful Christmas joy, perfectly staged Christmas cards with the happy family in matching outfits and viral videos featuring uber-attractive families singing yuletide favorites.
These whitewashed versions of Christmas do not serve me or my family well. They set expectations that defy the realities of life with young children. We have a 2 and a 4 year old, which means we can expect a fair amount of Christmas joy along with tears, whining and arguments.
Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about that?
Let’s acknowledge it, set our expectations accordingly, enjoy the great moments of the holiday and talk about strategies for mitigating the uglier moments.
We had an amazing holiday. The boys spent the last two days alternating between wearing wet suits and Yoda costumes. Eli let out a wonderful screech when he realized Santa had got him the Heelys that we didn’t think were available in his size.
We also had some ugly – I mean teachable – moments.
We do not have family in Denver, and on Christmas it is generally the four of us. In some ways this is hard; we miss spending holidays with those we love the most. In other ways it is liberating. We can address our kids’ unbecoming behavior without disrupting others or getting a disapproving stare from Aunt Edna.
So, here is what I learned today about celebrating the holidays with toddlers (be it Christmas or any other special day).
1. Expect Age-Appropriate Behavior: If you have young children, embrace the idea that just like every other day of the year, there will be moments where you need to reprimand your children. Our boys were having a blast on Christmas Eve, and then they asked to take a bath to try out their new wet suits from Grandma. Mid-bath, Eli started screaming that Ben was touching him. Ben enjoyed the chaos and continued to poke Eli. It escalated and Daddylibrium and I had to pull sopping wet kids out of the bath and send them to timeout. Was it irritating? Yes, but it was also age appropriate. We put our parenting hats on, addressed the situation and moved on. Since we didn’t have images of a perfect Christmas in our heads, it didn’t shatter our dream of a perfect holiday.
2. Address Bad Behavior with Understanding and Firm Consequences: Kids are smart. They know the holidays are special and may test you to see what they can get away with. If they realize bad behavior has no consequences, they will lose motivation to control their actions. In the above bath scenario, the boys served short stints in time out, we briefly mentioned that their behavior was not acceptable and told them that instead of opening more gifts, we were going to take a break and watch a Christmas movie. We let them know that we expected good behavior and if they did not behave, we would delay Christmas. We were serious and they could tell. The rest of the evening went well with no meltdowns or fighting.
3. Understand Holidays are Stressful: Parents are not the only ones who feel stress on holidays. Children have routines interrupted, travel long distances, eat different foods and must interact with more people. All the while we tell them to behave better than usual. Additionally, children are generally not in control of where they are going and how long they will stay. Mitigate this to the extent you can by letting them know what to expect. Say what you expect of them and what they should say if they need you to take a time out from the action with them.
4. Sharing is Hard: Kids are expected to share far more than adults on Christmas. If I get a new necklace I never have to pass it around the party for my cousin to try on. Kids, on the other hand, get a new toy and then are asked to immediately share their prized possession with their bratty little brother. Honor that this can feel lousy for your child. Let them know you understand that it is hard. We solve most toy disputes with a timer. If Ben gets a new toy and Eli wants to try it, we generally set the timer for 5 minutes. Ben gets the toy for 5 minutes. Then, Eli gets it for 2. If Ben is still interested, he gets it for another 2 minutes.
5. Sometimes Your Kids Need Your Guidance: Today Eli opened one of his gifts from Santa and began to cry, “I wanted toys, not craft stuff. I want to open another present.” Daddylibrium swooped in and explained that if he wanted to cry about this he needed to do it in his room. When confronted with two options, playing with the craft supplies or going to his room, he chose to stay and play. Together we made pipe cleaner animals while Daddylibrium showered. We also talked about gratefulness and how lucky he was to have so many presents to open. In the Christmas movies, each kid usually only gets one present. When Daddylibrium returned, Eli was actively engaged with the craft and was excited to show off his “kinventions” (Eli’s word for inventions). Later, he uttered, “I didn’t think I liked that at first but actually I loved it.”
6. Sometimes the Only Thing You Can Control is Your Reaction: Your child may act like a spoiled brat and you may not be able to figure out how to change the behavior. If that is the case, the only thing you can control is your reaction. When your kid is acting bonkers, try to respond with grace. There are days my kids are naughty and I am able to hold it together and sweetly take the them to time out over and over and over again. Those days may not be pleasant, but they are OK. Other times, I lose it. I yell, I say things that should not be said, and then my annoyance with their behavior is compounded by my guilt about losing my cool and the day deteriorates to misery. Try to avoid losing your cool as it inevitably makes the situation worse. Conversely, if you lost your cool, recognize it, apologize if necessary and let it go. Provide yourself the kindness and grace you would extend to a friend who told you about losing their cool.
7. Sharing Your Experience Helps Others: Most of the Facebook posts from today showed smiling, joyous children and highlighted happy moments in the day. A few brave friends had the courage to post a picture of a crying child or mention their child’s meltdown. The latter have lots of comments from parents who faced similar struggles. This leads me to believe that due to all the expectations, excitement and tensions of the holiday, misbehaving children are more the norm than not. As parents, I think it is helpful to know this. If you think Christmas is both wonderful and hard, you are not alone. Sometimes knowing that makes all the difference.