by Jenni Watts Evans
As the winter holidays approach, parents and families may feel awash in a sea of seasonal decorations, music, and events that demand a tremendous amount of time and energy – for better or for worse!
Some of us embrace it and love the pace of this time of year; others may feel overwhelmed and wonder how (and even if) we should try and keep up with all the activity. As parents, we have the additional challenge of trying to find the balance between creating happy memories for our children, without going overboard with materialism and consumerism. Many are also striving to spend time with other family members and friends without exhausting ourselves to the point that it may be hard to enjoy those interactions.
So how do we find the balance between too much holiday spirit and not enough? Are some activities more meaningful to our children while some are just draining? The busyness of December can make it easy to overlook what our children really need from us. In the broadest sense, there is ample evidence that having loving relationships with parents at an early age is a strong factor for mental and physical health and well-being into adulthood, and even old age. So slowing down enough to feel we have experienced a real connection with our children is key to keeping family relationships strong and experiences meaningful.
Dr. Becky Bailey, creator of the Conscious Discipline approach for schools, identifies four elements of such interpersonal connection: eye contact and gentle touch, both of which create a kind of physiological reaction in the brain that helps establish a sense of empathy and security; our physical and emotional presence– too many activities may rob us of opportunities to really be “in the moment” with our family; and finally, playfulness, which helps strengthen the brain’s dopamine system and create a sense of shared pleasure in being together.
Whether you are planning traditions for Christmas morning, thinking about ways to give back through Hanukkah mitzvahs, or just spending time together between school and dinner, think about your interactions. How do you use eye contact and touch to connect with your child? What are ways that you miss these opportunities or even break contact? Are you careful to be present, NO PHONES; to listen when your child is talking to you without doing something else at the same time? Do you listen actively by nodding and responding? Add playfulness –a child-directed spirit– to any tradition to create lasting memories and support your family’s values.
When we keep holiday activities simple and selective, we can focus on how holiday traditions build on connections with those we love. Don’t be afraid to discuss the current traditions you have and examine if they are still meaningful to family members, or if they need to be “tweaked” or even discarded, and new ones created.
Ask your children what they look forward to each year at the holidays, and that will give you some idea of what is important to them. Now may be a good time to think about what kinds of gratitude and kindness rituals you’d like to incorporate as part of your holiday. Making ornaments and simple gifts for others is one way to keep the focus less on materialism. You may choose to participate as a family in a volunteer activity, such as a food or toy drive.
New rituals established during this time can also incorporate the spirit of altruism and gratitude throughout the year. Dr. Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness, suggests making a daily dinner time ritual of mentioning three good things that happened to you that day. When all family members participate, the shared sense of appreciation becomes contagious and helps cultivate a sense of optimism.
Holiday time is a time to celebrate with friends and family. Spend it with people you love, celebrating values you believe in, and doing things that have meaning for you – at least mostly.
Jenni Evans is a parent educator at the Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital who writes our award-winning “Parenting Corner” column. Read “Giving Kids Outside Time – Why it is Important.”