According to several polls, Thanksgiving is the world’s second favorite holiday, right behind Christmas. Many of us love the holiday so much that we romanticize it and then set the bar very high. Understandably, we want our kids to experience warm holiday traditions that they will pass on to their own families. So we envision a sumptuous meal, a beautiful table, and loving conversation. Unfortunately, reality may fall short of expectations. Kids may meltdown. Your covered dish may be a disaster. Disappointment may creep into the day. Although it sometimes seems impossible to have a perfect Thanksgiving Day with children, perfection is not required for a happy, memorable holiday. Below are tips to avoid the most common pitfalls that can thwart a tranquil Thanksgiving.
Use Politeness to Downplay Picky Eating
Thanksgiving often centers around a formal meal that requires a significant amount of work. Many parents worry about offending the chef when a kid rejects a world-famous dish. Politeness is key. If your children are young, try to introduce Thanksgiving staples before November. Make sure they understand the importance of keeping negative comments about the food to themselves, saying please and thank you, and attempting polite conversation. Most of the time, guests won’t notice that your picky eater only has a roll and macaroni and cheese on his plate as long as he’s pleasant. Don’t be shy about providing dishes you know your children enjoy.
Keep Kids Busy
Many experts suggest involving kids in Thanksgiving preparation or giving them age-appropriate activities to keep them busy. Let them make placemats, set the table, or complete a Thanksgiving Day project. It’s unrealistic to expect them to remain seated and in good spirits for extended periods without an outlet. Try to find time to take a walk, throw a ball, or play a game to blow off steam. Invite others to join you so that you can talk and bond while the kids are playing.
We often inform our kids about what to expect but we don’t set our own intentions. Dr. Daisy Sutherland, author of 21 Ways to Enjoy a Stress-Free Holiday Season, says it’s very important “to remember that a great deal of the stress we feel at the holidays is of our creation.” In truth, very few of us have a Thanksgiving like those portrayed on commercials or in magazines. But by embracing imperfection, we can still have a wonderful holiday. Focus on what you value the most and let the rest go. Roll with the unexpected and watch your enjoyment increase and your stress decrease.
Your kids may be on their best behavior but other guests may have forgotten their manners. Do your best to shake off any drama. You have no control over the behavior of others, but you can control your own reaction. Try to remember that your goal is to connect with family, so respond with kindness and deflection. Your kids are learning how to diffuse tension by watching you, so teach them to look at the big picture rather than overreacting to small annoyances. Losing your cool on a holiday that focuses on gratitude isn’t worth it.
Be Proud of Your Parenting
A recent survey out of the University of Michigan found that nearly two-thirds of mothers felt criticized for their parenting, with the most concerns coming from family. On a day that brings many generations together, you may receive unsolicited parenting advice. Try to remember that the concerned family member is probably trying to gain involvement in your child’s life, however awkwardly. Because you may only see this person on special occasions, be careful that your response doesn’t divide a family already separated by physical distance. Alissa Marquess, author of Bounce Back Parenting: A Field Guide for Creating Connection, Not Perfection, suggests a quick, light response like, “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.” This restraint honors your love for the other person but makes it clear that you don’t intend to debate your choices. Know you are doing a great job, and change the subject to something more pleasant.
Focus on Family
No matter what the day brings, being with those we love can be a rare blessing. It’s not every day that everyone is together at the same table, so pause and take it in. Sure, parts of the day may bring challenges. But take a step back from all of the work and juggling to see the day for what it is: an opportunity to see the people we value the most, some of whom may not live close by. Now is the time to share, catch up, and enjoy one another—warts and all.
Whether you deliver a pie to a neighbor, invite another family to dinner, rake leaves at a community center, or volunteer at a local shelter, do something nice for someone else as a family. The act of giving during the holiday season is likely to increase your own family’s genuine joy.
Cap It Off with Gratitude
After most of the activities have died down, talk to your child about gratitude, and remind him that the purpose of Thanksgiving is to count one’s blessings with those we love. Ask him to list a few things he is most grateful for and share some of your own to stress the true meaning of Thanksgiving.
Your table may not look like Martha Stewart’s, and your kids may shun the cranberry sauce, but that’s perfectly fine. Perhaps we put so much pressure on Thanksgiving because we want to re-create the nostalgia we’ve carried from childhood. The good news is that our kids will have similar special memories, and we only need to relax and let it happen. We may not remember every table setting or dish from our childhood Thanksgiving, but we remember the love and the warmth. So will our kids.