The season of extended family and threadbare patience

If you have older children, you know that they eventually reach the age when they are much more aware of their surroundings and the family dynamic. They begin to notice grandpa’s idiosyncrasies, they pick up on the tension between mom and grandma, and they don’t like Uncle Stan’s cigarette breath and phlegmy morning cough.

The holidays bring all of these people and situations together to create the perfect storm for family turmoil and blowups. What is touted as a season of peace and joy is oftentimes, in actuality, a season of “pour some extra rum in my eggnog, please, so that I don’t care about Aunt Sally’s nagging, condescending advice.”

There’s at least one in every family – one family member whom everyone dreads, whom stories are told about for years to come and who seems completely unaware of – or who simply doesn’t care about – your own personal family dynamic, “the way we do things around here.” As your children age, they will become more aware of these interlopers, and they will resent their intrusion into your home and into your coveted traditions.

I am definitely NOT an expert in this field. Let me rephrase that – I am an expert in the experience, but I have yet to solve the problem. There are just some people who are toxic, and no amount of patience or kindness changes that. But what I have learned over the years is that what is more important, by far, is how you let these family members affect your own children. Here are some tools we have used in our house to survive visits from those who are nearly intolerable:

1. Try to have fun with it. A discreet smile, wink, or exchanged look goes a long way in acknowledging the humor in a situation. We’ve even kept a quote list of some of the absurd comments that have been made and laughed until we cried reading over it.

2. Set bottom lines that you will not allow relatives to cross. In our house, racist statements are not permitted. We don’t start fights with grandma over them, but we quickly change the subject and clearly send the message that we don’t tolerate stereotyping and unfair judgments.

3. Be flexible in your willingness to accommodate guests, but do not allow yourself to be railroaded or steamrolled into giving up your own family traditions. Protect what is important to your family but teach your children that graciousness toward others is also important.

4. Get out of the house and stay busy. Sitting around shooting the breeze might leave you wanting to shoot Cousin Phil. Plus, staying busy makes everyone tired, so they’re more likely to hit the bed early or take a nap, giving everyone a much-needed break from each other.

5. Pray. Sometimes, when all of the weapons in your arsenal have been exhausted, you realize that only a Higher Power can help you now.

What to do with those overachieving teenagers

Right now, a bunch of parents are sighing. They’re sighing because they can’t believe that ANYONE would complain about having children who are highly motivated. They’re sighing because other people’s kids make straight A’s while their own are happy with C’s. To them, parents complaining about overachieving children is like thin people complaining that they can’t gain weight. “Oh, pu-lease!” they exclaim. “Like THAT’s a problem!”

But to those of you who have high-strung, highly stressed kids, it is a very real concern. And not one you can necessarily freely discuss with your friends, for fear of loud sighs heard ’round the neighborhood. When your kids strive to be the best, no one wants to hear you complain about it. So this week’s blog post is for you. A chance to exchange ideas about what to do with kids who hold themselves to very high standards – sometimes impossibly high standards – and make everyone around them miserable in the process.

Here are my tips for dealing with these kids. I encourage you to add your own!

  • Remember that this is a personality trait, and one you’re unlikely to change. It is who your children are, and it is wonderful. You will never be able to “reason” with them or change their way of thinking, so let it go.
  • What you CAN do, however, is help them to maximize their strengths and channel their internal motivation toward more efficient productivity. What I mean by this is that rather than telling your children not to study six hours for an exam, you can help them to find ways to study more efficiently. They will appreciate your help in this area and your understanding that the test is very important to them. You will become a source of support rather than an additional thorn in their already bleeding sides.
  • While you can’t control their minds and how they think about grades, winning, or otherwise coming out on top, you can control your expectations and how you verbalize them to your children. Always emphasize doing their best and being proud of that, versus end results such as grades or awards. They already want those end results – that’s the beauty of internal motivation – which lets you off the hook. You can be the loving support rather than the rabbit spurring on the greyhound.
  • Help your children to prioritize in every area of their life. Model for them what is truly important by prioritizing in your own life. Make sure that they know that family, character, work ethic, balance, religious beliefs, and fun are all important aspects of their life. It’s great to work hard, but they should play hard, too.
  • When you know that your children are making choices that will place undue burdens on them (taking a full schedule of AP courses, taking on too many responsibilities, eliminating their social lives in order to juggle more work) step in and intervene. It’s okay to say no and you must teach them at a young age that saying no is a life skill.
  • Help them to unwind by insisting on a relaxed family dinner and by providing short diversions (an evening walk, an ice-cream break). Remind them that brain breaks will actually help them to learn better.
  • Be the shoulder they can cry on when they don’t achieve their goals. Encourage them in their areas of greatest strength and help them to turn other areas into entertaining, low-stress side interests or hobbies. This will help to minimize the disappointment that comes from unmet expectations.

What have you done with your kids? What works for you?

Sending the right messages at Christmas

Whether you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, you are faced with the yearly dilemma of deciding how much is too much to spend on your children. A recent study revealed that parents spend an average of $100-$200 on each child, with some spending as much as $500. If you have more than one child, your Christmas bills could be quite hefty with that kind of payout.

Hearing these statistics made me wonder: In a country where most of us live better than the entire rest of the world, is it necessary or even proper to spend a lot of cash on holiday giving? Does it detract from the true meaning? Or is it important to blend in with American culture and give our kids all that we can afford?

My family has always had a policy of moderation when it comes to gifts. I was struck in a crystal clear moment when my children were very young with the following thought – if I start giving my kids piles of presents at Christmas, they will come to expect that year after year. But if I give them just a few well-chosen items, that’s all they’ll ever expect. God must have been smiling down on me that day, because it was one of the greatest realizations I’ve ever had: Don’t start something with your kids that you don’t want to continue doing forever. This applies to virtually everything, including how you respond to temper tantrums, what you allow your children to do, and what kind of behavior you accept. It’s so much harder to change those behaviors long after they first began than to nip them in the bud early on or prevent them all together. That’s what we did with Christmas. And our kids have never questioned it.

Now that my children aren’t children anymore, we usually exchange one nice present on Christmas Eve from each other, and one nice present on Christmas morning from Santa. There’s usually a couple of small things just to have a few packages to open up, but that’s it, and we’re all thrilled with this system. No one goes into hock to buy presents for family members; no one greedily rips open packages, barely acknowledging them; and most of the focus of the holiday stays where it should – on the reason for the season. We worship at a candlelight service, we eat traditional holiday meals, and we spend time together as a family.

What are your thoughts on holiday gift giving? Do you love to indulge your kids as much as possible, or do you prefer a toned-down Christmas or Hanukkah? I’d love to hear about your family traditions.