December Musings-Holidays with Young Children

It’s the holiday season. Easy to tell if you go to any Starbucks store, or local grocery store and see all the signs of holidays. Red and green decorations (or blue for the growing movement of decorating for Hanukkah), gift suggestions galore, tinsel and lights and oh so much more!

So what does this mean for parents with young children? Often it means stress, anxiety and a sense of being overwhelmed. There is so much to do! Take the kids on a wonderful holiday experience (fill in whatever you are thinking of—ice skating, seeing a play, going on the Polar Express, cutting the perfect tree, finding a gift that will make your child’s heart sing…). Host family/friend gatherings and try to cook/clean while caring for a 2 year old and a baby. Or fit in work parties and expectations, while trying to give your children the holiday experience you think they need. Help out at school and/or church. Make/buy gifts, wrap them, mail them, order them.   Get a tree, decorate it—maybe multiple times if you have curious children under three (in our family’s experience decorating a tree once is really fun, the second time still nice but by the third time….not so much fun.) When you add up all these joys (and work), it can end up being about the amount of time a part-time job would take. And I’m guessing you don’t have a spare 20 hours a week that you are wondering how to fill!

So let’s step back and consider, what do young children really need during the holidays?

Questions to ponder:

What is important to you in the holidays? What are your long-term goals in parenting your child or children right now? Do your values match up with where your time, energy and resources go? What do your children need from you during the holidays, and every day?

If we take in the messages of the media, we will think that what they need is the “perfect” gift, followed by the amazing family/community experience. This will then lead to everyone feeling happy, grateful and full of love, kindness and generosity. Hmmm. I know in my house, it never seemed to work out that way! Special outings were often disrupted by tired and whiny kids. The gifts the kids seemed to like the best were not the “big ticket” items, but simple gifts that connected them to another person (more on this later!).

But if we truly listen to young children and think about what they need, we come up with different answers. They don’t need the “special” experiences, the ultimate gift, and certainly not the hectic pace of the season. What they really need is relaxed and loving time with family, realistic expectations of gifts, traditions to mark this time of year, and an evenly paced holiday season. The classic book “Unplug the Christmas Machine” discusses these ideas, while also providing a history of how the holidays became what they are today. While this book was written many years ago, the ideas still hold true.

(1) Relaxed and loving times: “Filling” the bucket.

Children do better when they feel better (this works for adults too!) The tools we choose to respond to our children in daily life can build our connection to our children, bring joy and fun while showing our children a better way. Relaxed and loving times with family can help “fill” the bucket. What works for your family? Consider adding some calm, relaxing rituals during this holiday season. Read stories about how others celebrate holidays. Have a “singing” time after dinner with a few favorite songs. Share a memory of the holidays when you were growing up at the dinnertable with your kids. Go for a “night” walk, focus on listening to the sounds around you, than on what you can see.

Find time for you and your child to be together that is not vulnerable to interruptions, is child centered (they decide what happens) and you work on being fully present with your child.

(2) Evenly paced holidays: “Finding balance” thru the week.

Children thrive on predictability and daily rhythms that meet their developmental needs. Holidays can disrupt this with rollercoaster effect (build up, then “crash” at end). What cues do you see in your child, children, and inside of you that things are out of balance? How do you find restorative time vs. entertaining time vs. active time? When does your family thrive? Consider putting some boundaries on how long a holiday season you experience as a family. “We don’t “see” holiday decorations until AFTER Thanksgiving. When it’s after Thanksgiving, we can talk about Christmas.”

Try planning a post-holiday event such as going to the beach, the mountains or explore Portland day that you can all look forward to. Have a post-holiday get together that is a potluck, with a big pot of stew and friend/family time that is relaxed.

(3) Reasonable expectations about gifts

Children have become major targets of the marketing world. The holidays can be a time that your child is bombarded with ideas about gifts—from well meaning relatives to large corporations. Children have few tools to resist and really need guidance and support from adults. What role do gifts play in your family traditions? What do you want your children to learn about giving and receiving? How might we, as adults, be manipulated by advertisers? It can help to give kids clear expectations about gifts: “There will be one big gift and several small ones.” “There are always books as presents, and one toy.” “Everyone gets a new outfit for the holidays, and another big item on their wishlist.” It can also help to give extended family clear expectations about gifts. What do you want to come into your home?

Consider alternative gift-giving. Move outside of traditional gifts and think about finding gifts that connect family, reflect what you want to grow in your child (e.g. creativity, family connection, love of music, hobbies, reading, compassion, life skill such as sewing) and fit your budget to keep your financial stress down.

See the last page for more ideas on alternative gifts.

(4) Reliable traditions and rituals

Traditions are concrete ways that anchor children to their family and the larger world as they grow and change. You probably have daily and weekly rituals, and traditions that occur with seasons, holidays and special events.   Find rituals that work for your family. Develop or maintain traditions that bring you joy and maintain balance in your family’s world.

You can also use this for supporting rituals and routines in daily life, and giving direction and structure to the holidays.

Some ideas: Identify an organization you want to support and engage in a community service activity with your family/friends. Write a letter to your child every Christmas or at another important religious event that shares a memory with them. Add a physical outing to family gatherings—perhaps everyone goes for a walk after dinner and looks at lights. Read a chapter book out loud for each night of December. Check out some of the books below for more ideas!


Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back Into the Season by Jo Robinson and Jean C. Staeheli, (1991)

Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case For A More Joyful Christmas by Bill McKibben (1998)

The Quiltmakers Gift by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail De Marcken (2001) (great book to read with kids)

The Book Of New Family Traditions : How To Create Great Rituals For Holidays And Everyday. By Mem Fox, (2003).

The Joy Of Family Rituals : Recipes For Everyday Living. by Biziou, Barbara. (2000)

The Joy Of Family Traditions : A Season-By-Season Companion To Celebrations, Holidays, And Special Occasions by Thompson, Jennifer Trainer. (2008).

Alternative gifts for children

Subscription to child’s magazine

Tickets to ride on zoo train, Oak’s Park rides, theatre, sporting event

Buy a portion of zoo animal’s care and send child photo of his or her animal

A blanket made by a family member that becomes part of forts, plays and snuggles for years.

Handmade bean bags with a child’s favorite animals on the fabric.

Commit to a weekly walk with just one of your children after dinner. No matter what the weather, take a 15 minute walk. Take one picture each time and create a book of them next year.

A “first aid” kit that includes a box of band-aids, ace bandages, “owie” ice pack

A special plant or packages of seeds

Lessons in something you know (music, sewing, gardening, car maintenance)

Sewing kit plus fabric scraps and time to help with projects

Banner for wall or painted mural for bedroom

Your child’s own kitchen utensils and a child’s cookbook

Your child’s own tools and project ideas

Art supplies, papers etc

Office supplies

Old costume jewelry

Old suitcase with dress-up clothes

Enlarged photo or poster for wall

A homemade balance beam

Coupon book for story, walk, time that you spend together in way your child chooses

Flashlight and batteries

Baking pan and packages of easy mixes, recipes that are child-friendly

Piggy bank with starter money

Stationery or rubber stamp with child’s name on it, address labels with child’s name

Map of city with child’s school, zoo, friend’s houses, library, restaurant, parent’s workplaces and other important places highlighted

Make playhouse furniture out of cardboard boxes

An outing during week after Christmas (zoo train? Trip to the beach?)