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Taking the kids: Surviving the relatives this holiday season

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  • Create a kids' hang out area to alleviate some of the stress of a full house
  • Get everyone out of the house for part of the day to minimize tension
  • Stock up on foods kids will eat or bring your child's favorites with you
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By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services
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(Tribune Media Services) -- I don't know how innkeepers do it.

Getting out of the house does wonders for family harmony.

All those breakfasts ... all those dirty towels ... all those beds to be made ... the sandwiches and cocktails ... dinners... having to be nice 24/7.

Let's hear it for innkeepers who always have a smile for their guests -- and everyone else who is struggling to keep smiling when hosting family this holiday season, when the visiting toddler drops Goldfish everywhere and the teen refuses to be roused before noon from the family room sofa bed. Did I mention the uncle who falls asleep on the couch before dessert, snoring loudly?

Some 65 million of us will travel between Christmas and New Year's, AAA estimates, and most of us will visit family. I gained my new innkeeper's perspective when I hosted my husband's family Thanksgiving week. They flew in from California, Texas, Illinois and Washington State.

Thanksgiving dinner was the least of it. In fact, more of us gathered for leftovers two days later when another brother came from Boston to see everyone. When I wasn't cooking or doing dishes, I was throwing a load of towels in the washing machine, checking to see if anyone needed a snack and planning excursions. Was it cocktail time yet? My mother-in-law joked that I didn't come into the house that week without a couple of bags of groceries. She was right. How else was I going to feed a dozen or more every night?

It's not always easy to be a guest either, especially with messy, noisy kids in tow. No wonder 40 percent of those polled by Expedia.com's Trend Watch report they'd rather stay at a hotel than at the relative's house this holiday. (Who wants to sleep on an old futon anyway?) Frankly, I was glad that some of our guests opted for a local chain hotel -- and so were they, because they not only scored bargain rates but a more comfortable bed and their own bathroom.

Don't get me wrong. I love my husband's family and we had a blast. (The kids especially liked hearing their grandmother and great-aunts tell stories about what a rascal their dad was as a kid.)

This column is dedicated to all of you getting ready to host your family and friends for the Christmas holiday. Good luck! Your Mantra: it won't be perfect. Not the food. Not the kids' behavior. Not the adults' behavior. We're talking about family, after all -- squabbling cousins, know-it-all brothers-in-law, aunts who can't resist criticizing your cooking, bored tweens who make it clear they would rather be elsewhere. Let's not forget the vegetarians and vegans in the bunch who make every meal a challenge.

Never mind the memories we're hoping will result from getting everyone together. Never mind what sappy commercials suggest holiday gatherings should be like. Face it. Hosting the family for the holidays is hard work. Being a holiday guest is no picnic either. Young kids are discombobulated by unfamiliar surroundings and too much sugar; grown-ups are discombobulated by overeating -- and drinking.

It's even tougher when divorced and stepfamilies are part of the mix, "Don't try to force everyone to act like one big happy family," suggests Dr. David Fassler, a child psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont. "Let the kids adjust and adapt at their own pace. Don't try to force them to like their new relatives. You can expect them to be polite, but you can't make people get along. Either it will happen or it won't."

Frankly, I think we're doing pretty well if we manage to get through the holiday weekend without some relative or another storming off angrily or a child collapsing in tears because of a cousin's teasing. Besides suggesting some of the relatives might be more comfortable at a nearby hotel, here are my six other tried-and-true tips for surviving the relatives this holiday season:

Hide the glass animals, especially if there are preschoolers or toddlers in the house. Do not put ornaments which have small parts or metal hooks, or look like food or candy, on the lower branches of the Christmas tree where small children can reach them, says the National Safe Kids Campaign. Are the electrical outlets covered? Medications stored high in a cabinet? Cleaning supplies locked up? Even baking ingredients such as vanilla and almond extract can be harmful to young children, as can holiday plants like mistletoe berries or poinsettias. For more safety tips, visit the National Safe Kids Campaign Website at www.usa.safekids.org.

Stock up on apple juice, peanut butter, pasta and whatever else your young guests are eating these days. Don't be insulted if they won't eat the fancy dishes you've slaved over. If you are the guest, offer to pick up what your kids can't survive without. Bring along a children's cookbook (Amazon.com lists more than 1,300) and help the kids to prepare a dish or favorite holiday cookies. Remember, the important thing is the conversation around the table, not what's on the plates.

Create a kids' hang out area, even if it's just a portion of the den or living room with toys, a TV and a place to keep their "stuff." Ask at your local video store for the hottest holiday rentals and have them on hand along with the holiday stories you loved as a kid. If your guests are driving, suggest they bring along favorite pillows, blankets and for the littlest ones, crib sheets and night-lights to make them feel more at home.

Get everyone out of the house. No one will get on each other's nerves as much if they're not confined to small spaces. Send the gang to the zoo, the local ice-skating rink, children's museum or around the neighborhood to check out the decorations. (Link to many children's museums and science centers by visiting the Association of Science-Technology Center Web site at www.astc.org.)

Set the ground rules. No food on the couch, no teasing the dog, no disciplining anyone else's kids. Don't be shy about asking the kids to help either. Even 6-year-olds can make their beds (or roll up their sleeping bags), set the table or help with cleanup.

Leave the emotional baggage at the door. The holidays are not the time to air long-held grievances.

When all else fails, bring out the chocolate Santas. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

(For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.)

Copyright 2009 EILEEN OGINTZ, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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