“Don’t touch that! It’s for Thanksgiving dinner.”

The joke in our house the week before Thanksgiving was “full refrigerator, nothing to eat.” We spent the week preparing for a beautiful Thanksgiving experience.

I placed my value on my ability to make everything perfect: décor, menu, and activities. If the weather was beautiful, we’d go on a hike. If it was cold outside, we’d break out the board games.

Family togetherness and celebrating — for twelve hours straight.

I may have been overcompensating for a chaotic childhood. Craving security after the upheaval of several divorces, bankruptcy, and constant relocation, I wanted to create a Norman Rockwell picture of love and gratitude.

Over the years, I’ve learned to release that expectation. By focusing on my picture for the perfect day, I accomplished the opposite of my goal, which is a wonderful celebration with my family.

Communication Is Key

Young children develop their expectations from the paradigm we create. Moms and dads have a golden opportunity to establish traditions and memorable moments.

Still, taking a few minutes to listen to their feelings and wishes (not that you have to comply with them all) will help you understand their needs.

Questions such as, “What was your favorite part of today?” and “Would you like to choose which board games we put out for guests?” can help you gauge their level of enjoyment.

By the time they’re in their teens, they know the drill but don’t always appreciate family obligations. We can’t always allow them everything they want, but we can listen to their feelings and compromise on non-crucial issues.

These discussions are difficult, but worth trying to understand the reasons behind their objections.

For example, parsing out whether they still like the “kids’ table” or if they’d rather sit with the adults can help you enhance their enjoyment.

Since my girls grew up with their cousins of the same age, the kids’ table naturally became the teens’ table. They all preferred to be together, watching Christmas movies on a big screen TV, rather than sitting with boring adults in the dining room.

holiday joy

They Need an Ally

Chances are, if you’re anxious about a tense interaction (you know the relative that just popped into your head), your kids will be too. Hearing your children out beforehand and commiserating with them will help ease their worry.

Sometimes what they need is a simple fix. For example, if their cousins destroyed their room last year and they’re dreading the invasion, parents can provide a different play area (or try to set some limits).

When my girls were toddlers, I had to set a boundary with my parents at the dinner table. As Boomers, Mom and Dad grew up with parents who had literally gone hungry during the Great Depression, so “wasting” food was the unpardonable sin.

Convinced it would be healthier if I allowed my children to decide when they were full, I didn’t allow my parents to insist on clean plates. By my example of sticking up for them when necessary, my girls knew they would always be safe, even if not necessarily comfortable.

During the teen years, the best way we can help is to teach them to set their own boundaries.

They may need your permission and perhaps even some practice role playing. For example, what will they say when Aunt Martha insists they take food they don’t wish to have, because, “I made this especially for you”? These interactions will be easier with your support and training in how to express their wishes respectfully.

holiday joy

Your Efforts Are Good Enough

Some seasons are difficult enough to muddle through without the extra work and expense of holidays. If you’re having a particularly rough year, know that you’re giving your kids everything they need by being present and engaged with them.

I was surprised to learn that my adult daughters’ favorite Christmas memory was creating a homemade nativity scene from scrap fabric, Barbie dolls, and the animals from a Lego set.

An old shoebox became the barn, and we made a manger by cutting a toilet paper roll in half lengthwise and gluing the curved sides together. It was the best I could do that year, scraping by in an apartment and not knowing how to pay January’s rent, much less give Christmas gifts.

I would have thought their favorite memory would be receiving brand new bikes or vacationing in a condo at the beach. Whatever you manage this year —believe me — it’s enough.

Making Memorable Moments

Whether you have a sanguine second grader or a sullen teen, the holidays are your opportunity to tie heartstrings and share the good stuff of life with them. The investment you’re making right now, creating memories and traditions, will pay off bigtime.

Your holidays don’t have to look like a Norman Rockwell picture. But they are a great opportunity to pause and mark another year of gratitude with our families. When we loosen our expectations, we allow our relationships to flourish and our joy to bloom.

About the Author: Lyneta Smith

Lyneta is a writer and editor who lives near Nashville, TN with her husband and an opinionated tortoiseshell cat. They enjoy holidays and family nights with their adult daughters more than ever. Lyneta is the author of Curtain Call: A Memoir, and has been published in numerous national magazines and newspapers. Follow her on Facebook