Have you ever done a ballet or tap recital? Synchronized swimming or skiing? Line dance? Waltz? You learn, train, practice, rehearse, perform: building muscle memory. Families are just like that!
You might have moved away and changed your dance, maybe you took up modern jazz — but when you come home, the old gang is still doing the funky chicken. The old dance. Your muscle memory kicks in and you flap your elbows, shake your booty to the floor, and your hands “cluck” like you never stopped. But stick with me, and you don’t have to dance that old dance. Nor do you have to pull the rug out from under the other dancers.
Let’s rehearse some ways it could work for you, your kids, and your extended family. Then work your plan both ways – you are the hinge between your parents and your kids. Work your plan with both of them. Scripts are great for this.
Scripts help us keep relationships with our extended family.
Plan with or speak with your nuclear family, your partner, kids, lodgers, and pet-sitters about the holiday plan. It has taken me some time — and embarrassing momfits — to see that sometimes I should not try for the democratic process. Either I really have a plan or I don’t, but sometimes I (or Dad and I) need to be in charge of how we play it by ear with our families, or maybe I just don’t have the energy for the kids saying, “I vote we just stay home.” Sometimes they don’t get a vote. And that’s ok.
Lately Thing 1 has been exemplary at checking in with himself and explaining how he feels – he doesn’t like to be surprised by my last-minute planning. Sigh. Teaching self-help skills means having to deal with it when the kids use those skills.
Think in advance – be prepared to compromise. Think about your top three foodie areas where you do NOT want to compromise around your kids’ food. Write them down. I’m a big fan of sleeping on it – go back to your top 3 list later, and then decide if they fit with your desires and travel plans – are you willing to do the work during a 3-day drive to ensure that the family eats leafy greens at every meal? Keep it realistic, reasonable, perhaps even easy. Are you going to be mad at the extra work, or mad at missing your greens? Weigh that out.
If you are having guests coming, ask if you need a backup food for their fussy or sensory kid, and withhold your judgment … they may show up doing a waltz, but you can still show off your jazz hands.
Your kids. It’s tempting to just buy chicken nuggets or prepared mac and cheese, and while that is one strategy that I use on occasion, I want to propose some ideas that taught our family to be better guests.
- Tell social stories about the trip – why you’re going, what to expect, how it might go, another way it might go, how they might feel and it’s okay to feel our feelings. Give them some scripts, too: “Mom, it’s too loud in here, can I sit in the car?” “Mom, I don’t think I can wait until dinner. I’m hangry. Can I have a healthy snack?”
- Strategize about where a kid can get some peace and quiet. In the car, bathroom, a big cardboard box, grandma’s porch, even under the bedcovers. Tell them how to excuse themselves, where to go, and what to do when they are overwhelmed — even if it’s at the dinner table.
- Teach them how to decline politely. Don’t hurt the cook’s feelings and don’t “yuk on someone else’s yum.”
- Discuss in advance that your family “new food” rules always apply (if they do. If they do not, clarify what the traveling rules will be), then expect them to stick to your one-bite rule, or smell or lick, or a bite for each year old they are. Tell them this before you go.
- Tell your kids that they can come to you if someone says something that makes them feel sad, mad or bad so that you can handle the situation for them — or if they are being pressured to eat something or to clean their plate or whatever else happens. Be sure they know that they can, and how to do so with respect, perhaps out of earshot or even by text message.
- Show your kid(s) three recipes and have them choose a healthy one that they will eat to make and bring – even if it’s not a potluck. Veggies-n-dip, fruit-n-yogurt, a side of snap peas, or a healthy yeast or sweet bread, all make great hostess gifts. Or consider a bowl of melon, pomegranate seeds, or berries. Older kids might be trusted to peruse the cookbook, but set some parameters – a slice-and-bring dish? High fiber? Crockpot warmable? Bring a side, a vegetarian or gluten-free or allergy-free dish, offer to bring a side and bring 2, and even something just for your kid.
- Involving them in making the dish is a great way to teach executive function. Have them decide, list the ingredients, shop for what you need, make the recipe, clean up, store the dish, and make a plan for warming and serving it when you get there. “Math it” out loud if you are doubling or halving the recipe. If you can include granny when you get there, all the better.
- Look away if you can. If the food is not a dangerous allergen, let them flounder just a little … if they’re hungry, they may stretch a little or a lot. Also, looking away changes the food dance. Your stepmom, mom, or dad become the food bearers, which changes the dynamic.
- At the same time, set them up for success. My pickiest eater would cross a line and just not be hungry any more – especially when he was smaller. So before grown-up dinners, parties, plane rides, and the like, we would snack him or full-on feed him. As he got bigger, around 5th grade, I started looking away more. He is usually well-mannered enough to at least try. Be sure to teach them the manners that they need to take care of themselves without offending.
Your parents. You are the hinge between these two generations. You don’t want their judgment, but don’t give them yours either. A friend says “apathy is your personal savior.” And that’s a good phrase to remember when bringing toddlers to grandma’s house. Explain to them, “We’ll be out of our schedule, we’ll be on the road three days, no, this is not the way we live all the time, but I’m going to let them stay up late or eat junk (or or whatever it is) so I don’t spend our time together punishing them.
Everyone has someone who needs to be “always right.” I have those people; families are full of them! Haha. But you can protect yourself by actively believing that they just want to help, or make themselves feel better, or be loved – no need to bristle at them. I am not above taking All. The. Blame. Then we can get on with dinner or building a fire or skiing or whatever it is we are doing. I’m willing to do that.
- Some people have no skills for respecting boundaries, being kind, or self-regulation and many of those people have kids – you might even be a kid of someone like that. If you’re here reading this, chances are pretty good! We’ve solved some of these issues by staying in a hotel in town, staying in a camper in the yard, scheduling a couple of short trips instead of a longer one – we may break up a week with grandma by spending a few nights with Pa, or Auntie, or with my old high school friends. When you are in their house, they may ask you to abide by their rules, and if that’s a conflict, offsite housing or offsite visits might work best if you’re not willing to go toe to toe on why junior does not have to clean his plate, even if s/he is at grandpa’s house.
- In advance, tell your parents social stories about the trip – what they can expect, how it might go, or another way it might go. You can say something like “It’s just impossible to stay on schedule while traveling, so we’re going to just go with the flow in terms of planning the week, or sticking to time limits on the ipad or eating leafy greens at every meal.” And then repeat that in person when your kid throws a fit, or when you don’t bring down the hammer on some infraction – even if you would at home. My dad is a merciless tease, and before one trip I just came out and said “he wants to grow his hair and I just don’t care – it seems like harmless self expression. But he’s very sensitive to being teased, and I just don’t want you to hurt his feelings.” He might have rolled his eyes over the phone, but he did not tease my kid about his hair. Or his disdain for chewy meat!
- When they make suggestions about how to solve a parenting problem, nod, give a thoughtful look (this is usually called active listening – or just acting haha) and say something like:
Huh, I’ll have to do some research on that.
Oooh, I’ll look into it.
I’ll ask the pediatrician about that (or physical therapist, feeding consultant, teacher, school psychologist, occupational therapist…. defer to a higher authority than either you or your parents).
- Or you might shrug, give an apologetic look (even if you feel annoyed) and say something like: **We’ve consulted with the pediatrician and we are just going with this for now.
I love my elders, but they do drive me nuts. These tactics have helped me keep my relationships with them, keep them in relationship with my kids, and teach my kids both how to be respectful to their elders and also how I want to be treated when they are adults.
Good luck and happy holidays!
If you have a sticky situation or shocking success, drop it in the comments and I’ll chime in or cheer you on!