Holiday Gauntlet Reader Call: Fighting Christmas envy

Rachael writes in with a question that makes me feel kind of sad:

"How do you deal with your kids
interest/sadness/inclusion/exclusion at other religious celebrations?  I’m
sure this is less of an issue for people who celebrate Christmas, but may still
come up.  We’re Jewish, and my 3 year old is very frustrated that we won’t
decorate our house with Santas/lights (we live in a neighborhood with lots of
decorations going on).  We’re decorating inside with Hanukkah
decorations, but it’s not the same.  I’m having a hard time with
the “We do Hanukkah” line because, when you add it all up, Hanukkah
kind of sucks in comparison to Christmas.  Any thoughts?"

This makes me feel pretty crappy for you guys.

If the issue is outside lights, would it be completely inappropriate to put up lights? You could get a strand of white and a strand of blue. Or white icicle lights with blue ones roped around it. It’s not traditional for Hanukkah, but Christians put up all sorts of blatantly ridiculous things for Christmas, so why shouldn’t Jewish people go all crazy-American-holiday-fiesta, too?

And, of course, there’s the eight days of presents of Hanukkah vs. only one day of presents of Christmas.

I think some non-Christian readers are going to have to give you some help here. I know lots of you must have ways you’ve developed to deal with the huge looming spectre of Christmas. Can you help Rachael out?

Holiday Gauntlet 4: Stress on kids during holiday visits

The holiday season can be extremely stressful for kids. Too many parties, visits with overexcited grown-ups, and foods that they don’t usually eat.

Your job at this point is to protect your kids from things that are actually going to hurt them, and look away from the rest of it.

What that means is that you need to protect your kids’ personal space. Even if your mom loves to kiss your daughter when she sees her twice a year, you can’t let her if it scares your daughter. No one gets to tickle your child unless the child requests it. No passing the baby if the baby’s not clearly into it. There are all sorts of things you can teach your kids to "connect" with adults that don’t involve compromising their personal boundaries. My favorites are blowing kisses and giving high-fives (which are also cute and precocious-seeming). If your child is too young to do this, you can always pinch her to get her to yell, then claim all the overstimulation is making her cranky and she needs to go into a quiet room to chill out. (If you start teaching a baby the sign for "milk" from an early age, you can discreetly flash the sign and he will start fussing to eat and you can leave the room. Score!)

Let me repeat this again–You have to protect your child’s physical boundaries. If you don’t, you’re teaching your child that it’s OK for him or her to be violated in some way, because you’re there watching but allowing it to happen. Blame it on anything you want to (your kid’s coming down with a cold, your pediatrician, "this nutjob on the internet who writes an advice column"), but get your kid out of an uncomfortable situation no matter what.

For some kids, their physical boundaries also include the things they eat. I’ve been lucky in that both of mine have stomachs more like the stomachs of goats, so eating too much sugar or really rich foods doesn’t have much effect on them. That means that’s one thing I just let go of at events, and maybe hear the eating report later, or maybe not. But if you have a child with any food sensitivities, you have to be on guard. I do not envy you, because there are whole categories of people who think all food issues are made-up, and who will try to push you and your child.

I suppose one way to be proactive about dealing with jerks who try to push you on your child’s food sensitivities would be to bring an epi-pen, and at the beginning of the event get up and ask all the adults to watch you teach them how to use the epi-pen "just in case someone accidentally gives Ethan something with eggs in it" or whatever the problem food is. Seeing the actual epi-pen might make them think twice about pressing the issue. I’d love to hear other suggestions from BTDT food issue parents.

The unrealistic expectations issue is a big problem. You end up having to spend a lot of time with people who have no idea or recollection of what’s normal behavior for young kids. Tensions are high with relatives spending so much time together anyway, and then add in stresesd kids out of their normal environments, and it’s a recipe for criticism, hurt feelings, and tantrums all around.

The best suggestion I have for mitigating this is simple: Go Outside. Go outside several times a day, and walk (or run) around with your kid. Being outside (even in super-cold air) is good for them, blows off some steam, gets them out from under the vigilant eye of the older generation, gets you out from under that scrutiny, and is impossible to argue with. (Who could say anything bad about taking a kid out to get some fresh air and run around?) If you spend enough time outside your child might sleep a little better (even in the too-small pack ‘n’ play or in bed with you), and you can settle down a little, too.

My other technique is to treat any egregious statement as if it’s a joke. "I can’t believe you let her eat potato chips before dinner!" and you answer "Oh, Mom, you’re always so funny. Remember how we always used to eat so many potato chips at Grandma’s that we couldn’t eat any dinner? Good times." Or "You’re still nursing that child? She’s going to need therapy when she grows up!" and you answer "Ha! That’s a funny one, Mr. Johnson. Could you pour me another glass of wine, please? I’m drinking the red."

If all else fails, just keep repeating to yourself one of the following mantras:

"I will not become my mother."

"Mizu no kokoro. Make my mind like water, and let it all flow through me without touching me."

"These people are not my real family."

"Only 185 more minutes until we can go home."

"Eff you, you effing effers."

Happy Holidays.

Holiday Gauntlet 3: Gift issues

Too many gifts and inappropriate gifts are problems too many of us have to deal with. Yes, it does sound a little ungrateful to complain about people giving our kids too many presents or saying that the presents are somehow not right for our kids, but when people force things on you that don’t align with your values it causes a bunch of stress.

There are about a billion approaches you can take to dealing with gifts you don’t want (for your kids and for yourself), but I think the issues you need to take into consideration are:

1. Will the giver know what happened to the gift after they gave it to you?
2. Is it important to you (for whatever reason) that the giver understand your position on gifts and abide by it, or do you just want to avoid the gifts?
3. What kind of relationship are you trying to create with the giver?

If you can clarify these issues, you’ll know how to proceed. For example, a friend of mine who lives across the country from her MIL, who visits only very rarely (so she won’t know what happens to the gifts), but with whom she has a very cordial relationship (that she’d like to keep happy), routinely takes absolutely everything her MIL sends them as gifts straight to the Salvation Army. To my friend, it’s absolutely not important to clarify her position on the gifts her MIL gives. Her MIL buys things because she likes them, and enjoys giving them, but doesn’t care what happens to them afterward. My friend gives them away and doesn’t have to keep them in her house. Everyone wins.

But not everyone is so lucky. Some people have givers who insist upon seeing their inappropriate gifts in use. Some of us find it important to delineate our boundaries about gifts that we feel are and aren’t appropriate (no licensed characters, no toy guns, no plastic toys, no organic items, etc.) so we engage bewildered grandparents and aunts and uncles in discussions and hope they remember from year to year that we’d rather have gift certificates to independent booksellers instead of W*lmart. Some of us really just don’t want anything more to deal with in our already over-stimulating living spaces, but relatives think giving more and more presents shows love.

So it’s really important to figure out exactly what you can achieve in terms of getting the kinds of gifts you want (or very few gifts) while also maintaining the best relationship you can with each giver. From there, proceed to either a discussion or some way to avoid the problem. One thing many families do is either decide to buy each other experiences (like trips to museums, or special grandma-grandson dinners, or a 3-day trip for everyone in the family to go on together) so they can avoid the stuff problem but keep the closeness, or draw names so each person only buys for one other person. If you can’t agree on a blanket solution for your family like that, however, you might have to deal with each giver on a case-by-case basis.

A personal anecdote: My uncle, for whom my younger son is named, emailed me to ask what the boys wanted for Christmas. I answered that they didn’t want anything, but if he wanted to give something they’d be happy with money for their college funds. (I’m sure this is horribly gauche, but he’s my only uncle on that side and we’re close in an I’ll-tease-you-until-you-bleed kind of way.) He countered by saying that boys need presents, so he was getting them each a puppy. I raised him to two puppies apiece, and he countered by agreeing on a few Thomas engines for both to share. I don’t really want more Thomas engines, and he’d rather give them an indoor trampoline featuring an airhorn, but it was a win-win because we both stayed in character about it and respected each other’s respective needs.

One last note: A blogger I admire told me her surefire idea, which is that she has a special big Rubbermaid storage container especially for things that she’s going to regift. She puts a Post-It on each gift with the name of the person who gave it to her, so she never gives back anything to the person who gave it to her. Just brilliant.

Holiday Gauntlet 2: Christmas tree management

A Christmas tree and a toddler can be a bad combination. There are a bunch of different solutions that have been used successfully.

We’ve had good success by getting a teeny little tree and putting it up on a table. The toddler couldn’t reach it, but we could. Not much room for stacking gifts, but then you have a built-in reminder to stay prudent with gift-purchasing.

You could also put the tree inside a playpen, if you have one, or block it off with gates or a playard.

Other people have strung wires from walls or ceilings to anchor the tree and prevent it from toppling, or to suspend the tree upside-down. (I have to confess that I don’t really get the point of this.) This seems to work really well to keep the tree upright, but you still have the problem of kids pulling off ornaments, lights, and branches.

What do you do? And at what age did the tree cease to be a negative temptation for your child? In our house, 21 months seems to be the cut-off between total tree destruction and pointing wide-eyed.

Holiday Gauntlet 1: Santa

It’s amazing, isn’t it, that one imaginary guy can cause so many problems for so many parents? Let’s start at the beginning.

Is it ethical to promote a belief in Santa Claus?

You got me. On the one hand, it’s a magical story to make Christmas morning more special, and possibly increase your bag of disciplinary tricks. On the other hand, it’s creepy to tell your kids there’s a strange bearded man spying on them day and night, just waiting for them to screw up so he can sneak into the house while you’re all asleep like a criminal and leave them lumps of coal. Which way do you go?

You know, if you liked the Santa thing as a kid, you’re probably going to want to do it with your kids. If you didn’t, you might not. It also seems that the more religious people are, the less interested in Santa they are, but I don’t have a huge sample size for that assertion. (If you want to leave any data points in the comments, go ahead.)

So how do you deal with Santa if you don’t "do" Santa?

I think a lot of it depends on your reason for not doing Santa. If you’re not Christian (either religiously Christian or culturally Christian), you can just tell your kids it’s a Christmas thing and therefore not part of your tradition. Do you tell them it’s something Christian kids believe in but that isn’t real? It’s your call. You could also say that he comes to the houses of kids who celebrate Christmas, if you wanted to, but then you’ll probably have to come up with some consolation prize for your own kids (hence the rise of Hanukkah as a gift-giving extravaganza out of proportion to the actual importance of the holiday). So it’s probably best to say that he’s something people who celebrate Christmas believe in, and leave it at that.

For religious Christians who don’t do Santa, it’s probably because they want the focus of the holiday to stay on the birth of Jesus, not the commercial aspects of the hoilday and near Santa-worship that American culture promotes. It’s completely appropriate to tell your kids that Santa is an idea that people like to think of, or a game that people play at Christmastime (calling it a game neatly sidesteps the issue of whether Santa is a lie or not). That segues nicely into multiple Santas being part of the game. You can also get your kids to keep quiet about Santa for other kids by emphasizing the game aspect of it. Gift-giving is easily managed by having the gifts come from the parents to the children, or doing other traditions like St. Nicholas (December 6), or having the gifts come later, from the Three Wise Men/Los Tres Reyes Magos (because they brought gifts to Jesus) on January 6.

When and how should you tell your children there’s no Santa?

I don’t have direct experience with this with my own kids, but my guess is that eventually, your kids will figure it out on their own. The Santa Myth isn’t like the facts about sex, so it’s not really going to hurt them if they find out about it from someone other than you. I think I’d just stay alert to how your kids talk about Santa, and when they start putting feelers out about him.

Also, ask yourself why you feel the need to perpetuate the game past the point at which they’ve figured it out. If you want to keep up the fun, it’s just as much fun for you and your kids to be playing the game of Santa Claus as it is for them to actually believe in it because you’re desperately trying not to get caught. If you want them to believe for other people, don’t underestimate your kids’ intelligence. My grandparents thought my brother and I believed in Santa Claus until we were 12, because we kept pretending to. We knew where our presents were coming from, but we also knew we’d get more if my grandparents could pretend they were from Santa. Your kids will certainly understand this game and play it easily, too.

What do I say when we pass two different Santas in the mall?

"Santa can’t be everywhere, so he has different guys dressing up like him to talk to all the kids. Then they tell the real Santa what he said later on."

or

"At Christmastime, everyone likes to see a bunch of Santas, so it’s guys dressed up like Santa to make everyone feel happy."

Anyone else with any Santa-related comments?

I’m Stuck

Hi everyone. I’m a little stuck right now. I think the reason is that I’m just so distraught about James Kim. I can’t seem to stop crying about him, and for his wife and little girls. Dutch’s beautiful elegy for him is here.

I’m also trying to organize my thoughts. I’ve been getting a bunch of questions about the upcoming holidays, and think maybe I should just do a massive, 2-day blitz of holiday-related questions. Here’s what I’ve got so far (add more in the comments if you want to talk about them):

  • The Santa problem (Do you do Santa or not? Religious Christians and Santa, Jewish people and Santa? How to tell your kids there’s no Santa. What to tell kids about all the Santas on the street.)
  • Gift overload/inappropriate gifts.
  • Dealing with stress and inappropriate expectations of your kids during holiday celebrations.
  • Dealing with Christmas trees and toddlers.
  • What happened to the kid who licked the pole in The Christmas Story.

As you can see, the list is skewed toward Christmas-related questions, but I’m happy to take other holiday (Solstice, Hanukkah, Eid, Kwanzaa, Festivus, etc.) questions to make it a true Holiday post. If I don’t know the answers, I’ll just throw it out here to the crowd.

Also, if you’ve covered any of those topics on your own blog, send or comment the post to me and I’ll put it up with the big mega-holiday blow-out next week.

Q&A: non mass-produced gifts for kids

Angie writes:

"With the holidays coming up, and my son’s birthday in February, I’m wondering if you have any resources for non mass-produced gifts for kids. I’m getting tired of all the plastic and marketing, and am wishing I could spend my money in a way that would help other people who make cool things."

I started on this question, but then last night realized that Dutch at Sweet Juniper wrote the answer about 6,000 times better than I could have, including links to other lists. It’s stunningly comprehensive. So please go over to read his "2006 Holiday Shopping Guide for the Indie Sonofabitch Parent," and then come back here tomorrow. (You should go back to Sweet Juniper tomorrow, too. Dutch and Wood write a very thoughtful, funny parenting blog together.)

Q&A: separation anxiety and screaming

Steve writes:

"Our little angel,
Sophie, is about to turn 11 months and she can never be left alone in her park
or in another room without starting to scream until my wife or I go to be with
her or to pick her up. I spend the week at the office, so I can get a break, but
my wife is going crazy. Whenever I call her home to see how things are going,
all I can hear is my daughter screaming in the back… I read that it’s what’s
called "separation anxiety" and that we should stop running to pick her up when
she screams… What do you suggest?"

I suggest earplugs.

Seriously, though, this is just the most annoying thing, isn’t it? It makes you want to jump out of your skin and run far away to a land where everyone is mute.

I think it’s counterproductive to ignore her when she screams. Separation anxiety is a normal thing for kids, and is part of the process of figuring out that they are not you and you are not them. The start to separate, then they need to pull back in to make sure you’re not gone once she starts to walk away. So ignoring her is actually going to make this stage last longer.

The best thing would be to strap her to whoever is home in a sling or Ergo or other carrier. She can’t get too freaked out if she’s right there with you, and she might even get bored enough to want to go off on her own. If you can’t stand that, though, and there’s no shame in admitting it, see if you can just bring her from room to room with you. Set up the highchair in whatever room you’re in, and let her play with stuff while you’re working. One fun project for older babies is to take off their shirts and let them color all over themselves and the highchair tray with washable markers. It’s a little messy, but it keeps them entertained because it’s usually forbidden, and it washes right off.

If any neighbors have a preschooler, you might also try to borrow him or her for an hour. Babies love big kids (3-4-year-olds), and just like to watch them play. Babies will accept the presence of a kid, even when they’d be freaked out by another adult. Your neighbor will certainly appreciate it, and it might buy you some quiet time.

I’m sure some of the readers will have other suggestions for activities to keep her close enough to you not to freak out, but not right on top of you smothering you with her desire to jump into your skin. In the meantime, keep your chin up. It only lasts a few weeks, and then she’ll be off and away from you. If you can stay sane until then you’ll be home-free.

Q&A: preventing illness in the winter and homemade gifts

Shannon has a two-parter:

"1. How do you protect your children from
"germs"  during these winter months? I have a 2 yr old and a 3 month old –
the little guy is fairly protected in his car seat when we are out and about,
but the toddler is into everything. Should I be spraying Lysol everywhere we
go?

2. We would like to give some home-baked goods for
Christmas gifts, and therefore need a simple and surefire recipe I can throw
together while watching 2 little ones. Any suggestions?"

I think that exposure to a certain number of germs is healthy, assuming your kids have no immune issues and aren’t preemies in the RSV zone. The best defense against getting sick all the time is to feed them lots of fruits and vegetables and be anal about washing hands every time you come in the house, before eating, and any other time you think of it.

Do NOT use antibacterial soap, as it’s counterproductive (causes super-germs that can’t be killed) and not good for kids. instead, just use regular soap (liquid or bar) and wash for the length of time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" all the way through. Purell is fabulous for use outside the house, as the alcohol will kill germs without all the negative effects of the antibacterial agents in those hand soaps.

If you’re washing hands a lot, eating well, drinking lots of water, and getting enough sleep, the kids should be able to fight off the normal germs and there’s no need to disinfect everything they touch. Once your kids are in daycare or preschool, though, all bets are off. They will get sick. And they’ll bring it home to the baby. There’s not much you can do about it, so use the same precautions to help them try to stay as healthy as possible.

For your second question, how about a fudge wreath? Pretty simple, but almost everyone likes fudge. (Although I’d beg you not to put raisins in fudge. Please. For the children. Also, be very careful with nuts in gifts.)

Does anyone else have any easy food gifts to make that Shannon can do with two teeny kids "helping?"