Beloved relatives you rarely see. Long hours of travel spent for short social stints. Harried cooking and last-minute prepping. Starched shirts and three-inch heels. Expectations for this day to be special, to result ipicture-perfectct memories, to taste delicious.
All of these factors put heat on parents – pressure to perform for others and make Hallmark moments for their families. What will Uncle Roger think of my family? What will Grandma Irene think of my parenting?It’s so easy to transfer this pressure to our children – it lurks in the well-meaning messages we send them, as we nudge them closer to the long-lost relatives, smile a tad too brightly at them across the table, ask what they are thankful for with strained, expectant voices. Behave this way, look like this, perform for me, for them.
This recipe of parent stress and kid stress and broken routines is one that spells burnt sweet potatoes. Our expectations and hopes for what this day should be block us from seeing what the day is. Think back to how it was when you were younger and were pressed into old Aunt Marta’s loose-skinned cheek, her lipstick smudged across her upper lip rubbing off onto yours. Remember how she smelled? Remember how you felt? What would your feelings have said at that moment – listen to me, pay attention to my needs, ask me what I want.
Actions such as these – the ones parents exert when we are focused on our own fears, particularly those born of our perceptions of others’ expectations, stifle us and our children. They put kids on the defensive against their parents’ expectations, which makes their behavior harder to handle and deprives them of the sense of being heard. Worse yet, children consistently parented in this manner do not learn to check in with themselves, to wonder how they feel about Aunt Marta’s kisses. Tuning into these feelings and allowing them to guide our behavior is one of the best predictors of long-term psychological health, something we should all strive to cultivate in our children and ourselves.
This holiday, try not having expectations for yourself or your kids. Allow them the freedom to make choices about their own behavior, even if it means not giving Uncle Gene a cheery hello and hug. Remember that people about whom you have fond memories are strangers to your children, and that pushing them toward these people means asking your kids to ignore their feelings. Try letting the holiday happen the way it happens. These are the holidays your children will want to remember. And if you’re lucky, maybe you will, too.
Written by Regina Pally