Hosting Thanksgiving? How To Help Young Children Feel Included

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If you do a quick search for “thanksgiving” and “young children,” you’ll notice a few things right away. One, printable coloring pages claim to solve all your problems. Two, decorations for the kids’ table have never been cuter (or more insanely complicated – thanks, Pinterest!). And three, the focus of nearly every single advice piece seems to be on keeping kids busy and entertained while grown-ups do their thing.

Here’s a little slice of my reality. Coloring pages lost their appeal long ago. The number of minutes my kids would spend coloring a happy pilgrim would be about equal to the number of minutes it took to find and print the pilgrim, so that buys me zero time cooking or socializing. As for table decorations, anything within reach of my toddler won’t last a hot second, so there’s another place where the cost/benefit ratio is not in my favor.

But maybe most importantly, I’m not sure “keeping kids entertained” while I host Thanksgiving is my end-goal anyway. I’d rather look for ways to include them in the events of the day – and if I can’t directly include them, I’d like to create ways for them to feel a part of the celebration.

Hosting Thanksgiving is a big undertaking (as we’ve talked about over the last several posts), and if you’re the mom in charge and you have small children, something’s got to give. Often it’s our patience with the littlest ones that goes first, followed by their willingness to cooperate at all, and the cycle can spiral downward fast. When a child feels stressed, marginalized, or out of sorts, his behavior reflects it, and all the printables in the world aren’t going to keep a kid like that out of your hair. 

Here are some things to keep in mind as you juggle hosting and mothering little ones at the same time (and take heart – you can do it!): 

Fill Their Cups

If you know that the demands of the day are going to pull you away from your kids, start “filling their cups” well in advance. Make sure to build in little bits of time together this week, whether it’s a walk after dinner, a longer story at bedtime, or some time doing something they love like LEGOs or drawing.

Even better, try being the one to ask for the special time so that they don’t have to. Remember that on Thursday you may have to say “no” to the question “Mom, can you read me a story?”, and that’s OK. But if you’ve made an effort to say “Hey, can I sit and color with you for a few minutes?” in the last day or two, you’re starting out at a different place.

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Set Their Expectations

Having a bunch of people come into their home can be fun, exciting, and really disruptive – depending on the kid and the visitors. My oldest loves when we host gatherings, but she doesn’t understand yet that guests aren’t new playmates who will willingly perform in a talent show she just decided to put on. My middle child is an introvert and likes low-key activities like books and LEGO, so having mom and dad pulled away to be social and a bunch of people asking him how he likes preschool is pretty much his personal nightmare. And the littlest is still very clingy to me, making it hard to just “pass her off to grandma” so I can tend to the party.

There’s no getting around the fact that each of these kids will find themselves out of their element on Thanksgiving – and that’s okay, too. Kids are resilient and learning how to behave at family gatherings is an important skill set. But to ease the blow, I try to be really clear about what they can expect, and what we expect from them. With my older two, I’ll let them know pretty specifically what kinds of activities are okay during our gathering (a game of cards? yes! finger painting? probably not.), and I’ll remind them that Bryan and I won’t be available to them in the way we usually are, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to spend time with them. Sometimes just knowing what to expect makes everything easier.

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Use Screens Wisely

You know what would keep my four-year-old entertained and his whining muted all day long? The iPad. It would also be a huge mistake to let him gorge on Angry Birds so I can get dinner on the table. Too much screen time makes him irritable and anxious, and the longer he plays, the more screaming when it’s time to power down (and the less willing he is to engage with others).

You know your kids. You know your kids on screens. Putting on a movie during adult cocktail hour may be a perfect time for kids to chill out and adults to chat, but trying to pull a two-year-old away from Elmo because it’s time for turkey may cause more drama than the break was worth. This year I’m planning to save screen time for after dinner so they can look forward to a movie while the grownups linger around the table (and won’t be totally zoned out when it’s time to come to dinner).

Get Outside

Inside the house, Thanksgiving often looks predictably divided: some adults cook, other adults relax or socialize, and kids play. If your kids are too young to play as a group or on their own, they’re left trying to fit in with one of the adult activities – and you’re left with a toddler on your hip and a preschooler tugging at your skirt.

If you have the opportunity to move the party outdoors, everything changes. A walk around the block, a family game of catch in the yard, sledding or bike riding or leaf-pile-jumping – every last one of them will let kids burn off physical energy and help adults and kids connect beyond football and turkey. If your weather is truly too cold for anything outdoors, taking the kids on a short drive or with you on one of those last-minute store runs can give you a moment to reconnect and provide a little diversion for them.

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Pick Your Battles

Maybe it’s really important to you that your girls wear the matching monogrammed dresses you splurged on this year. Or maybe posing for a family photo is part of the agenda and you want all your kids in the picture. Maybe sitting at the table from the start of the meal to the end is expected in your family. Whatever your priorities, embrace them – and help your kids succeed by setting their expectations ahead of time.

As for everything else? It might be a good time to just let it go. I’ve noticed that the less control my kids have over what’s going on around them, the more resistance I get in the form of whining and meltdowns. Unless it’s a non-negotiable, try letting your preschooler make the place cards with his chicken-scratch printing, or surrender to the outfit choice of your five-year-old (even if it means Elsa is coming to dinner). You’ll probably get rewarded with a more relaxed, happy kiddo if you do.

If you’re a mama of little ones and you’re hosting this year, what will you do to keep the peace and pull off dinner at the same time? I’d love to hear suggestions from others who have been-there, done-that, too. 

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