Care and Feeding

The Times They Are A-Changin’

My family insists on the same, tired holiday traditions. How can I get them to embrace something new?

Photo illustration of a woman wearing a Christmas sweater and looking very, very unhappy.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by grinvalds/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My childhood Christmases were a blast. We’d visit one set of grandparents on Christmas Eve, the other on Christmas Day. Each year it would be the same people; it was a warm and child-friendly tradition that we looked forward to all year long, even into our teens.

The problem is that, 40 years later, we’re still doing the same thing. And instead of evolving for the next generation of children, now it’s all for the adults. It’s turned into a late-running affair attended by distant great-aunts and random cousin boyfriends. It’s less about the magic of being together and more about who is controlling the holiday soundtrack, and who is unhappy with their present exchange. Everything that made it so enchanting as kids—the predictability, the intimacy, the kid focus—has eroded.

This makes Christmas a real chore for my family: We’re the only ones with kids, and our attendance is considered a highlight. I’ve tried talking to my parents and explaining that it’s time for us to create a new set of traditions (as their parents did for them) and that this can still involve our extended relatives. No dice. I’ve tried asking for changes that would make it easier for us to participate—different locations, starting earlier, limiting presents to kids. No interest. I don’t begrudge my relatives a chance to have an adult-oriented Christmas. But I have two kids, and the magical Christmas years are fleeting. I think my kids deserve their own set of holiday traditions. Am I a jerk for taking a day to do our own thing?

—Don’t Want to Be a Grinch

Dear Grinch,

I know the holidays are supposed to be fun for all, but I share your sense that it’s really a time of year devoted to childhood. And as you say, childhood is fleeting.

I don’t think you’re a jerk; indeed, I think you’ve been quite accommodating by proposing ways to reimagine the celebrations. But it seems clear to me that your extended family wants to get together, eat and drink, and have a gift swap as always. For you, though, this tradition has ossified into obligation.

Between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I think you can find time to both forge new traditions and honor the old. Maybe tell your parents that this year you’ll have a really kid-friendly Christmas Eve and morning. You’ll bake, watch Home Alone, don ridiculous PJs, get up too early, rip open presents, laze around the house, or go to church, or whatever feels right for you. Then at some point in the late afternoon, you can put the kids into their party best and go see what the rest of your family is up to.

It’s possible your earlier attempts to do this were simply perceived as a bluff, so it’s worth your while to extend the invitation once more. Make it clear that you’d love everyone to join you at your place, but the focus will be on what the kids will most enjoy. You might feel guilty at missing out on the usual festivities, but you’re allowed to have this special commitment to your nuclear family.

When your kids are teens, maybe you can rejoin the adult celebrations, or maybe you’ll find a whole different way to celebrate the season. Enjoy!

Enjoy Slate’s Holiday Advice From the Experts series from our beloved advice columnists. Keep your sanity intact this holiday season with Jamilah Lemieux’s self-care tips. Nicole Cliffe presents classic gifts for children of all ages. Teacher Carrie Bauer recommends educational gifts your kids will actually enjoy.

Dear Care and Feeding,

During our last visit home, my sister-in-law was talking about guns within a circle of family. I was sitting next to her with my 18-month-old daughter. I was alarmed to hear my sister-in-law talk about how “cute” her pink handgun is and how it doesn’t have a safety. She asked my father-in-law if he wanted to see it and began to take her unsecured gun out of her bag to show it off. The bag had been casually hung on the back of her chair, at the perfect level for any kid to get to, and there were many children present.

I got up quickly and walked away, rather having a confrontation with my sister-in-law. I’m not happy with myself for not speaking up, but I also feel disappointed that no one else—her mother, father, mother-in-law, brother, and grown daughter were all present—told her she should not take her gun out, or that it shouldn’t be at a family gathering in the first place.

We’re going to see these relatives at Christmas. I want to ensure that guns are secured while we are there, and my husband agrees, but this is being put on me instead of my husband, though it is his older sister. Do I have the right to ask her, as I enter her house, whether the guns are secured while we are there? Should I glaze over the fact that I am angry about her having a gun at our last family function? I feel unsafe and have no idea how to navigate this.

—Safety First

Dear Safety First,

I understand why you’re still upset about what happened. I’m upset just hearing about it. I hate guns, and I think there’s something deeply perverse about a grown woman brandishing a pink gun—because it’s cute—at a party. Your sister-in-law’s behavior sounds, frankly, deranged.

You are absolutely within your rights as a guest in what you know to be a gun-owning household to confirm, before visiting, that those guns are under lock and key. It might not feel comfortable, but you’re not out of line. And though this question might not go over well, but can you live with yourself if you don’t ask? You can keep it straightforward: “Carol, I know you’re a gun owner, and since the kids are going to be running around today I wanted to know: Is your gun on you? Is it stored away? Is it locked up?” A responsible gun owner should not take umbrage at this line of questioning.

It might not be possible to not discuss this past incident; it really depends on how your inquiry is received. I don’t know what you intend to do if your sister-in-law is offended that you’ve asked, or dismisses your concerns, or whips a cute pink pistol out of her bra and waves it over her head. I don’t know whether, given her previous too-lax gun handling, you’ll even be able to trust her if she says they’re all safely in her armory.

I’m disappointed that negotiating this is falling on you; this is your husband’s family, but also, you should be a united front on this. It’s too important. Either way, advocate for yourself/your family/common goddamn sense. If your sister-in-law doesn’t like this or can’t meet your very reasonable request to be a responsible gun owner for the length of one party, what will you do? I know what I would do: I’d leave.

• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife is a wonderful stepmother to my three sons—14 year-old twins and a 10-year-old. We also have a 2-year-old son together. My ex-wife and I have shared custody of the big boys, so three or four days a week my wife is a primary caregiver. She is loving and patient and an excellent stepmother.

My wife is very close to her sisters, both of whom live nearby. One of them, Erin, has two boys, 14 and 11. My boys and Erin’s boys have spent a lot of time together over the years, and to my mind are basically cousins. Sometimes they get along, sometimes they don’t.

At a family function, one of my teenagers was bickering with Erin’s younger son. While they were all off playing together, my son told Erin’s son to “lose some weight.” He’s a husky kid, and both he and his mother are sensitive about it. He became extremely upset and spent the rest of the party pouting. My wife told me what happened, and I apologized to Erin and had my son apologize to her son. She told me it was fine, kids being kids. A few days later, she told my wife that my kids are no longer welcome in her house.

I was shocked and hurt and eventually angry. As my youngest son’s birthday party approaches, I told my wife I did not want Erin invited. I’m having a hard time welcoming her (not her kids) to our home when my kids aren’t welcome in her home. My wife is upset with her sister but wants to keep the peace. I don’t want to cause any problems between my wife and her sister, but I’m at a loss.

—Still Sulking

Dear Still Sulking,

I think you’re allowed to be shocked and hurt by your sister-in-law’s behavior, but not angry. That’s not going to be very useful. Maybe think of it this way: As a gesture to your wife, an exemplary mother, step- or otherwise, can you go the extra mile to repair this rift before it turns to rot?

If you’re not close to Erin, maybe an email is in order; if you have a phone chat relationship, ring her up. “Erin: I’m so sorry to hear you feel my sons aren’t welcome in your home. I understand that Kevin hurt you and your son with his careless words. I hope you can acknowledge that they are just kids, and all kids sometimes say dumb and thoughtless things. He and I have talked it over, and I can’t promise he won’t do something dumb again because he is a kid, but I do believe he understands and regrets his words. It brings me such joy to see our boys all together; I think of them as cousins, and I value that so much. I hope that you will reconsider this, but if you can’t, I hope you will know that you and your sons are always welcome in our home.”

This would be a kind thing to do for your wife, and your sister-in-law, and all the kids, and it’s really very simple. Erin might still feel that your sons aren’t welcome in her house, and that’s her choice. But by making it clear that there are no hard feelings on your end (and that’s key! You have to say these words but also mean them!) she may come to see that perhaps she’s been too stern. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have an 8-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl. Our son is a loner, introverted, and a bit moody. He gets angry quickly, but gets over it quickly. My husband’s response to my son’s moodiness is to belittle him. This usually results in my son storming off, slamming a door, and muttering to himself. A few minutes to a half-hour later he will come back, calm, and everyone pretends nothing happened.

My husband is otherwise great with our son, and they have a good relationship most of the time. However, these interactions bother me. When I bring it up to my husband, he says I’m overreacting.

We have a long-standing deal not to disagree on parenting matters in front of the children but to bring it up later, so that we appear a united front. Sometimes this means one or the other of us has to talk the other into changing behavior or apologizing later, but it mostly works.

But I don’t know what to do—continue to play along? Try to stop him in the moment? If I go after my son when he storms out, does that suggest I don’t agree with my husband? There might be two issues here, and I need help with both, because I do worry a lot about his anger. He’s only 8, in third grade. He plays sports and doesn’t spend an unreasonable amount of time on screens (all of it is regulated and age-appropriate). But how do we diffuse it?

—Wanting to Calm the Storms

Dear Storms,

If your son tends toward introversion, or being a loner, that might just be who he is—whether at this point in his life or forever. You might worry about this predilection (you would no matter his traits; it’s a parent’s job to worry), but perhaps if you think of this as who he is rather than a problem to be solved, it will seem less of an issue.

Anger is a different matter. But it’s hard to weigh whether you’re describing an inappropriate level of anger—because if your husband’s response to the boy’s natural moodiness is to belittle him, isn’t your son right to be angry? You’re his mother, so if you truly believe he’s struggling with anger, as he well might be, what that needs is not provocation (especially from his parents!) but understanding.

Your pediatrician might be able to talk this out with you or refer you to a specialist suited to evaluate this. I’m not sure what a doctor or therapist will say about your son’s anger, which could be a symptom of so very many things, but I am sure what they’ll say to you about your husband’s response to it. Your husband’s teasing is neither productive nor helpful; indeed, I bet it’s making things worse. Even if it’s not this teasing that’s the root of your son’s anger, it’s still an inappropriate response.

You need to talk to him frankly, and not let him dismiss your concerns. Then together you can consult with your son’s doctor to determine what to do next. Good luck.


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