One November night when my oldest son was almost three and his younger brother was about six months old, I was solo parenting through bedtime. I had my baby on his changing table fresh from the bath and my older son was enjoying a post dinnertime snack of a banana in the bedroom with us while we chatted and sang a little. Neither the post dinnertime snack nor the eating in the bedroom was usually allowed, something that did not escape my son’s notice. Cheerfully chomping on his banana he said, “Mama, this is a really cool party!”
This moment early in my parenting years taught me an important lesson about perspective, specifically my child’s perspective. To him, stepping outside the normal routine just a little bit made a big impression and was a cause for delight. As we progressed through the holiday season that year, my husband and I noticed that for us and our little ones, the things that we enjoyed the most were the simplest things.
One night we walked a block up our quiet, snowy street to look at a house that had put up a colorful and busy display of Christmas lights. My toddler marveled at being outside “in the late,” and the sight of his mittened hand in my husband’s and the soft weight of the baby snuggled in his carrier kept me more than warm enough.
Another day we brought inside bowls of freshly fallen snow and played with it while we listened to Christmas music. Our toddler had hot chocolate for the first time while the baby crinkled brightly colored pieces of wrapping paper one morning. We baked sugar cookies with store-bought dough and let our older son go to town with the sprinkles and colored sugar and frosting. That year we started using an advent calendar, taking a felt snowflake out of its fabric pocket and snapping it in place each day.
Of course, we also got totally overzealous and did the “big” things too. The coordinated outfits and 45-minute wait while I held four coats and a squirming infant only for our kids to be terrorized by the sight of the mall Santa. The parties that went way too late, the crafting events that were way past their abilities, and the pilgrimages to holiday-themed venues that were way too expensive for kids who didn’t (yet) enjoy them. It felt like we had to do these things, but the truth is that we just didn’t. Not yet.
The “yet” is the crucial thing to understand here. We are living in a hurried-up time for our kids, a time when the expectations are constantly bigger-better-faster-more at younger and younger ages. A time when it seems like “everyone” on Facebook is checking into Ye Olde Holiday Extravaganza Festival of Lights and Merriment, so that must be something we “have to” do with our kids as well, pronto. But the thing is, Ye Olde Holiday Extravaganza Festival of Lights and Merriment will be there next year and the year after that. There’s time.
There is time for your kids to grow a little, to give up the naps that are always sacrificed for outings when they are younger. Time for your kids to get past that phase where they warm up to an event exactly three minutes before it’s over. Time for them to stop being terrified of fireworks, the dark, loud music. Time for them to become old enough to remember, to understand, to truly participate.
And also? Your enjoyment counts too, parents. Both as its own thing that colors your individual experience and as the lens that your little ones filter their own experience. When you are stressed and disappointed that an event didn’t go as you thought it would, your kids know. Not only do they know, but they also use this information to inform their own experience, meaning that when you are having a bad time, your kids are having a bad time. This all happens in the moment too. I’m sure you have seen it unfold. You get a sense that your toddler is getting antsy, and your stress level goes up. They key into your stress, and the whining and discomfort kick up a notch. You start wondering why you ever thought this was a good idea, and they sense your panic. Then the only way you are getting out of there alive is with a sticky candy cane in each of your toddler’s fists and the promise of some sort of screen time reward at home, while you vow to never try anything like that again.
Know that the opposite is also true: when you are relaxed and happy and accepting of what your child is doing and who they are at that very moment in time, your child absorbs all of that. Your warm and happy feelings radiate through them and stay with them long after the moment has passed.
You know your kids. You know what they like, what they don’t. You know what they can handle at 12pm vs. 7pm. None of that changes when the calendar turns to December 1st. Resist the temptation to do the big things too soon, before they will be enjoyed or remembered. Resist the pressure to do what “everyone” else is doing in favor of finding things that genuinely bring you and your little ones joy. I guarantee that these will be the sweet memories that stick with you all long after the toddler years are over.
If you are looking for some simple seasonal activities to enjoy with your toddler, here are a few suggestions:
- Take an after dark walk to look at holiday lights, or just the moon and stars. Bring a flashlight or use a battery operated tealight in a clear disposable cup for a child safe lantern. Hot chocolate optional.
- Plant paperwhite or amaryllis bulbs in pots indoors, and watch as they rapidly grow and bloom.
- Roll out sugar cookie dough and let your toddler use cookie cutters to shape and then sprinkles to decorate. Bake first and then frost and decorate if you wish!
- Make a winter sensory bin of pinecones, cinnamon sticks, cotton balls to approximate snow, and small seasonal decorations that are safe for your child to handle.
- Make a collection of winter and holiday books that you pick from each day to read.
- Start an advent calendar tradition to count down to Christmas, if you celebrate.
- Pick a night to introduce your child to a classic holiday film, and make it a “sleepunder,” where you set up sleeping bags or blankets on the floor of the living room for the movie, then transfer to bed.
- Pick a date to have breakfast for dinner, then take a drive in PJs to look at holiday lights.
- If it snows where you are, set a bowl outside to collect it, then bring it in to explore with spoons and maybe some watercolors and a paintbrush.
- If you celebrate Christmas, make a felt Christmas tree for your toddler to decorate as they like. The same effect could be achieved with a felt menorah or even snowflakes on a winter scene.
I’d love to hear the ways you have celebrated the season with your little ones!