It doesn’t matter whether it’s a weekday, weekend or holiday—my son, Adam, rarely sleeps past 6:30 in the morning, 7 if we’re lucky. (And no, it doesn’t matter what time he goes to bed at night.) While I mourn my lost decade of beauty sleep, there’s a definite bonus to his internal clock: I’ve never needed to haul him out of bed on the first day back to school after winter break.
For many parents, however, Christmas vacation wreaks havoc on their kids—not only does it mess with sleep schedules, but it can also do a number on their eating habits, the amount of physical activity they get, and cause other issues with schedules and routines. Kids may think staying up all night, living on junk food and spending endless hours glued to the TV or playing video games is the perfect way to spend a couple weeks off school, but the harsh reality is that without some parent-imposed limitations, it can be a disaster getting them back on track in January. In fact, says Doone Estey, a parenting expert with Toronto-based Parenting Network and co-author of Raising Great Parents, “you want to keep to your schedule as much as you can, while avoiding the power struggles that can really make the holidays no fun.”
Sound impossible? Here are a few tips to help rein in your family throughout the festive season, without being a Grinch.
Get out the calendar and mark down when you’ll be with extended family and friends, and when you’ll have free time. Then slot in appointments, playdates and outdoor activities like skating and tobogganing to fill some of the holes. “Camps, social time, getting outside, going to the doctor, dentist or for a haircut—anything parents can do to keep their kids from staying on their screens all day is important,” says Estey. That said, you should throw in some of those anything-goes-let’s-stay-in-our-PJs days, too. “By building them into your schedule, they make you appreciate lazy days. But if every day is a lazy day, it just gets boring.”
A week or two before the holidays, gather your crew to chat about what will happen over the break, suggests Estey. It’s a strategy that has worked well over the years for Ann Wong and her son Randy, now 12. “I sit down and tell him, ‘you have two weeks off. Here are the busy days when you may be staying up late, and the next morning I’ll let you sleep in an extra hour or so before waking you up,’” says Wong. “If we have family movie night, you’ll get extra screen time. And even though it’s the holidays and more relaxed, you still need to make your bed and stuff: ‘must dos’ before ‘want dos.’”
Since Randy was little, Wong has reinforced simple rules. For example, if he asks for extra screen time because he’s bored, the rule is, “either find something to do, or I’ll give you something to do.” Before long, he’ll pick up a book or start building with Lego. Another simple rule: “Before you can have a treat, eat something healthy.” Even at parties, Randy would show her the carrot or celery stick he ate before taking a cookie or piece of candy. Estey had a similar strategy she’d use with her kids: She’d try to fill them full of veggies before leaving for get-togethers and parties so they “wouldn’t arrive starving and gorge on junk.”
If your kids overindulge on Christmas cookies, screen time or sleeping in, avoid saying four little words you’re probably desperate to throw at them: “I told you so.” Instead, empathize when they get that resulting belly ache, can’t sleep at night or feel off because they didn’t get enough physical activity. “You can say, ‘Wow, you must have really overdone it. I’m so sorry,’” says Estey. With this non-judgemental approach, you’re more likely to create a learning opportunity so they won’t repeat mistakes. That’s what happened with Randy, who now realizes that too much screen time gives him a head- ache, and too many sweets make him feel terrible. “Now he’ll say, ‘Ugh, I’m over-sugared. I can’t have any more,’” says Won.
Originally published in the Winter 2018 issue.