Using the Seven Skills to Help Make this the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Julie A. Riess, Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor on Child Development and Education at Families and Work Institute. She is a developmental psychologist and the director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College.

Portions of this article were originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal by Gannett Publications on December 11, 2011.

Oh, yes… it is definitely “that time of year” again! It takes a lot of skill to navigate the holidays in our contemporary culture. There are two overall benefits to thinking about the seven essential skills during the holiday season.   First, each skill can help us manage our personal and/or professional lives, especially during times of stress.  Second, demands of the holiday season are the perfect time to practice each skill, which in turn strengthens each for further growth.  It is positive example of “what goes around, comes around”.

Two of my favorite skills for illustrating this “goes around, comes around” principle during the holidays are Focus and Self Control and Perspective-Taking.

Skill #1: Focus and Self Control.   There are few times with more sustained demands on children’s focus and self control than the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years Day.  All of the typical aspects of our complex schedules and multi-tasking lives become magnified ten fold.  Everything is “more” during the holiday season.  More intense. More emotional. More stimulating.  More exhausting. More unpredictable.

It isn’t surprising that children find it more difficult to pay attention when the world is swirling around them, like the blur a spinning top creates as it picks up speed.  Distractions can also make remembering the usual rules challenging, especially when there are changes to routines or environments.   Perhaps most salient is children’s decreased ability to inhibit a behavior when they have another goal in mind (i.e. imagine tantrums in the mall over a toy they must have right now).

While it is unreasonable to expect young children to act blasé or as if there was nothing new happening, you can help them practice skills of focus and self-control to manage their days.

  • Turn it down several notches, literally.  Turn off the TV, use headphones when on the computer, and spread out your holiday schedule.  Plan that special holiday baking separate from decorating the house.   Reduce toting kids around on errands, as the colors, lights and sounds can be overwhelming.  Offer simple, healthy meals.
  • Call children’s attention to changes in routines and develop cues that make sense.  For example, explain the change by making reference to the routine.  “I know on Fridays we usually have pizza for dinner.  Tonight we are going to a party and we will have dinner there.” Use a picture calendar for events and post it low where everyone in the family can see it.
  • Practice pro-active inhibition skills.  Teach “stop and take a deep breath.”  Link a hand-sign to your requests, so you don’t have to raise your voice in a noisy place.  Helpful signs include “toilet”, “stop”, “wait”, “hungry”, “thirsty”, “listen”, “home”. Always discuss the goals and limits of a shopping trip before you leave home.  Why are you going shopping?  What will you purchase? What (if anything) may the child pick out on the errand?
  • Model these skills in adult interactions.  Give words and voice to the feelings of being overscheduled or frazzled.  Tell stories at the dinner table about how you handled something exciting or unexpected in your day. Breathe.

Skill #2: Perspective-Taking.  This is probably the most poignant and (often) pleasant skill that is in constant demand during the holidays.   Do you believe in Santa Claus?  Do you celebrate Hanukah? Christmas? Kwanza? Winter Solstice?  Why do you celebrate something?  Why does a friend or neighbor celebrate differently than you?

The diversity of traditions, within and among celebrations, provide many teachable moments.  Because December holidays are so embedded in our current society, they engage children and adults in social, emotional and intellectual learning.   Whether it be traditional dances or dress, holiday foods or stories, the goal is to point out things that are different and the same about your family’s culture of celebration.   For example, “light” is an important part of many December holidays, yet “light” provides similar and different meanings in different traditions.   The Nutcracker is a great example of cultural expressions of dance, music and food.

In fact, many holiday stories have perspective taking at their focal point.   How does the Grinch’s perspective change during the story?  How does Frosty feel? Do Charlie Brown and Linus feel the same? Read different versions of the same story, and discuss their common themes and uniqueness.  Ask children how a less familiar character in the story might tell the story differently. For older children, comparing the originals and remakes of classic movies can promote conversations about history or why directors made different choices.

And the ultimate perspective taking + math + science problem?  How does Santa deliver all those presents in one night…