I'm home with my children every day, so you would think that I have the days around Christmas all figured out. But no, everyone is a little wonky here, too. It's the excitement combined with a distracted parent trying to get through a to-do list so the overly excited people can have something to be overly excited about. That said, though, I know I'm heading into the winter vacation with a distinct advantage because the difference between our normal and our vacation is not terribly great. (That either says something about our school schedule or our vacation schedule, I'll let you decide what.) Since I've had a little practice with this, I thought I'd share some tips for enjoying, instead of just merely surviving the holiday break. (And lest you think I have it all together, this is also a reminder for me as well.)
1. Remember to adjust your expectations. A child used to one schedule is going to take some time to get used to a new schedule. Actually, it's not just the child, but the adult as well. I have learned that I actually transition quite slowly between activities or schedules, and I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not the only one. We adults, though, just like to think we can handle hurdling from one activity to another and don't realize the emotional toll it takes on use... well, until we find ourselves short-tempered and easily irritated. It's a sure sign we are trying to squeeze in too much. The first few days of break, everyone needs some extra measure of grace as people jostle and negotiate their place in a family at home, and figure out what this new schedule is going to look like.
2. Work out a loose schedule for your days. Everyone does better if they know what to expect. It doesn't always have to be the same schedule each day, as long as people know what it coming. Our break schedule looks something like this: slower mornings, with people taking longer over breakfast and in pajamas. (Currently, I have at least one child eating a late breakfast, while two people are playing chess, another is building with Lego, and those in their prime sleep years are still asleep.) Midmorning, it helps to have a planned event. Play a game together, do some housework, run some errands, etc. Lunch. Then comes quiet time. Always quiet time. Everyone needs some time alone to do quiet things, and the parent needs the break. Even if this is only for two weeks, encourage quiet time! Quiet time = parental sanity. Trust me on the this. Mid-afternoon is another planned activity. In our house, around dinner time, we allow some Wii playing and some TV show watching. Then dinner, stories, and bed. I would suggest even planning out what each day's events are going to be and put them on a calendar for everyone to see. Yes, it's a little bit of up front work for the parent, but it will pay off in the long run. Everyone knows there is a plan, even the parent. It is easier to say, you are doing this right now, and then at xx we will be doing this fun thing together. I would also plan in specific times of the day when you put on music you can dance to and everyone does a quick clean-up sweep through the house. Trust me, a house lived in all day becomes messy very easily. A messy house means a testy parent. It doesn't have to be spotless, but returning all the toys to the proper places a couple times a day makes a huge difference.
3. Get outside. When you don't have a real schedule or anything you really need to do, it is easy to just stay inside. Get people outside. Get yourself outside. Being outside is good. It uses up energy and actually energizes grumpy, tired people all at the same time. Yes, even if it is cold. Bundle up well, it doesn't have to be for hours.
4. Make times to see friends. This is important for children, but even more important for adults. Adults need to talk to other adults. Make play dates with other families so you, the parent, can visit too.
5. Embrace the messy activity. Really. Every couple of days, get out something that engages your children, even if it makes a mess. I find that the extended time of child engagement more than makes up for the time it takes me to get it ready and then clean-up. The bonus is that many of these messier activities are filled with sensory experiences which adds to their child appeal and are also behaviorally regulating because of all the sensory input the child is receiving while playing. Everyone having a grumpy day? Make salt dough... hand them scissors, glue, old magazines, and paper... fill up bins with water and hand out scooping and filling containers... indoor sandbox... huge bowl in rice with small plastic animals to play in and bury. You get the idea.
6. It takes practice. Children out of the habit of entertaining themselves (or those who never had the chance to learn) need to remember how. This is especially true if their regular schedule is highly structured. When children whine, "I'm bored. There's nothing to do," what they are usually really saying is I don't know how to fill my time. You may need to get out a toy or activity and start them playing, by playing with them. You may need to be the one to think up the game. You may need to be the one to show them how to fill their time. I have found a far, far better way to engage a child and get them to want to do something is just to do it myself, without initially inviting them to join me. If I think my children would enjoy playing store, I may have to be the one to get the toys out, or start decorating the cardboard box for my store, or start making advertisements or money to use. If I do this, if my children see me start decorating a box so that it looks like a store counter, without me saying a word, they will want to know what I'm doing. I don't always answer right away, but ask them to watch and try to figure it out. Usually someone will guess, and then almost always have some ideas to add. After a little bit longer, I may make some suggestions about what else to use, and then I can hand it all to them, and go about my own business. It takes practice to figure out what to do when bored, and sometimes the parent needs to help a child over that hurdle.
7. Sometimes you just have to cry, "Uncle!" And then there are just some days when even the best bag of tricks is empty. People may be sick, or just so not themselves that they can't settle. Or you, the parent, may be sick. There are any number of reasons why family life can sometimes not look so pretty. That is why God created DVD players (or whatever the modern equivalent is.) Use it. Put on a movie. Pop some popcorn. Make it your plan instead of feeling as though you have abdicated. Rest or do the rotten thing you need to do while they are occupied. Give yourself grace that no family runs perfectly all the time, and that after a good night's sleep, life will look better.
8. Enjoy them. I have grown children. Usually (note that I say usually, I don't always manage this, either) this means that I can remember exactly how quickly they grow up. I know it sounds like a cliche, especially if you only have little ones and they are stomping on your every last nerve, but it is true. Think for a moment about not having these little people whom you love in your life anymore. Be grateful you have these moments with them. Adult children are wonderful, too, but they are not little children. You will miss these days... yes, even the awful ones... and don't regret not appreciating what is right in front of you. Like a child who needs to practice self-entertainment, we adults often need to practice appreciating the moment. When your head feels as though it is going to explode if one more child screams one more time, stop. Stop right there, take a breath, think about not having that child, and be grateful that child is there to scream. And then, once you are regulated again, figure out what that scream really means and address that. I'll give you a hint, usually it is hunger, fatigue, or fear, it's just a matter of figuring out which one.
Hang in there. You can do this. You do not need to have perfect children and you do not need to be the perfect parent to spend perfectly wonderful time together.