5 Ways to Create a Happy Thanksgiving

The one area of parenting where I am incredibly consistent is in my unrealistic expectations for how family together time will go, especially when we haven’t been together in a long while. I have this dream of all seven of us gathered in one room, with everyone smiling, laughing, and enjoying each others’ company (just like in the movies as the credits are rolling). Has this scene ever actually happened? Yes, there have been rare occasions when spontaneous family group fun and togetherness have occurred, but never when I’ve tried to force it on everyone.

I have been anticipating this week – Thanksgiving Break – with much joy and excitement. It will be the first time all of our kids will be together, under our roof, since summer. And, if you know how we spend our summers, you’ll understand why I can’t pinpoint when during the past summer we were actually all here together. Suffice it to say it’s been a very long time since everyone was home at once.

My three daughters are coming home from their respective jobs and schools, and my younger two sons are on break from high school. There are so many reasons to be happy about this week – including being together, not having to get up early, not having too much on our schedule, and pumpkin pie, to name a few.

But as I anticipate this week, I am trying to ground myself with some realistic expectations. If I envision a week full to the brim with family togetherness and fun, I’ll surely be disappointed. Believe me, I know, because I’ve been down this holiday-togetherness road before.

And so, in preparation for this Thanksgiving week, I’ve come up with some things I can do so that we as a family are not disappointed by our time together.

Remember What They Need

Coming home, for kids who’ve been living away, is not easy – on them or on the rest of the family. They’ve changed, acquired new habits, gotten used to doing things their own way, forgotten about unloading the dishwasher, etc. I need to remember that and remind them, as needed, about what’s expected while they’re home. For the kids who have been home, they’ve been busy, too: school and sports practices until it’s dark, projects, studying, tests. A lot has been going on this fall.

All the kids have been working and playing hard, and they are tired. Really tired. For them, this week needs to be one with a lot of sleep, rest, and relaxation. They may need some time alone, time to veg out in front of the TV doing nothing, and time to reconnect with friends they haven’t talked to for a while. I need to remember that they need to be able to choose how and when to rest.

I need to stay conscious of their needs and not put too much pressure on them to do all the things I’d like them to do. As a camp director, my initial inclination is to call everyone together for morning assembly and outline our schedule and activities for the day. But I need to back off, because this week needs to be as restful a time as possible for all of us.

Ask What They Need/Want

The second thing I’m doing for this week is asking each kid, individually, about anything they either need to get done or would like to do over the week:

“Do you want to get a haircut this week?”

“Do you need a new winter coat?”

“Is there something you’d like to do while you’re home?”

I’m going to ask these questions, even before they travel home, so that we can fit in as much of what they need and want as possible.

Clarify Expectations

This is a biggie for me. For the first time ever, I’ve written out what is on the family schedule, noting the mandatory family events and chores. That way, each person can plan their other events (and sleep), and no one will be surprised to learn that we’re loading up the car at 6:00 a.m. on Thanksgiving to go the Turkey Trot.

Here are my four “non-negotiable” events that require participation:

Family Photo – At the top of my Thanksgiving list is getting a decent family photo. We have a few nice family pictures from graduations back in June, but one family member has completely changed in appearance (as in four inches and a different, leaner face) since then. So, in an effort to provide an “up-to-date” family photo, I’m determined to take a new one this week.

I don’t know if you have ever had this issue, but I have a few kids who give a lot of push-back when they hear the words, “We’re taking a family photo.” So, this week, I’m starting the conversation early, letting everyone know why it’s important to me, and making sure everyone has time to psychologically and physically prepare to simultaneously smile.

Volunteer Time – Those of us who are home are helping out with a meal for the homeless on Tuesday.

Turkey Trot – With a bunch of our friends, we’re dressing as pilgrims and walking or running a 5K. We’ve done this for several years, and it’s a lot of fun. Of course, the kids really complain about it, but I know that it provides them with a really good story of just how crazy their family is, and I know how important family stories are.

Thanksgiving Dinner – For the past few years, Thanksgiving dinner has been really pleasant, and my back hasn’t hurt that day at all, because we divvy up the cooking, and everyone has their own dish they are responsible for preparing.

Some of the menu items we make that day, but others we prepare a day or two before Thanksgiving. I’ll let the kids know early—on Monday—what they’ll be responsible for making so they can figure out when they want to do their cooking. It doesn’t end up being that much work for any one person.

Besides having dinner together each evening, every other activity will be optional. Each family member can opt in or opt out to playing a game, watching a movie, going in the hot tub, playing in a ping pong tournament, doing a craft, or whatever. They can decide. But I get my four things. Period.

Do Some Gift Planning for Christmas/Hanukkah

I am not at all an “ahead of time” Christmas shopper. In fact, I only start feeling the anxiety this week. Every year around this time, I declare that we’re not going to have an obnoxious, overboard Christmas with our living room buried by gift boxes.

But I haven’t ever taken time to articulate this clearly and brainstorm with the family on how we’re going to make that actually happen. This week, we’re going to spend some time figuring this out. A family discussion about current interests, hobbies, books, movies, or music we’re interested in would be a fun sharing time and would give us all some clues as to what would be a thoughtful gift. (This will also help me give some gift-giving guidance and limits for grandparents.) We’re going to discuss having the kids each draw one name and get a thoughtful gift for that sibling rather than them having to get something for everyone. We’ll see what else we come up with, but this is our time to plan for a less stressful, less stuff-focused holiday.

Practice My Own Gratitude (AKA Don’t be a Gratitude Bully)

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to force gratitude activities on my kids. This week, I’m going to prioritize my own gratitude and let the chips fall where they may for the kids. I’ll remember to be grateful for the piles of dirty dishes, for the tickling during the family photo shoot, for the loud football game playing on the TV, and mostly for my messy, imperfect family and a bit of somewhat happy and fun time together.

I’ll still have “thankful” cards available for people to write on and post on the kitchen bulletin board, but there will be no minimum requirement.

My gratitude journal's been gathering dust. Getting it out this week!

My gratitude journal’s been gathering dust. Getting it out this week!

In past holidays, I have at times been discouraged by the reality of actual family togetherness, which rarely has met my dream image. We are a family, but we’re also individual people with different interests, thoughts, and moods, currently living in four different places.

Now that I’ve thought through ways to balance my expectations for happy family togetherness with some realism, I’m better prepared for the week. Instead of feeling disappointed at the end for it not going as expected, I am setting myself up to avert disappointment by keeping my expectation bar low.

Who knows? Maybe some spontaneous, whole-family fun will occur this week. But I’m not expecting it.

I’m still really happy and excited, though. I love my perfectly imperfect family.

Want to read more of my thoughts and reflections on family time and family activities? Here are a few related posts:

5 Fun 30-Minute Family Activities
100 Memories
Does Our Family’s Schedule Reflect our Values?

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