Naughty or Nice, We’re Your Family

I know what it’s like to be the well-behaved host of the naughty relatives.

One cousin my age was an expert at “I’ll show you mine, if you’ll show me yours.” A brother-sister duo wore pajamas wherever they went and were the loudest children our neighborhood restaurant has ever hosted.

I loved winning the holiday behavior prize every time. But my cousins didn’t seem to like me very much.

Now my children are the ones the other relatives shake their heads about. And it’s not just the kids. Frankly, our family of four is loud, unpredictable, moody, impulsive, high-maintenance, and accident-prone, even on a good day.

Here’s what I want those well-behaved relatives to know, from someone who’s seen both sides:

1. Correlation Doesn’t Imply Causation. Just like they taught me in Psychology 101. Imagine that the parenting you witness today could be the result, rather than the cause, of having a difficult child. Just because I’m willing to pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich doesn’t mean I’ve made my child into a picky eater by giving in to his every whim. Maybe I’m more interested in him having a full belly, and thus better behavior, than in him trying your candied Brussels sprouts.

2. We’re At Our Very Worst. We’re out of our daily routine. The stakes are high. We’re dressed up. There’s a present waiting for us, we don’t know what it’s going to be, and we’re going to have to wait all day to open it. When we do open it, it’s unlikely to be the signed NFL jersey we imagine it to be. If you want to know what we’re really like, come over after school on a regular Wednesday.

3. Think Short-Term. The parenting techniques you’ll observe today are short-term, not long-term, solutions. Like Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, explains, short-term parenting and long-term parenting can be completely at odds with each other. When my child belches at the table at your house, I’m going to ignore it. When he does it at home, I’m going to tolerate the thirty-minute tantrum that will result from my giving him a five-minute time-out.

4. Save the Advice. We get a ton of parenting advice from books, professionals, and well-meaning bystanders. We seek it out. We even pay for it. If you have a suggestion, wait a day and decide if it’s worth calling us about. If it involves a special diet or a spanking, keep it to yourself.

5. More Than an Ounce of Prevention. We’ve done everything we can do beforehand to prevent a problem. By the time we get to your house, both children will have had a full, nutritious meal. They got as much sleep last night as humanly possible, and if they didn’t, they’ve had a nap. They know that if either of them utters the word “booty” at the table, which is my worst fear and the most likely mishap, they’re going to lose something they cherish.

6. Relax, and Leave the Discipline to Us. No matter how awkward it looks. We spend a lot more time with our children than you do. If we insist that our child leave the dinner table early and that’s against the rules in your home, there’s probably a good reason. Last time I did this, I was pretty sure my son was about to vomit on the china, silver, tablecloth, and white upholstered dining chair in front of a party of twenty.

If this holiday get-together is a chance to showcase my children, to enter them in a competition for best all-around kid in the family, I forfeit.

Let’s see this instead for what it really is, or should be: a chance to get together, to catch up, and to reminisce.

Look at it this way. Remember at our grandmother’s house? Something hideous always shimmied beside the plate, nestled on a bed of iceberg lettuce.

Coca-Cola salad was purple, and if you looked at it hard enough you could see the shadows and pits of the Bing cherries and nuts within the confines of the gelatinous purple cube. Every once in awhile you’d glimpse a white clot of cream cheese, oozing zitlike. There was a dollop of mayonnaise on top like a beanie. Any jostling of the table caused it to quiver menacingly. If Coca-Cola salad could talk, it would say, “Go on, kid. Eat me. What’s the worst that could happen?”

When you notice my kids blanching at your Brussels sprouts, tell the story of the Coca-Cola salad. That’s our heritage. We’ll all get a kick out of it.

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