I work so hard to make the holidays perfect, but I never feel like I'm doing enough, and then my tension spreads through the house. What are some ways I can keep that from happening?
There's just no way out. Like it or not, in most families Mom is the one who sets the tone. And the best way to avoid the stress contagion is by heading it off in the first place. "Holidays are for rest and recuperation, not for running around madly, packing in too many activities, and spending too much money," says Tom Hodgkinson, author of The Idle Parent: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids (Jeremy Tarcher/Penguin). "Every few days, or at least once a week, take a couple of hours to do something you really enjoy." Escape to your room with a favorite novel, take a long walk, have coffee with a friend. You're not being selfish—you're investing in household peace.
Also be up front about how overwhelmed you are, says Annie Burnside, author of Soul to Soul Parenting (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing), who suggests you have everyone write down the two traditions he or she likes best. From there make a family to-do list, including assigned tasks for each person. "Post it in a central location," says Burnside, "and stick to it." Kids tend to be more cooperative—and cheerful—when they're part of the decision-making process. (And ordering in a pizza during chore time couldn't hurt, either.)
What's a good way to teach my kids there's more to the holidays than getting stuff?
Just like the times when you establish a curfew or give permission to borrow the car, you're the one who sets the parameters. Gifts are a privilege, not a right. So don't let peer pressure from other parents (or your own kids playing the guilt card) tell you different.
Of course you don't want to start an epidemic of disappointment, but not having every wish fulfilled isn't fatal. In fact, getting push-back on the gotta-have-its does children long-term good. "Research has found that attaching happiness to material goods can actually lead to feelings of insecurity," says Craig Kielburger, coauthor of The World Needs Your Kid (Greystone), who suggests volunteering together as a great way to give perspective.
If you have to curtail spending, adds Shelley Carson, PhD, author of Your Creative Brain (Jossey-Bass), explain that while there will be fewer items under the tree, you'll be having just as much fun and together time. Then make good on the promise, even if it's simply scheduling a movie followed by cookies and cocoa, or attending a free event (Google your town's name and "free Christmas events," or check your newspaper).