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How Can I Make the Holidays Special for My Kids?

It’s one of those urban legends everybody has heard and many parents have actually lived: You knock yourself out visiting every store in town to find that must-have, sold-out toy or stay up all night long assembling that play set with a billion pieces – only to find that once all the presents have been unwrapped, your kids are much more excited about playing with the boxes than with any of the actual gifts.

This funny-because-it’s-true story is a telling example of how kids and adults see the holidays differently and have different expectations about what makes them special. Parents often have a ton of ideas – and feel a ton of self-imposed pressure – about everything that needs to happen so that their kids will have magical holiday memories that last a lifetime. But kids often find meaning in the most unexpected moments and wind up remembering the pretty bow much longer than they remember the bike it was attached to.

In HelloJoey’s “Quality Time: No Moment is Pointless,” we look at what really matters to kids (and what really doesn’t) when it comes to the time that you spend together during the holidays or any other time of year. We also talk with the experts and share tips for how to make the holidays special for your kids – and maybe make things a little easier on yourself, as well.

Managing your great expectations

From the instant you learned you were going to be a parent, you probably started dreaming about exactly how Christmas morning or Hanukkah dinner with your kid would unfold. Now, to realize that vision, you run around like a maniac baking seven different types of cookies, decorating like a Crate and Barrel catalog, and doing everything you can to keep that Santa fantasy alive for one more year.

While trying to make the holidays special for your family is understandable, what you’re trying to accomplish is based on what you think it means to bond with your child: You’re locked in on what you think is fun or what you want to share. Your child, on the other hand, may not be quite ready to sit through an entire performance of the Nutcracker or might want to go caroling with their friends instead of to Zoo Lights with you. It can leave you feeling disappointed, like all your efforts were wasted, or even like your child is an ungrateful brat.

There’s nothing wrong with having holiday expectations, but you child won’t necessarily share them. It all comes down to seeing “quality time” differently than your kid does – but in reality, that’s actually really good news. When you start to understand what’s special or important to your child, not only can that help you keep your own expectations in check, but it also can help you decide where to focus your efforts – and what you can let go – in your quest for creating special holidays.

What makes holidays special for kids?

If you think back on some of your favorite childhood holiday memories, you probably remember a few specific traditions or moments, like the first time you lit the menorah or how grandma’s pecan pie smelled in the oven, but you also may recall a more general sense of togetherness or thrill of anticipation. That’s because for kids, quality time is less about specific events and more about the overall feeling. Children are open to connection at any time, even if the moment wasn’t planned. Those little connections all add up to a bigger feeling of connectedness, and that’s why day-to-day interactions are just as impactful as special events.

For parents, quality time is usually something that gets put on the calendar: a family vacation, weekly bowling night, or the annual trek over the river and through the woods to get the perfect Christmas tree. It’s a break from the normal routine – the errands and chores and responsibilities – when you can really focus on spending time with your kid. The holidays lend themselves to these opportunities, in part because of the days off school and work and in part because of the way many people idealize them, overestimating their importance.

Learning the rules of engagement

So, if your kid may not end up with happy, lasting memories of your annual holiday card photo shoot or your religious traditions, what will leave a lasting impression when they have kids of their own? According to neuroscientist Dr. Alex Korb, you never know. “Quality time can be any activity in which you and your child are fully engaged with each other and with the activity. It doesn't really matter what it is, as long as ultimately, it leads to being engaged with each other.”

Parent coach Christine D’Alessandro seconds that and says the daily tasks you think take time away from your kids are actually some of the best chances to connect. “Have your child help you do the cooking. Let them stir the pot. It's engaging your child in the activity with you.” That means it’s okay if you make only one batch of cookies – as long as you do it together. If you aim to be fully-present (instead of on your phone or half-listening while you think about your to-do list), you can turn any moment with your kid into a precious holiday memory, even if you’re just wrapping presents or singing carols while you do the dishes.

App Tip

In this social media world, moments with your kids may feel like they only count if there’s a frozen snapshot of your smiles to prove it – but in the real world, quality time doesn’t have to be a perpetual Instagram feed of happy people in fun places with just the right filter. It just has to be meaningful, and that connection can happen unexpectedly and with no camera in sight.

That’s not to say your kid won’t remember the planned trips to your town’s holiday tree lighting ceremony, but the unscheduled moments – when you all somehow wound up to the couch together watching “Elf” with cocoa and cookies – can also satisfy your kid’s craving for together time. A good combination of both will give them those general happy holiday feelings that they’ll treasure forever.

Want to learn more about “Quality Time: No Moment is Pointless” and how to connect with your kid every single day? Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.

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