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Holiday Parenting in a “Not-If-But-When” World

Distributed by New York Times/Hearst News Services, December 2005

by Allan Shedlin

Much as Dickens’ Scrooge was reluctant to acknowledge Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol, we are understandably reluctant to acknowledge the specter of borrowed time that haunts childhood – both apparitions are disconcerting and contrary to the spirit of their “season.”


Today’s parenting is increasingly challenging because it takes place in a complex world, a world in which more of us believe that it is no longer a question of if terrorists will strike our shores again, but rather, when and where? There is a dull, generally unacknowledged, lurking dread that has built to a “Bah! Humbug!” crescendo as 2005 wanes. This dread has been exacerbated by natural disasters that have left us all feeling more vulnerable and helpless; they have occurred at a frequency often too rapid for us to regain our emotional equilibrium between crises. The steady syncopated drumbeat of war dead, tsunami dead, hurricane dead, earthquake dead, suicide bomber dead, mudslide dead has been unrelenting and challenges our empathic limits – as a young parent recently told me, “I’m just tragedied-out!” Being tragedied-out during a season that is supposed to be filled with good cheer is particularly rough.


Protecting one’s offspring is perhaps the most basic parental instinct. But this instinct is being increasingly challenged as both manmade and natural tragedies escalate and our incompetence in dealing with them effectively seems directly proportionate to their increased scale. When one of the bedrock parental instincts is thwarted, it can destabilize our parenting – it is harder to reassure our children when we feel less reassured ourselves. As the “only super power” and the self-proclaimed “most powerful nation on earth” we seem less and less capable of dealing effectively with disasters and preparing for pandemics –  perhaps what should concern us most is the creeping silent pandemic of worry that erodes our parenting capacities. During these times when baby strollers are viewed as potential weapon delivery systems, we may wonder if Henny-Penny’s alarm that “the sky is falling” is prescient and if the hokey-pokey is really what it’s all about.


Just as Marley’s ghost provided suggestions for Scrooge to deal with his fear that time was running out to make amends, there is plenty that adults can do to provide comfort and hope to kids, and, although less frequently acknowledged, there is plenty that kids can do in return. Perhaps a perfect gift for the season is to recognize and utilize the interdependence of kids and adults in strengthening our abilities to cope with these unusually challenging and frightening times.


After all, for most of us, there has not been a time when kids needed adults more and vice versa.


Guided by your child’s age and what you know about your child’s sensibilities, here are some specific suggestions for what parents, teachers, and others on the frontlines with children, can do to calm fears that may interfere with healthy functioning during the holidays and beyond:


What Adults Can Do for Kids


  • Acknowledge that these are scary times that provoke a range of worries and scary thoughts. Encourage, but do not force kids, to share these thoughts with you.

  • Provide reassurance that you are taking all the steps you can to ensure their safety – be specific. Ask kids if there are other steps they can think of.

  • Be mindful of the ways our lives have changed, and talk about the things in our families and society that we tend to take for granted and may not fully appreciate until they are threatened.

  • Use this time as an opportunity to consider what is truly important; what merits getting upset about, and what does not.

  • Exchange extra hugs (and vow not to be sparing with them in the future)

  • Point out that although there are some very frustrated, angry and disturbed people in the world, most people behave reasonably most of the time. Talk about what makes people angry, and discuss various ways in which one can show anger and deal with frustrations.


By allowing kids to help us through difficult times we empower them and demonstrate that they are vital members of our families and of the broader world community. When we listen to kids and talk respectfully with them, we show they are important to us. Here are some specific ways kids can help adults:


What Kids Can Do for Adults


  • Broaden our ways of looking at issues, situations, and possibilities.

  • Help us appreciate the value of vulnerability.

  • Demonstrate the value of asking good questions, not just finding “right” answers.

  • Remind us of the importance of various childlike (not childish) qualities, such as: playfulness, flexibility, humor, imagination, enthusiasm, willingness to make mistakes, sense of wonder.

  • Help us to understand the responsibilities and obligations of power.

  • Reconnect us to what is truly important.


As this holiday season provides more time with family, it is useful to remember that the ways in which we interact with our kids, day in and day out, are more likely than anything else, to help our children deal with the emotional shrapnel caused by the unrelenting media blitz that pummels us. This unprecedented time of global uncertainty and worry is one of those “teachable moments,” a unique instant when a variety of circumstances and conditions come together that heighten our sensitivities and make us particularly able to learn – we must seize it as such, so we can more comfortably say “…and to all a good night.”

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