Visiting family for holidays? Prepare yourself and them


December 13, 1992|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Contributing Writer

Diane Holmes won't ever forget that first holiday trip home to see her parents in upstate New York after her first child was born. But it's not the special family time that's anchored in her memories.

"My husband and I nearly killed each other by the time we got there," says Dr. Holmes, a Chicago pediatrician, with a laugh. "The baby screamed the entire way. Then we got caught in a snowstorm and had to stop overnight. By the time we got there, we were totally exhausted and in a terrible mood."

Since then, the couple, who now have three children, have opted to stay home for Christmas. But every January, Dr. Holmes says, she hears a litany of complaints from patients who traveled to visit relatives for the holidays. "You've just got to remember that it's not relaxing to stay in someone else's house with your kids," she says. "It may be wonderful to visit the relatives but certainly not calm."

Don't expect that Norman Rockwell Christmas once you arrive either. Children get sick (bring medicines they frequently need) and crabby -- especially when they're out of their normal routine. Parents get crabby, too. Family squabbles inevitably will erupt.

"You've got to have realistic expectations," says Paul Rand, executive director of the Chicago-based Capable Kid Counseling Centers. His tip: "Make the kids feel as much at home as possible. And build in some alone-time for each parent away from the crowd."

Know that it's going to be stressful getting there, too, as holiday travelers clog roads and crowd airports. This year, the Automobile Association of America is forecasting the heaviest holiday travel season in years. During the Thanksgiving weekend, nearly 29 million Americans took to the roads and skies -- more than in the last seven holiday seasons -- and that trend is expected to continue through New Year's weekend.

The Automobile Association's tips: If you're driving, take frequent breaks -- at least once every two hours -- and plan your route in advance. If you're traveling in cold climates, have plenty of warm clothes along in case you get stuck.

But take heart. No matter how long you're stuck in traffic or how many hours your flight has been delayed or how many times your mother tells you you're not raising your children properly, you can still have a great visit. You just need the right attitude. That goes for your hosts too.

Call and let them know what you need -- apple juice, Cheerios, a crib, diapers, peanut butter and jelly. If your 10-year-old lives on pizza or macaroni and cheese, let them know. If the baby will only eat a certain brand of baby food, tell them.

Remind them -- in a nice way -- that your children likely won't sit through a long holiday meal or eat foods covered in elaborate sauces (if that's the case).

Suggest a children's table -- and some alternative activities while the adults are enjoying their meal. Holiday videos like "The Snowman" or, for the younger set, "Christmas Eve on Sesame Street" have salvaged many holiday gatherings in our family. They typically are available for rental at video stores and also can be ordered from a catalog, which also has a nice selection of audio tapes ideal for a long car trip, (800) 872-9745.

And while you can't expect your hosts to totally childproof their home, you can suggest they put away breakables and keep pills and poisons out of reach, suggests Dr. Loraine Stern, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics who practices in suburban Los Angeles and teaches at UCLA. "But parents have got to be extra vigilant," she cautions.

Dr. Stern noted the case of one 2-year-old who ate the pills her aunt had left on a bedside table. The child was fine -- after a visit to the emergency room.

Just as important, "The grandparents need to remember that with the kids around, things won't be the same as they're used to," says Frank Pollare, who often travels from his Pacific Palisades, Calif., home to his parents' in Toms River, N.J., for the holidays. His tip: Pack a separate bag with special travel toys and tell the grandparents to have a stash of toys and videos on hand at the other end.

"Just roll with whatever happens," suggests Mr. Pollare, who last year survived everyone getting sick, a canceled flight and then arriving home to discover their house had flooded. "But even all that wouldn't preclude me from doing it again," he says.

If you can, allow extra time en route and travel off-peak days. Graeme Browning and Clay Adams have one cardinal rule they never break: "We always leave the day after Christmas," says Ms. Browning, who lives in Bethesda and will drive to her brother's North Carolina home Dec. 26. "The traffic isn't nearly as heavy and we don't have to schlep all the toys from Santa," she explains.

"We always leave in the evening or very early in the morning, so the kids will sleep," adds Theresa Detchemendy, who makes the trek annually from San Francisco to visit her parents near Pasadena. Her tip: Pack bag lunches, so you don't waste time stopping at crowded roadside restaurants.

Don't think of your travel time as a total waste either. Consider it family time. If you're traveling by car, sing Christmas carols or Hanukkah songs. On a plane, read your favorite holiday story.

Tell your children your favorite holiday memories. Give them the rundown of the traditions they'll be part of when they arrive at Grandma's house. Hand out a surprise stocking-stuffer.

Remember, even the worst travel experiences make for funny memories afterward. And have a Merry Christmas.

Readers' questions and comments should be sent to Taking the Kids, c/o The Sun, 2859 Central St., Box No. 119, Evanston, Ill. 60201.

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