For a happy holiday, give the kids lots of options


November 20, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Karen Stiers will cook all night before bundling her husband, two kids, parents and three big, juicy golden turkeys into the station wagon for the drive to the annual Thanksgiving bash at her sister-in-law's relatives' Missouri farm. She looks forward to it, though she readily admits no one in the crowd gets along very well.

"It's the one day of the year we forget about all of that," explains Ms. Stiers, a St. Louis real-estate broker. "By the end of the day, everyone is having a lot of fun."

The fun-to-come is what Barbara Fiese and her family concentrate on as they endure the inevitable hassles of flying cross-country on one of the busiest travel days of the year, from their Syracuse, N.Y., home to her brother's house in Oklahoma City. But Ms. Fiese wouldn't consider skipping the annual Thanksgiving trip. "At least one time each year, we can focus on being a family," says Ms. Fiese, a Syracuse University psychologist who specializes in family rituals. "It's especially important when there are fewer and fewer opportunities to be together."

In Richmond, Va., meanwhile, Jody Lomenzo Bolstad, who recently separated from her husband, will be actively trying to establish some new Thanksgiving rituals for her daughter and herself. The public relations executive plans to cook for a group of friends, joking that it's at least the one day of the year her daughter will see her spend a lot of time in the kitchen. "A holiday is what you make of it," Ms. Lomenzo Bolstad says firmly.

That's the point, of course, however we celebrate Thanksgiving or how many exhausting and expensive hoops we jump through to share the holiday with families and friends across the country.

But mix the stress of travel with the strain of '90s family relationships; add a bunch of noisy, excited children to the equation, and it's no wonder gathering around the Thanksgiving table doesn't always turn out to be the pleasurable time we'd planned.

"It can't possibly be perfect. Thanksgiving isn't really a child's holiday. Kids aren't even that into food. They want to eat, and they want to play. They certainly don't want to sit around the table for an hour and a half talking," explains Sharon Berry, a child psychologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

The first rule for a successful Turkey Day: Don't force the children to wait all day for a heavy meal they probably don't want. They won't care about the hours you've slaved in the kitchen. They'll appreciate it more if you've got some food on hand during the afternoon when they're hungry -- cheese and crackers, vegetables and dip, peanut-butter sandwiches for the younger set.

The second Happy Turkey Day rule: Let the children dress in comfortable clothes and give them plenty of space -- away from the dinner table.

For the Stiers' gang on the Missouri farm, that may mean feeding the youngsters early and letting them play games or roll around in the hay while the adults enjoy their dinner.

For the Melvoins, who travel from Los Angeles to join family outside Boston, it may mean a hike together in the woods or an impromptu soccer game followed by a late dinner. "We spend all day having fun and then we eat," explains Martha Melvoin.

For Gillian McNamee, it means letting the children come and go from the Thanksgiving table at will. "We always mix kids and adults at the table and go around and have everyone say one thing they're thankful for. And then we eat. The adults are at the table for hours, and the kids are gone in five minutes," says Ms. McNamee, the mother of two young children and a faculty member at Chicago's Erikson Institute, the nationally known graduate school that specializes in child development research.

Ms. McNamee's key for the successful Thanksgivings she shares with a group of friends: plenty of toys for different age groups strategically placed in every room. "We suggest they go find something to do as soon as they get antsy around the table," she explains.

That usually doesn't take too long, given that today's families don't spend much more than 15 or 20 minutes at the dinner table together, notes Ms. Fiese, who has studied the subject.

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