Expert Commentary: Kids and Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a marvelous occasion – for adults – but try it on from a child's point of view. All attention is on a dinner that at best seems suspect at best.


There's this giant thing that was given a bath in the kitchen sink like my sister, and then was stuffed, I don't even want to think where, with bread – yuck – and then it was put into the oven. I wonder if I would fit into the pan?


While visions of Hansel and Gretel come to mind, lots of children sulk at Thanksgiving simply because they feel as if they are not included. They are strangers and the strangers are taking Mom's heart spaces, and even for a few hours it seems intolerable.


All these people in the house are taking Mom’s attention away from me. I get shoved into the other room while they laugh and joke without me. And for no apparent reason, the chil d begins to cry.


Begin to include the child early with shopping. Taking a child or all the children to the grocery store is a royal chore, but if you go early enough, the lines are short and the kids have a ball. Make the list together, explain Thanksgiving food. There might be a lot of yucks and a lot of euus, but explain that daddy likes this and Aunt Martha likes that, and silly Grandma Judy likes the ground up raw cranberries and oranges as a relish.


Make shopping a together thing. Assign grocery items to be foun d b y every child. “Molly, find the cranberry sauce, it’s on that shelf. Brendan, pick out three loaves of whole wheat bread – there are two Ws. Katy, find 10 pounds of potatoes and ten sweet potatoes, and Anne, choose the marshmallows– big, little, colored. We can all pick out the turkey together. It will be the one you can’t lift.” And everyone laughs.


On Thanksgiving Day, my three girls fought miserably about who would set the table. "It's my turn." "You don't even like Thanksgiving." "Are you going to use paper or plastic?" "MOM!!"


Now, it’s easy. They all live in their own homes and they all bring everything – even the turkey, to be cooked by grandma with the orange cranberry relish. And I get to set the table. 


And they bring their little ones who delight Grandma and whose turn it is now to regard the food with suspicion, and well they should. Turkey is not a food children eat very often, and it tastes “darker” than chicken, so children won’t eat as much.


They are used to machine cut bread, not stuffing, so that’s another “Mmmm, maybe next year.”  Cranberry sauce from a can will be a favorite if you can get them to try it. Sweet potatoes are alluring if there are enough brown sugar and marshmallows, and mashed potatoes will usually make up a small child’s plate and considering the vitamin C, it’s probably a good dinner.


And grandma understands from experience while mom is irritated. It's a festival, let the kids enjoy it as they will.


Thanksgiving is a nearly 400 year old tradition. It's filled with stories and songs, and symbols and memories. That's another part of the occasion that is often lost on the children because it's often new for them. It's an album day, a story day, a memory day, and sitting with a child or cooking with a child and talking about family, old friends and what it used to be like a long time ago help children understand older people, and stories they are likely to hear later in the day. It helps them become more involved.


Helping with Thanksgiving chores is important to children too. Just being dressed up and attending a dinner they find suspect is not a happy event. It's dull as dishwater. Let kids dress down and remember, no matter how much you want to "just be an adult," your child is waiting for you to be mommy. With young children ages 3-7, if you are traveling to a strange place or the house of a relative, it's a good idea to spend the first 20 minutes with them while they adjust to the party scheme, and let them wander off on their own.


Comfort for a child is different from an adult's comfort. Even what they see is different. Get down, sit down, kneel down to a child's level and look around. Noises, the unfamiliar, too much, too many odd smells are simply strange to young children and can created a fear zone.


Thanksgiving is a marvelous adventure that comes only once a year, so make it special and make it fun for kids, but don't expect too much.