Keeping the kids busy

Christmas vacation from school now is known in most places by the secular euphemism "winter break," but they ought to call it "winter breakdown."

Parents everywhere already are pushed to the breaking point, harried and hassled by the annual madness of holiday preparation. Just when the schedule couldn't get any busier, our children are sent home to drive us crazy.

For three weeks or so, in the dead of winter, the kids are trapped indoors, making demands and wreaking havoc and tossing the house in search of hidden gifts.

The latter half of winter break isn't so bad because the kids have new Christmas toys to keep them occupied, assuming we've remembered to stock enough batteries. But those days between "school's out" and "Merry Christmas" can be trying. The children are all wound up, excited about the holidays, and before long, we parents have visions of padded cells dancing in our heads.

The trick to surviving winter break is to involve the children in the Christmas preparations. Make them a part of the shopping and cooking and cleaning and gift-wrapping. Let them see just how much work goes into making a happy holiday. Then maybe the little ingrates will be more appreciative and go play quietly somewhere and give your frazzled nerves a rest.

Here are some suggestions for including the kids in the holiday fun:

--Decorations. Children can be very helpful when it comes to decking the halls and stringing the tinsel. Just remember that they can't reach as high as you. And they see nothing wrong with putting all the decorations on the same Christmas tree branch.

--Homemade gifts. Set the kids down with construction paper and crayons and glue and they'll make a really huge mess, just in time for the relatives' visit. No, seriously, kids can produce wonderful keepsakes while experiencing the giving spirit of Christmas. These handmade gifts are particularly appropriate for recipients willing to overlook globs of glue and glitter everywhere. I'm thinking here of grandparents.

--Gift-wrapping. Older children can wield scissors and ribbons and help prepare the holiday gifts. One caution: Kids who help with the wrapping know what everyone will be getting Christmas morning, and will feel compelled to shout it out and ruin the surprise.

--Cooking. Many children enjoy helping in the kitchen, particularly if you're making sweets for the holidays. They love "licking the spoon," sometimes even before you're finished with it. But if you can overlook such unsanitary foibles, you can have a wonderful time cooking together. Let the kids help prepare the cookies and milk that will be set out for Santa's visit on Christmas Eve. Just make sure "Santa" doesn't actually eat them by mistake.

(One advantage to letting kids help in the kitchen: They're less likely to complain about food they cooked themselves. My two sons once made brownies from a mix that didn't turn out right. I said, "Sorry, guys, but this looks like black goo." My younger son immediately replied: "Black goo! I LOVE black goo!")

--Housework. Force the little urchins to help you get the house ready for holiday company. After all, they made the mess, they should help clean it up. Besides, they need to pick up all their toys so they'll have room to strew the new toys they get for Christmas.

Remember, parents: Get some work out of those kids before Christmas. Once they've opened their presents, you can no longer play the "Santa is watching you" card.

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