Annie Keeling: Pass the forgiveness |

Annie Keeling: Pass the forgiveness

Why can’t we all just get along? As wonderful as holiday gatherings can be, there are many opportunities for misunderstandings, unmet expectations and resurfacing of old conflicts. 

Here are some ideas to get a new conversation going and possibly smooth the path for an upcoming gathering.


Have a pre-holiday discussion with relatives regarding intentions for the next gathering. Focusing on positive and specific ideas beforehand can help ease controversy. Share with family members their importance to you and brainstorm ideas to make the gathering an enjoyable one. You might not agree about everything, but at least opinions can be heard. 

Create Rituals Instead of Resistance

Holidays offer a time to pass down stories of values and customs through the generations, especially for the children. Powerful memories are also made through sensory stimulation. Does your family want to try mulled cider this year, make a variety of desserts to sample, take an autumn leaf hike, or write personalized family lyrics to a popular tune and sing it at the table? 

These kinds of activities create lasting connections within our nervous system and help to solidify the experience into our memories. They also help to keep us in the present moment instead of stuck in past hurts.

Model for the Children

Children closely observe behavior. They are watching how relatives engage with one another, the tones they use, and any under-the-breath mutterings, exasperated sighs, or frustrations that can arise when humans gather.

One day your kids will be grown and make the choice of how to spend their holidays. Will they be able to engage with family who may have differing opinions or even drive them crazy? When they look back on their own childhood, what will they remember about how you interfaced with the more difficult relatives? Will they see that you approached them with grace, kindness and generosity? How was forgiveness demonstrated? Was respectful communication a priority?

The holiday season is more than just a collection of traditions. These experiences inform young children for a lifetime of relating to the people they might not always understand but are committed to loving anyway. 

Meeting the Relatives

Sometimes, the most important people in your life — your wonderful children — can actually be a source of conflict for other relatives. Some family you only see once a year. Others have not spent much time with children.

Many adults want to have an instant rapport and are hurt if your child does not immediately warm to them. Here are some tips to help even the shyest child meet an exuberant relative:

Instead of kisses and hugs when children first meet relatives, encourage the adult to give a handshake, high-five, fist bump or wave, etc. One idea is to give two choices and the child can pick a favorite. 

Do not force the child to kiss or hug anyone. This is for the child to give. Forced affection teaches a child to use his body to please someone else, especially one in authority. 

Educate relatives and others. Explain your policy around touch. 

Over the course of the gathering, encourage the adult to develop a special handshake with the child. This can be fun, silly, bonding time together.

Bring along some favorite toys, activities or games. Bonding increases through shared experience.

Teach the child to be polite and respectful while still maintaining her own personal boundaries.

Rules Away from Home

Just because your children know the rules at home doesn’t mean they automatically transfer to someone else’s home. Have a conversation before you leave about behavior expectations. Just as there are different rules at school or on the soccer field, there will be different rules in someone else’s house.

For instance, my son knew the rule to always ask before looking into any drawers or cabinets or using an item that belonged to the relative.

In addition to preparing your kids, prepare your relatives so they know what to expect. Help them to have realistic expectations for your children depending on their stage of development and personal traits. This can help make the visit more successful for everyone.

Everyone’s a Critic

Some relatives have very specific ideas about how children should be raised. Criticism may be disguised as advice. Older family members may be critical of your parenting choices that are different than the way they parented.

Try, try, try not to take criticism personally. It says more about the person making the statements than it does about you and your choices. Be firm with extended family members about your child’s needs. Confidence is the key to handling difficult family conflict. Have facts available whenever possible. 

A Graceful Grace-filled Meal

The big meal can be a tricky time regarding family communication. Here are six tips to help your family get through a meal with grace and positive conversation:

Plan Storytelling time. Have everyone share a story from their life. It could have a theme or prompt (When I tried something new…) or storyteller’s choice.

Reflection. Take time to reflect on the previous year and talk about how you have grown individually and as a family. Each person could share a rose (something wonderful that happened) and a thorn (something difficult or challenging.)

Focus on gratitude. It’s difficult to be annoyed or upset if gratitude is called forth. Share Gratefuls around the table. Each person says something they are thankful for in his or her life.

Family values round. Each person says three values that they feel are important in their family. For example: Help others, have fun, get rest, eat good food, be kind, be curious, first things first, tell the truth, etc.

Keep a Sense of Humor. Some participants may feel discomfort when a conversation becomes emotional or meaningful. Some will use humor to diffuse the situation. Embrace all the ways that family shows up and enjoy the humor whenever possible.

Forgive. Look around the holiday table. Find at least one positive attribute for each family member. Bring in as much acceptance as you can for the differences. It’s never okay if something traumatic happened or pain was caused. Forgiveness, though, is not for the other person. It’s for you and the release of resentments from the past that might be clouding your present. 

We can look for the negative or positive in any situation. We can grumble about slights and events outside of our control. Or we can give a new meaning or interpretation to an event. Even if you are disappointed, model grace and gratefulness as you find a positive spin.

Annie Keeling, MFA, is the Parenting Specialist for Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. She teaches parenting classes throughout the year. Contact Annie to find the next class near you: or 530-268-5086.

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