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Letting kids help at Thanksgiving (without losing your mind)

Lisa Fogarty

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Lisa Fogarty

Lisa Fogarty has written numerous articles for USA Today, The Stir, Opposing Views and other publications. She has covered everything from red carpet events to the discovery of toxic PCBs on school windows. She lives on Long Island, N.Y....

Here's how to get your kids involved in Thanksgiving — no matter what their age

Vacation days and kids don't always mix — something that becomes painfully obvious when you're busy planning the Thanksgiving feast of a lifetime at your home and your bored 5-year-old is climbing the walls and competing with the turkey for your attention. Instead of getting frustrated with our children's lack of ability to entertain themselves for all of that time (because, let's be honest, turkeys take forever to cook), there are ways to prevent frustration by actually putting them to work.

That's right: Your kids are better helpers than you probably think. The trick is giving them tasks and responsibilities that challenge them, but are appropriate for their age.

"Any activity can be made fun and entertaining, but attention to age-appropriateness is essential," says Dr. Mayra Mendez, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center. "Holiday activities provide opportunities for children to use their imaginations when decorating, such as setting the table, setting out holiday ornaments and creating greeting messages in cards or social media. Involving children in activities such as meal preparation, grocery shopping and menu planning promotes cooperation, collaboration and builds teamwork skills. Children who are given age-appropriate, interesting and engaging activities are less likely to misbehave and more likely to demonstrate desirable behaviors."

Here's a guide to fun Thanksgiving prep activities and the ages that best suit them.

Ages 2 – 5: setting the table — Although children of all ages can set the table and add their own creative spin on decorating place settings, young ones ages 2 to 5 can really benefit from the task as long as you're willing to provide small steps and guidance as need, Mendez says.

"The directions need to be clear and specific telling the child what to do in a calm and encouraging tone of voice," Mendez says. "Children of all ages can be involved in making decorations for the table, folding napkins, stacking dishes and creating decorative holiday name tags to name a few examples. Imagination can be stimulated by having children decorate cookies, help with placing toppings on a pie, such as whipped cream, cut fruit or powdered sugar and making cookie-cutter treats. Such activities provide children with a fun sensory experience and opportunity to share quality time with the family."

Ages 6 – 10: light food prep — Your budding young chef will welcome the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and get to work in the kitchen. Let them handle simple prep tasks and leave more complex ones for older children. "They can be involved in stirring, measuring ingredients, pouring and helping with selection of flavors in the creation of meals," Mendez says.

Ages 11 – 14: serving and cooking — Tweens love to be given responsibilities that make them feel they are valued. The age group can handle choosing plates and bowls in which to serve different dishes and displaying them on the table in an appealing way. When it comes to cooking, parents can trust tweens to take on more complex dishes like homemade cranberry sauce, marshmallow sweet potatoes and desserts. "Children 12 years and older can be involved in cooking a simple dessert, such as making cookies, pie filling, rolling pie crusts and helping with stovetop activities such as stirring and serving," according to Mendez.

Ages 15 and older: grocery shopping, turkey carving and cleanup duties — Take advantage of your teen's desire to escape and be independent by directing him in the direction of the nearest grocery store with a simple list and clear tasks. "Children 14 years and older may help with running to the grocery store and picking up an item or two, but the items should be familiar to the teen and the grocery store should be safely and easily accessible," Mendez told us. "Teens may also participate in the carving of the turkey. Teens are likely to show greater investment in the holiday activities when they experience their participation as productive and valuable. Involving teens by encouraging them to select and make a menu item of their choosing is highly stimulating and reinforcing. Teens may also share responsibilities of helping with cleanup, such as washing dishes, scrubbing pans and emptying the dishwasher."

All ages: putting kids' unique talents and skills to good use — No matter what their age, most children love to see their creative contributions valued and appreciated. Encourage them to pursue tasks that make the most of their own talents and skills.

"Children may contribute to holiday activities by sharing their talents, such as giving art activities to children with artistic talent, creating a recipe for children with culinary talents and sorting items such as tableware for children with strong organization abilities," Mendez says.

Dedicating a few extra minutes to assigning thoughtful tasks that will keep your kids busy and excited about the holiday will bring you closer together and give you the time and space you need to perfect your Thanksgiving plans.

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