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Ten parenting tips that will bring back the joy and peace

If you have kids, it's likely that the holidays can cause more stress than actual holiday cheer. Sure you love seeing their faces light up when they open their gifts, but the weeks prior to that special day can be exhausting. The major holiday stress culprits?

Going from store to store with the whole family in tow, the seemingly infinite parties, the sweet treats you fear will give your kids a buzz until February, and the mountain of toys, gadgets, and clothes that will be piled up in your house when the holidays are over. Feeling tense just thinking about it? Take a deep breath. Author Virginia Bentz says you don't have to let stress ruin this wonderful time of the year for you and your kids.

"This is probably one of the busiest times of the year for people with children," says Bentz, creator of quickguidetogoodkids.com and author of the upcoming book Quick Guide to Good Kids, due out in 2007. "People get so caught up in trying to make this a special time for the kids that they can sometimes overdo it. I want people to realize they can cut back on some of those activities and gifts. You'll actually be able to enjoy the time with your kids, and your kids will be happier without a jam-packed schedule."

If managing your kid-related holiday stress sounds like a great way to celebrate the season, here are ten tips that will help you get started:

Remember that for babies and toddlers, less is more. They can handle only so much that's "new and exciting" without a meltdown. So if they won't sit on Santa's lap, or they won't give that cherubic smile to Uncle Mel, just accept it. Sometimes, you might have to leave events earlier than planned. Consider bringing a babysitter along to attend activities with older kids. And let common sense prevail over your sepia-toned vision of what the holidays should be. "I'm always surprised at how many parents sit their screaming child on Santa's lap in the hopes of getting an adorable picture," says Bentz. "The holidays can be as overwhelming for smaller children as they are for you. Know when it's time to throw in the towel. Instead of forcing your children into something you think they will enjoy, let them choose what activities are right for them."

Prepare just two or three carefully chosen gifts for those little ones. Don't break the bank buying out the "baby" section of the toy store. Very small children don't need or want a lot of stuff. Try a baby board book that you can read together. These are great because your child can turn the baby-proof pages or open the flaps as you go. Add a cuddly stuffed animal, and you've given two gifts whose aura of warmth and togetherness emphasize the loving, giving spirit of the holidays. Third, give an active toy, like building blocks, large puzzle pieces, big interconnecting beads, or different shapes, to encourage your toddler's ability to build and create.

Don't over-schedule grade school kids. If there are too many parties, holiday pageants, great new movies, Santa meet-and-greets, and Nutcracker performances, don't try to fit them all in. "Your kids may think they want to go to every single one of these events, but as a parent you have to know when to say when," says Bentz. "You'll be able to enjoy the events you do attend more if you aren't thinking about the next thing you have to rush off to. Pick one or two, with input from your kids, and take time to savor each experience as a family. There's always next year to try something else."

Avoid the junk food. At this time of year, you've got more than enough excitement without it. You can make your special delicious chocolate fudge, sure, but give it out just one piece at a time. Fill in with healthier snacks. Banana nut bread, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, raisins, nuts, and fruits are tasty and easy for kids to digest. For a festive dessert, make Jell-o in red and green layers; then splash each serving with a dollop of whipped topping and sprinkle on colored sugars.

For older kids, limit yourself to four or five gifts per child. This is enough to make an exciting display around the tree. Also, when it's time to open the gifts, take it one gift at a time. Your children will enjoy not just opening their own gifts, but also watching their family members open theirs. Half the fun of the holidays for your kids is watching their siblings ooh and aah over the gifts that they picked out for them. And remember, other relatives will give your children gifts, too. "We've all seen our kids open a gift, express supreme joy in receiving it with an 'Oh, cool!' and then toss it aside to move on to the next gift," says Bentz. "By giving your kids fewer gifts, the items you do give them will be more special and more appreciated."

Give your children presents that help them develop their special interests and talents. If you're not sure exactly what they are into these days, ask! What could be a better opportunity for open communication? "You may be surprised to find that your son or daughter doesn't want that pricey toy you feared would break your budget," says Bentz. "Take the list your kids give you and get them those things that will actually help them to develop their interests or talents. If you have a child interested in drawing, get him an easel and some canvases and paints. If you have an aspiring singer in the family, get her a microphone and recorder so that she can record her own songs."

Solve the problem of hard-to-buy-for teenagers by taking them shopping with you. Let them pick out clothes and try them on. Be attentive as they show you what's what in MP3 players, cell phones, digital cameras, or video games. Together, you can make choices that are mutually agreeable.

Volunteer your services to a local nonprofit agency one Saturday in December -- and take your kids with you. When they spend an afternoon wrapping "Toys for Tots" or giving out goods at a food pantry, they'll understand the joy of giving in ways you could never explain. "It's important that your kids learn that not everyone will be having as happy a holiday as they will," says Bentz. "Volunteering their time to help others will help them understand that the holidays aren't only about getting gifts, attending parties, and eating holiday treats."

Plan ahead for some quiet family time. Whatever holiday you celebrate -- Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or something altogether different -- be sure to build in some time for relaxation and family togetherness. Spend a leisurely afternoon decorating the festive cookies the kids will leave out for Santa, or making the candles for the menorah (most craft stores have simple candle-making kits), or drawing pictures that represent the seven principles of Kwanzaa. And try to spend some quiet time resting, reading, or listening to music before you attend the religious or cultural service of your choice. This will put you into the spirit of togetherness, ready to enjoy the feelings of peaceful awe and quiet contemplation that infuse the meaning of the season.

For divorced parents, call a truce during the holidays. For everyone's sake, but especially for the kids, keep things friendly and light. Overlook the problems and forget the complaints for the space of the holidays, and be thankful you've got the family you have. "Divorced parents should put the 'give' in forgiving this holiday season," says Bentz. "You don't want your kids to look back on holidays past and remember times of fighting and unhappiness. You're adults, so act like it. You want your children to have the best holiday possible."

The holidays shouldn't be a time of the year that you feel you must "endure" or "survive." If you learn to manage all of the elements, you can have an enjoyable and stress-free season. It's all about finding the right balance of activities for your children. And above all, says Bentz, remember the less-is-more principle.

"The holidays will be more cheerful for everyone involved if you don't overdo it," she says. "Simply minimizing the activities you participate in will allow everyone -- kids and adults alike -- to enjoy this time of year. Holidays are about celebrating, after all, and that means having fun. If it's not fun, if it doesn't inspire joy, don't do it. It's a simple principle, but it's one that will change everything."

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