It’s that time of year again! Young children are already full of holiday cheer and excitement at the prospect of presents, treats, and more family time. Making new holiday traditions with your toddler (or bringing them into your existing traditions) is a wonderful opportunity to strengthen family bonds and promote their healthy development. Here are few toddler-centered milestones to consider when making your own family traditions for this holiday season.
Independence: To foster the independence that toddlers crave, try giving them a job that makes them feel central to the ritual and they can continue to do every year as they grow. For example, letting them light the candles (with supervision!) on a menorah, advent wreath, angel chimes, or centerpiece before a family meal can make them feel proud to be trusted with such a grown up responsibility. Toddlers just want to feel included and to be able imitate what they see you doing. Another fun tradition could be to bake special cookies together and make your toddler the “Chief Decorator” or “Sprinkles Fairy” to give them their special role. For families considering the long term goals of independence, gifting each child a new ornament every year to eventually move with them to their own homes as adults is a thoughtful and heartfelt tradition.
Empathy building: Toddlers are also the perfect age to learn more about empathy and civic mindedness. They will learn and embody these characteristics best by watching you model these values, and participating in the experience of giving back. Take them to buy a present and bring it to a local charity or event for children who do not have resources. Sing Christmas carols or spend time with the elderly at a local nursing home. Make meals for the homeless. Any volunteer opportunities that are family friendly will benefit the cause you are helping as well as your child’s sense of belonging to a community that values each other.
Family Bonding: Match your family vibe to a tradition that creates warm family connections. Are you a favorite movie with a big blanket and snacks family? A creative family that can make up songs or decorate ornaments together? A family who embodies “the more the merrier” mantra who can host a festive holiday get together? I know many families who create traditions that incorporate games and reading aloud during the lead-up to holidays. One family unwraps a new board game each Christmas Eve and they play all together in their pajamas while they snack on sweets. Another family asks each member to write a letter to the other members to express their love and gratitude for that person or something that happened that year (the two year old dictates hers). The letters end up in their stockings to be read aloud Christmas morning. What a wonderful lesson that would be for little ones learning about gratitude and love for others!
Making Good Memories: Whatever you decide to do to mark the holidays in your home, think about making a family tradition that will feel special and exciting to your little ones. It could be as simple as breaking routine at bedtime to stay up for a special treat or a family sleepover. You want a tradition to stand the test of time as your child grows up and ideally is something everyone looks forward to when the holidays roll around. (This may be a tall order for some adolescents who eye roll their way through family time). Make your traditions and rituals a multi-sensory experience that will make good memories filled with warmth, scents, sounds, tastes, and vibrancy. Fond memories of family holidays are treasured far longer than most gifts we receive. After all, it’s not just about getting matching family pajamas; it’s what you do together while you’re wearing them.
Lauren Knickerbocker, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center. Dr. Knickerbocker specializes in treating selective mutism and anxiety in young children, ADHD and difficulties with organization and time management, disruptive behaviors, and parent management training. She is also the co-director of Early Childhood Service at NYU Langone’s Child Study Center.