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Engaging Your Grandkids Over the Holidays

The dinner is eaten and the gifts are all unwrapped… now what do you do with your grandkids? With only so many hours to spend with grandchildren over the holidays, particularly those who live out of town, the pressure’s on to create memorable moments with the people we love most, our kin.

Here’s a guide for how to entertain your grandkids while they’re with you over the holidays:

#1: Invite Them into the Mundane

When I was a child in my grandma’s house, I helped her hang the sheets on the clothesline. I held the bowl of clothespins and walked with her as she clipped each cotton sheet to dance on the breeze. In my memory, this moment lasts for hours, maybe days, maybe weeks, standing in the warm sunshine with my grandma.

In order for it to matter, every single moment doesn’t have to be scripted. We just have to be present in order for our presence to count. After the delight and magic of opening gifts, don’t forget the space for them to simply “do life” with you. Ask your grandchildren to help you cook, help you fold laundry, help you sort through a box of old things in the basement, and help you clean up the kitchen. Within that shared activity there is room for the mundane to become sacred.

#2: Play Your Favorite Games

My great-grandma, whom I was fortunate to know, had a checkerboard and a deck of cards in her trailer. That was it for kid’s entertainment. When I visited her, I didn’t watch TV (of course, she had three channels that weren’t all static, so there was that), we sorted out the red chips from the black and battled to cross the board and conquer. She shuffled the weathered deck and dealt out hands of rummy and double solitaire.

In my memory, we played for hours, maybe days, maybe weeks, sitting at the dining room table with its plastic tablecloth and flower centerpiece.

You may think that all your grandkids want to do is watch TV and play on their phones, but they’re just doing what we all do, killing time, filling space, until someone invites them into something else. Maybe you have to gently force the issue and call for a no-screen afternoon, but isn’t the laying of that groundwork worth it? Build a puzzle, play a board game, or teach them a card game; whatever it is, it’s another space for you to intentionally interact.

#3 Take a Hike

Yeah, it’s cold this time of year in the Northern hemisphere, but that’s what gloves and coats are for. Bundle up and pick a park to go explore together. The world looks different in winter, even without snow, and the open air and muffled thumps of your feet on the soil make space for wandering thoughts to surface, for memories to be shared, for ideas to blossom. It’s clearer out there.

#4 Show and Tell

Our family heritage travels through oral tradition, the practice of storytelling as we stand around the kitchen or congregate around a plate of Christmas cutouts you decorated. Allow yourself to go on about your own childhood, your parents and siblings, your own Christmas traditions. Bring out your old photo albums, slide shows, and videos to help trigger stories, names, and places.

You might think it’s all the same, boring details of your life that only matter to you, but these are the building blocks of family identity. It is important to our souls to know who and what and where we came from. Think of the gospels: Jesus knows his lineage. Our family stories provide the preface to the book of life we’re writing for ourselves and future generations.

#5 Traditions, New and Old

My mom’s side of our family is of Eastern European descent, and the recipes of my ancestors almost always make appearances around the holidays. My grandpa was known for his kolacky cookies, which he labored over in the days preceding our holiday gathering. My mom and I have tried to carry forward his tradition, by inviting my daughter into the baking and preparations. Invite your grandchildren to share in your family’s traditions, even if you have to go searching for them in recipes.

If traditions weren’t a thing your family carried forward, make space for new traditions. Our family didn’t grow up following the liturgical calendar, but I’ve since found great hope and comfort in the advent tradition. We’ve incorporated the advent wreath and some practice of advent into the holidays ever since the kids were little.

When you repeat any activity more than once with little ones, it suddenly becomes a tradition. We can’t just do it once, it is now what we must do every year. I’ve seen with my own family that new traditions aren’t always something you intend to start; instead, they emerge from the impromptu holiday dance party or the wintry walk we took once after an especially filling meal. Now we always do this. Because it’s a tradition.

#6 Introduce Them to a New Hobby

One of my grandmothers invited me to collect stamps with her. Can you imagine? Collecting stamps? With an 8-year-old? But I loved it. It was so otherworldly, nothing else in my regular day-to-day life included collecting stamps. It was something I only did with her.

The same great-grandma that sat down to play checkers with me taught me how to cross-stitch. Can you imagine? Cross-stitching with an 8-year-old? I loved it.

We so often degrade ourselves and think that what we enjoy doing is maybe old fashioned, too boring and low-tech for “kids these days,” but in those seemingly ancient hobbies and crafts are the makings of creativity, innovation, and love. Show them how to sew. Teach them how to bake your favorite cookie. Whatever you love to do, invite them to do alongside you. I bet they’ll love it.

#7 Show Them Your Favorite Movies

Okay, okay, I know you only have so much energy for all of this activity. It’s time to relax and help the kiddos wind down for the night. Or maybe you need a whole day to catch up on some rest (Yes, Jesus is our Lord, but there comes a time in every family’s life when the TV acts as our second savior).

The latest blockbusters are flashy and fun, but stroll through your own memory lane by introducing the kids to some of the favorite films from your children’s past or even your own childhood. Classic films withstand the test of time. Many films can kick start conversations about changes in culture, what is acceptable and appropriate now versus what was accepted then. And no matter what, there’s nothing like enjoying a giant bowl of popcorn while you share a blanket and snuggle up with a little person on a quiet winter’s night.

You don’t have to succumb to the pressure to schedule every single minute full of expensive outings or give into the lies that you are just boring old people; what would kids want to do with you when they have video games? 

What they really want is more time with you, more memories with you, more meaningful moments with the people they love and who love them, and isn’t that what you want, too?

God bless your hectic holiday with peace and all the holy space for love to grow with your loved ones this year!

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