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Verified by Psychology Today

Kristi Pikiewicz Ph.D.

Great Expectations: 4 Brain Science Tips for Holiday Success

How to manage kids' expectations to make this year's holidays the best ever


If you had a six-foot tree last year, do you need a six-and-a-half foot tree this year? If last year’s Hot Wheels set had two loops does this year’s set need three...and a jump through a flaming hoop? Over a pool filled with sharks with laser beams? Your parents or older friends think you’re spoiling the kids, but how can you not? Without Santa parachuting into your front yard with a puppy in his hands and a pony on his back, how can you avoid disappointment? How can you have the family holiday you imagine without the craziness you fear?

The answer is expectations. It’s not the fact of the 3-loop Hot Wheels set that makes your kids’ dreams come true, it’s how that set stacks up against the expectations you help to create. Here are four ways to help manage your kids’ expectations so that your simple, special holiday will be the best ever.

1. New and Novel

If you stand by a waterfall long enough, your brain will stop hearing its roar. It’s not just that you become accustomed to it—your brain literally stops hearing it, as if your grey matter were a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. The sound simply fades into the cognitive background. If for some reason the powers that control the universe wanted you to hear the waterfall again, there are two options: crank up the flow, or turn it off until even a trickle is novel again. I suggest the second.

Here’s how: turn off the flow of bigger and instead go with new. Can you pick up the kids from school 20 minutes early for a hot chocolate date? Can you camp out in a different room for a night? These things don’t require a caterer or an event planner. All they require is surprise.

2. Make it More Than the 25th

Have you been getting catalogs in the mail? Maybe you’ve been beaten over the head by a certain holiday’s merchandise as you walk into the grocery store? And then there’s the noise! All the noise, noise, noise, noise!

Not to be a Grinch, but no matter your religion or beliefs, since before Halloween the world that surrounds your children has been pointing to one day: the night of December 25th (okay, maybe it’s the morning of the 26th). It’s like a snowball rolling downhill and eventually gathering momentum until—smack!—it hits the side of a barn. After that, it’s unclear exactly what happens.

And here’s the thing: No impact can ever live up to these expectations. That is, unless you pull power and pressure from the 25th by spreading the special. Look forward to the local ballet’s performance of the Nutcracker. Look forward to the Santa train. Look forward to your family's small, seasonal traditions. For example, in my family, we eagerly anticipated Saint Nick’s day, when children got books in their shoes. As an adult, I’m not exactly sure how my parents bent the laws of physics to fit books in my shoes, but I know that the power of a magical holiday season took pressure off the big day itself.

Please note, this isn’t suggesting you make yourself absolutely insane for two months while trying to plan special events every day. Instead, try to take the time that you would have put into planning a perfect two hours and spend that time on your family over the course of a month.

3. Use Traditions to Set Boundaries

Why must the kids drag their little visions-of–sugar-plums on a short hike after unwrapping presents instead of wallowing in a pile of chocolate and video games until ‘round about New Years? Or why does your family attend midnight mass or another religious or spiritual ceremony? It’s tradition, that’s why. It’s what you always do: after presents you go for a hike.

Traditions can set the ground rules and thus help to manage expectations. It’s an important step because as wonderful as it seems to wallow in chocolate and video games, it will never meet that expectation. Instead, knowing you wait to decorate the tree until a week before, that gifts from kids to parents are homemade, and that whomever gets the almond in the breakfast porridge and thus the marizipan pig must consume said pig while gloating even if said winner doesn’t actually like marzipan, can put a frame around the absolute hedonism of the holidays.

4. Empathy

What can you do with your kids this holiday season to help others who don’t have the luxury of a roaring waterfall of gifts and goodies? I bet it doesn’t take an extensive search to find people in need. The hard truth is that even if you’re somewhere south of a millionaire, there’s almost certainly someone needier than you. Don’t moralize: Your kids will get the picture. Empathy with families whose waterfalls are a trickle this season can reorient your children’s expectations to hear the roar of their special holiday season all around them.

Confucius said, “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” And John Lennon said, “Whatever gets you through the night.” Combine these wise words to set the ground rules for holiday cheer so that your celebration exceeds your kids' wildest expectations.