Holidays

Surviving the family holiday meal and that extra helping of parenting advice

Nov. 21, 2012 at 8:53 AM ET

Image: Thanksgiving dinner
Ryan Mcvay / Getty Images stock

Ah, Thanksgiving dinner. A time to eat a special meal and share traditions with family and friends.  A time of food, reflection and harmony. 

Harmony, that is, until the family dynamics kick in and along with the turkey and stuffing comes a nice, big helping of unsolicited parenting advice from grandparents or older relatives who've already raised their kids and would love to tell you a thing or two about how to raise yours.

Just ask Marissa Klein, a Hoboken, N.J., mom of two who has already had her fill of well-intentioned members of her extended family opining as to whether a 4 p.m. or 7 p.m. Thanksgiving dinner is best for her 8-month-old.

Klein believes, the worst offenders of unwanted advice are usually those who haven’t had a young child or an infant in some time. “Sure, I would love to give my kids to them so I can hit the cocktails and apps and throw my feet up,” she jokes. But in her experience, the relatives who are the most vocal about what a parent should do at Thanksgiving aren’t usually the ones who jump up to help with the cranky, over-tired toddler.

Many parents, after years of family holidays, have learned a few tried and true tricks in dealing with advice-amped relatives.

Suzanne Darmory, mom to Gabriel, 4, and Nathaniel, 3,  says the key to coping in close quarters during the holidays is admitting that your kids aren’t perfectly behaved. If you walk into Thanksgiving dinner and are up front with everyone that your two young boys are a little rambunctious and may have a hard time sitting nicely through a grown-up meal, you’ve at least made a good preemptive strike against any unwanted tips about how to control them better, Darmory says.

As for Andrea Montalbano, a mom, soccer coach and author of the tween book "Lily Out of Bounds," handling the unsolicited advice is a lot like prepping for a soccer game.

“When I coach a team, I understand that there are going to be situations where a player’s parents want to talk to me,” she explains. But she always makes sure that it’s not in the heat of the moment, mid-game, when the kids are on the field. Montalbano says the same rules should apply to Thanksgiving dinner. If you know there’s a relative with a history of giving you mid-meal advice, go to her beforehand and ask for her words of wisdom away from the table, before the turkey comes out.

“Talk to the repeat offender before the meal gets underway,” Montalbano says. “So maybe they’ve already felt heard when everyone is seated.”  And maybe seat your little guy or girl at an opposite end of the table from that person.

Jenny Rosenstrach, blogger and author of “Dinner: A Love Story”, believes the best Thanksgiving dinner gatherings are those that are well-prepared, and flexible enough to accommodate any young children who are coming to celebrate. “Nothing good can come from confronting someone in an aggressive way over turkey,” she says. “If someone says something really annoying about your child or parenting skills, bring it up on Friday. But try to maintain the sanctity of the meal as long as humanly possible.”   

And it turns out a little levity can often be the most well-mannered response at the Thanksgiving table.

“A touch of humor can go a long  way and defuse a situation,” says Anna Post, a modern manners author and great granddaughter of etiquette guru Emily Post. “You don’t ever have to be self-deprecating,” Post explains. “It’s more about setting boundaries. If a relative is intruding on your parenting or asking prying questions about your child, someone is pushing those boundaries, and you are simply resetting them.”

She says it’s always appropriate to respond to an older relative’s parenting advice with a polite smile, and a simple, “Thanks, I will consider it.”  

Of course, in a perfect world, you’ve already been practicing with little James or Julia in advance, teaching them that when we go to grandma and grandpa’s for the holidays we use our utensils and try not to interrupt adults. But pick your battles, Post tells parents. Choose your top Thanksgiving meal proprieties. For example, she says, this Thursday, maybe focus your toddler on not throwing food— and save holding his fork properly for another, less-loaded day. 

Some grandparents also know what it takes to have a drama-free holiday dinner. Deena Mack, a Connecticut grandmother of four kids under the age of 5, tells people to go with the flow when you’ve got little ones in your brood.

With nap schedules, eating habits, and varied kiddie agendas, it can be hard to have a rigid seating arrangement or formal meal, so set your expectations accordingly, suggests Mack.

The best way for everyone to enjoy the holidays with little kids, she says, is to be mindful of everyone’s different schedules and try to be as flexible and relaxed as possible -- and to always respect a young parent's wishes.

How do you deal with parenting advice at the holiday dinner table? Share your thoughts on the TODAY Moms Facebook page

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