Quick, grandparents, put away those favorite knickknacks and hide your medicines. Stock up on pizza, peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies. Then hang on to your nerves and get ready for chaos -- noise and messes and early-morning TV shows you've never heard of. The grandkids are coming to visit for the holidays. And you're going to love every crazy, hectic moment. Most of them anyway.
"Tranquilizers wouldn't hurt," jokes Ellen Cusack, a grandmother 11 who lives in suburban Chicago and has weathered many such visits. Her advice: Don't plan on doing chores. "Just play with the kids."
"I've learned not to drive myself crazy picking up after them," says Ruth Lerner, who gets twice-a-year visits from her East Coast grandchildren at her San Fernando Valley condo in California. "You can't holler at kids you don't see that often."
Check ahead to see what foods are favorites, she suggests, and have a supply of toys on hand for the younger set. Mrs. Lerner always prepares her neighbors for the impending onslaught, too. "They understand. They're mostly grandparents like us," she explains. A few neighborly conversations may also have the unexpected dividend of locating much-appreciated playmates. Whatever their ages, the grandchildren will want and need play time during their visit.
That's why Jerry and Jim Rosenthal schedule one big family party when their grandkids come from California or Massachusetts to their Highland Park, Ill., home. "Everyone comes to see them and they don't have to run around to everyone's house," Mrs. Rosenthal says. She plans one-on-one activities with each grandchild, too. But, she cautions, make sure the kids approve the choice. Nothing is worse than having a grandparent invest in ballet tickets or a day at a museum only to discover that's the last place the grandchild wants to be.
"Write to your grandchildren ahead of time and tell them how glad you are that they're coming and what you've got planned," suggests Dr. Martin Stein, a La Jolla, Calif., pediatrician and University of California-San Diego Medical School professor. He serves as an American Academy of Pediatrics spokesman on psychosocial issues.
Dr. Stein underscores the importance of these visits. In an era when most of us live so far from our families, visiting grandma and grandpa helps the kids understand their history and feel connected to a family -- a key to their self-esteem.
The Rosenthal grandchildren, for example, love seeing their parents' old schools and playgrounds. My kids like hearing stories from their grandparents about when I was a kid.
You can also use the time together to learn more about your grandchild's interests, adds Chicago child psychologist Victoria Lavigne. "Sit down and watch a favorite video with them," she suggests. "Talk to your grandson about his card collection." Play cards or a board game -- get your granddaughter to teach you her favorite.
It all sounds warm and wonderful. But don't be surprised if the kids -- especially the younger ones -- greet you with less than open arms. "It may take them a while to warm up," explains Dr. Lavigne. "Kids don't know how to make small talk."
They aren't going to be angels, either -- especially at a holiday dinner. "You can't expect things to be perfect when there are a lot of little kids around," sighs my mother, Minna Ogintz, who lives in Las Vegas and no longer strives for holiday perfection now that she has five young grandchildren.
To make our family holiday dinners go more smoothly these days, my mom prepares food the kids like -- sans fancy sauces. And when they're done (usually in 10 minutes), they're permitted to leave the table -- to play or watch a video in another room. (They come back for dessert, of course.)
Maybe it's not the ideal. But they're happier and we're sure more relaxed. And that counts for a lot.
"Holidays are a precious time when families are together. Everyone has got to go the extra mile and be tolerant and forgiving," observes Dr. Arthur Kornhaber, founder of the Massachusetts-based Foundation for Grandparents, a nonprofit organization devoted to enhancing relationships between the generations. (For a free newsletter, send a double-stamped self-addressed envelope to Foundation for Grandparents, Box 326, Cohasset, Mass. 02025.)
Avoid being too critical or judgmental of the grandkids or the way they're being raised, he urges. "Focus on the good things." Bend to the kids' routines; don't expect them to adjust to yours. Make sure there is a place in your house where they can spread out. Put a TV in a room where they can watch early-morning television. Have a cache of crayons, markers, stickers, paper and books on hand.
Jerry Rosenthal even has sheets and stuffed animals for the kids. And she always bakes their favorite cookies. "I prepare like a hotel would for a guest," she chuckles.
If you're expecting little ones, make sure to do a safety check before they arrive. Are your household poisons out of reach? Have you put away your medicines and plugged the electrical outlets?
"You forget what it's like to have young kids around," acknowledges Ellen Cusack. "You can't turn your back on them for a second."
That's why it's good to plan plenty of outdoor time -- so they can burn off some energy. You'll enjoy it as much as the kids.
If that's not your style, do what Ruth Lerner does: Send the kids outside with their dads or grandfather. "Then I sit down and relax for a while," she explains.
"They grow up so fast," she says. "You can never see them enough."