Put away those favorite toys. Get out those sleeping bags. Stock up on junk food and videos.
The cousins are coming!
In some houses, that spells excitement; in others, grousing. Yet all around America, many families begin the holiday season entertaining or visiting siblings, siblings-in-law and their kids. The noise level will be deafening, but, it is hoped, everyone will be having too good a time to notice. These visits offer a first-rate opportunity for cousins who live far apart to get to know one another, to continue long-held family traditions and to start new ones.
"My cousin and I would excuse ourselves from the table and sneak back underneath on our knees. Then we'd tie everyone's shoelaces together," explains 11-year-old Rosa Crowe-Allison, who lives in Connecticut and spends Thanksgiving at her grandmother's house in Springfield, Mass. Now that Rosa and her teen-age cousin think they're too old for such antics -- they even like hearing what the grown-ups are talking about on occasion -- they have been teaching their boredom-busting technique to the younger kids in the family. "I'm sure it will keep on going," Rosa says confidently.
Rosa's advice for kids forced into a weekend of family togetherness: Find out what you have in common -- like playing TC sport or an instrument. That will give you something to talk about.
Her mother, Caltha Crowe, meanwhile, thinks it's an even better idea to get the kids moving, preferably outside. "Bring plenty of play clothes," advises Ms. Crowe, an elementary-school teacher who understands all too well the correlation between exercise and children's moods.
Projects the kids can do also are a good bet. Suggest they provide the after-dinner entertainment. (Any budding musicians in the group?) Put out old photo albums so they can see how their parents, aunts and uncles used to look. Set up a small table with glue, colored paper, scissors and stickers for art projects. Let the older ones take the video camera and interview relatives about past family holidays. Encourage the kids to help in the kitchen.
"Even young kids like to feel they're contributing something," explains Margot Hammond, a child-development expert who is director of the Family Center at New York's Bank Street College of Education.
Perhaps more important, a few planned activities can spell the difference between chaos and a good time. Really. My cousin gets everyone out raking leaves.
Meanwhile, as you trip over the sleeping bags on the living room floor or try to get the kids away from the computer, gritting your teeth when your brother-in-law mentions that your parenting style leaves much to be desired, take heart. Similar scenes are being played out all over America. The American Automobile Association estimates about 30 million Americans will head out more than 100 miles from home this Thanksgiving weekend, most to stay with friends or relatives.
That means as we parents and grandparents linger over the Thanksgiving table or watch football games, the kids will be in the basement playroom or out in the back yard, getting an intensive dose of their cousins. For many, they'll be seeing each other for the first time in a year. For other newly reconstituted families, they may be meeting for the first time after a recent marriage.
Not only might they come from different towns and be different ages, but these days, it's not unusual for cousins to be different religions or even different races, observes Alan Kazdin, a Yale University psychology professor. Certainly their parents will have far different notions of the most appropriate ways to discipline them. His advice: Relax and suspend some of the rules to make the weekend special.
"Take a deep breath and know there will be some positive things and some difficult times," adds Ms. Hammond. "Know it's your expectations of your children that are important, not everyone else's."
Certainly a little preparation can only help, suggests Norman Sherry, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics on behavioral issues. Show the kids some pictures of their cousins before they see them. Tell them stories about when their cousins' parents and you were their age. Talk about how much fun everyone will have.
Despite everyone's best efforts, of course, the kids may fight. They'll argue over which video to watch or who gets to play the new computer game first. They'll debate who is the better pitcher or faster runner. One might have a tantrum; another will refuse to go to bed, keeping the whole crew awake.
"You just have to deal with it," says Maya Boreen, who has weathered many such holiday evenings with her extended family in Florida. If a situation gets out of hand, you can always separate the troublemakers from the rest of the group. You can leave the premises for a while, too.
But the kids also will likely spend hours together happily playing dress up, tossing a ball around, baking cookies, finger-painting.
All the while, they'll be forging new connections within the family and getting a glimpse of family history.
"There aren't many other occasions besides family holidays where the children are permitted to participate," observes Ms. Hammond.
Just ask 11-year-old Rosa Crowe-Allison. The adults in her family, she's discovered at Thanksgiving dinners, actually have some interesting things to say.