4 Guiding Principles and 4 Practical Strategies for More Fun and Less Drama at Your Next Family Gathering
I hope your Thanksgiving was better than ours. The morning started out great. The food prep was smooth and easy. Everyone seemed happy and lighthearted. We even said grace before the meal and several people were teary-eyed with gratitude for one another. Then, suddenly, the mood changed. My dad and nephew started talking about oil pipelines in North Dakota. My daughter started talking about a funny political skit she saw on SNL and BOOM! Things weren’t so lighthearted any more. Voices rose. Faces flushed. People stormed out of the room. Old wounds from years ago got brought up again. Unkind comments were even shared about people’s weight! Ugh!
I am still trying to figure out how it turned so ugly so quickly, but one thing is for sure – I don’t want the family Christmas gathering to turn out the same way! I have even secretly been toying with the idea of skipping out of it all together. Maybe I could get sick? Maybe I could “accidentally” buy a plane ticket that takes me out of town on Christmas Day. Maybe family holidays just aren’t worth all the stress and trouble.
However, somewhere down deep, I’m not willing to give up. I still have a flicker of hope that we can do better, that we can be a family that sees each other’s flaws and chooses to love in spite of them, that we can actually enjoy being together.
In the days since Thanksgiving, I have been working hard to fan that flicker of hope. I have had very difficult, tearful, but helpful conversations with my mom and my sister. We asked each other, “What went wrong?” “How can we do better next time?” “How did you feel about ____?” Tonight, I am going to have the same difficult conversation with my adult daughter. Please pray for me.
These conversations aren’t easy, but they are worth it. Like my mom said, “If you want to be a part of a family, you have to be willing to overlook faults, forgive offenses, respectfully disagree, and accept imperfections.” We can’t fix each other, but we can support, affirm, and love each other.
Family relationships are worth fighting for. Uncomfortable moments at family gatherings are a small price to pay for the valuable strengths we gain. It is easy to love people who are just like us. Family dynamics challenge us to love people who we do not usually choose to befriend. It is by being a part of a dysfunctional, imperfect family that we learn unconditional love; that we learn to practice Jesus’s commands to forgive one another, to encourage one another, and to use love to cover a multitude of sins. (It probably goes without saying, but please know I am not talking about abusive situations here.)
With input from my mom and sister, I came up with a new list of 4 Guiding Principles and 4 Practical Strategies that I hope will help us have more fun and less drama. Maybe reading our list will inspire you to come up with your own.
And remember – as far as anyone knows, we are a nice normal family! Ha!
- If someone offends you, go to that person directly and talk to them.
Do not text their mother about the offense. Do not complain about them when they leave the room. Go to them directly. Try starting the conversations with the phrase, “When you say/do that, it makes me feel ______” If you are not willing to confront them directly, than it is your responsibility to forgive. Silent bitterness is not an option.
- Do not bring up offenses that happened years and years ago at the family gathering.
(I learned this one the hard way!) There may be a time to have a conversation about past issues that need to be worked through, but Christmas is not the best time for that to happen. Schedule a different time to get together at a neutral location to discuss any serious or difficult issues.
- Avoid discussions about politics and have a safety plan.
Large family gatherings are not the place to discuss politics, especially this year! Have a code word/safety plan when someone is crossing the line. When conversations start going the wrong direction someone should say, “So, do you think it looks like snow?” or “I think I hear Santa!” or “How ‘bout those Cardinals!” Hopefully everyone will laugh and disaster will be averted.
- Change your expectations.
I hope you aren’t surprised by this revelation, but the Hallmark movie channel is not reality! Unfortunately, real life conflicts are rarely resolved in 60 minutes with 2 commercial breaks. You should prepare yourself and expect some sort of conflict and decide not ahead of time NOT to magnify it into a tragedy. Make a decision before you leave your own home to quickly forgive and not be easily offended.
Four Practical Strategy to have more family FUN and less family DRAMA
- Go outside OR play a game!
Play a game of kickball. Build a snowman. Do a mile long hike and gather pretty rocks. I highly recommend the Apples to Apples Junior. It is an easy game that is quick to learn, appropriate and fun for every age level from preschoolers to grandparents, works for anywhere from 3 to 10 players and it is guaranteed to bring laughs.
- Coordinate a family blessing activity.
Take a piece of paper for each member of your family. Write each person’s name on the top of the paper. During the gathering, pass the papers around and have everyone write out one thing they love/admire/respect about the person.
- Aim for a shorter amount of time together.
Forty-eight hours of uninterrupted time together in a small house with little sleep might sound like a super-fun slumber party, but can easily end up in disaster. Sometimes, less is more. Instead of spending the night, why not make it a day trip? Meet at a restaurant or a park for a set amount of time. If you have to spend the night, get a hotel room and consider the expense as an investment in family unity.
- Invite a stranger to join you.
Everyone is on better behavior when there is a new person to impress. Consider a person you work with that has nowhere to go or the new family who just moved into your neighborhood from out of town.
Family is hard and painful and challenging. Every member of your family (including you) is flawed and fragile and they will NEVER be perfect. But all of us need to know that in spite of all our problems, we are still lovable and worthy of acceptance. Family is worth the fight.