Kids are never politically correct.
I'll never forget the Christmas I made the gravy. I was in college and my brother, who lives on the family's homestead and always hosts our holiday dinner, tossed me a whisker and asked me if I could finish cooking the gravy. No problem. I mean really, how hard could it be, right? We're all sitting at the table, enjoying each other's company when my niece, who was about 5 or 6 at the time, started whimpering. My sister-in-law whispers, "What's wrong?" My niece doesn't answer so she persists until finally she belts out, "Do I have to eat my potatoes? The gravy is lumpy."
We laughed, but I was with family members who know I can cook, some dishes rather well. Had I been with strangers, I'm sure the remark would have had me ducking under the table.
"The holiday season is when parents tend to notice most acutely which of their kids' habits could use improvement. After all, friends and family are there to witness what you see as an embarrassing display that reflects poorly on your parenting skills," according to Maribeth Kuzmeski, MBA, CSP, and author of six self-help books, including her newest release, "The Engaging Child: Raising Children to Speak, Write, and Have Relationship Skills Beyond Technology" ($18.95, Red Zone Publishing). "As a parent myself, I know that in the everyday hurry and worry of life, it's easy to let your kids' smaller foibles go uncorrected. And once you're in the midst of the packed holiday social season, it's too late to correct behaviors you previously overlooked."
"My experience as a professional and as a parent has convinced me that one of the most valuable gifts you can give your kids is to teach them how to effectively (interact) with others in a variety of settings. And the holiday season provides a wealth of opportunities to demonstrate and practice those skills," Kuzmeski said. The time to explain the rules of holiday engagement to a child is now, before all of the parties and gatherings begin.
So, where do you start?
Consider all of the parties, pageants and social settings that you and your children will be attending, and decide beforehand what habits and skills you want your children to demonstrate.
"Don't assume that your child 'would never' act in a certain way or even that he or she knows better than to engage in a particular behavior," Kuzmeski said. "Remember, kids don't' always know intuitively when they need to be on their best behavior, and they can't fake it as easily as adults can."
* Teach them that it's cool to go unplugged
With all of the gadgets available for emails, social networking, text messaging and mp3 players, a great deal of our time these days is spent plugged into something. As with anything, one must learn to step away from the gadgetry, especially at this time of year, when face-to-face interactions are so important. So, create a rule for Christmas. "Place a basket at the door during any family event and collect all electronic devices before the mingling starts," Kuzmeski suggested. "Include a note on the basket that reads, 'So you can enjoy the friends and family you're with.' Explain to your kids how important it is to engage fully with people you love, especially if you don't see certain individuals during the rest of the year."
* Arm your kids with ice breakers
"For youngsters who spend most of their days 'LOLing,' BRBing,' and 'TTYLing,' having a good old-fashion verbal conversation might be unfamiliar, if not downright intimidating," Kuzmeski said.
When adults meet a new child, they'll often ask easy-to-answer stock questions such as "What's your name? How old are you?" Besides teaching them how to answer simple questions, help your child think of something extra they might offer to the conversation. For instance, "Hi, I'm Stephen. I'm 5 years old and I love football."
*Share the importance of charm
It doesn't matter the age of a person, a compliment is always a great way to break the conversational ice. Practice with your kids, giving them examples of how to compliment. A girl, for example, could say, "I love that necklace you're wearing. It's so pretty. For a boy, "Wow, cool watch."
* The weather is the safe zone
It's not the most interesting conversation, but the fact is it works, and it's a great way for a child to ease into a conversation with someone he or she does not know very well. Something they might say? "Isn't all this snow great?" or "I hope this rain turns into snow. I would really like a white Christmas."
* Teach them how to find things in common
If children learn to find a common interest with the person to whom they are speaking, small talk can turn from mediocre to meaningful in an instant. "Teach your kids to be aware of conversational and external cues," said Kuzmeski. "If your daughter notices that someone is wearing a (Spartan) jersey and she's also a fan, she can strike up a conversation about the team.
* It's a wrap
"One of the trickiest parts of small talk is the conclusion," Kuzmeski advised. "Give kids a few lines they can use to wrap up a conversation before it veers into awkward silence like, 'It was great to meet you.' Or 'Enjoy your holidays.'"
Don't be yourself, be someone a little kinder -- Mignon McLaughlin, American journalist and author