'Tis the season for epic light displays, festive family feasts, and finding the perfect tree to trim. If your aim is to make your kid's Christmas sparklier than the lights on the Griswold's house, the science behind Clark Griswold's family cheer and what it says about parenting expectations at Christmastime might be of particular interest to you.
My family called it "forced family fun." My mom would literally make my sister and I hang ornaments with her on the four trees she put up throughout our house while we listened to Christmas music or watched Clark Griswold attempt to turn on thousands of lights. While it was definitely forced fun for many years, over time my attitude toward these holiday traditions morphed. Now, I find myself prodding my kids to take part in every single ounce of fun I can possibly squeeze into the Christmas season — no matter how dumb they think it is.
But, is this good for them? Is it good for me? What happens if I fail? What happens if all of my best laid plans go all Griswold-like and blow up in my face?
"Parents and caregivers who can create wonderful holiday moments are helping children feel loved and cared for. Of course, the child who feels unconditionally loved and appreciated during the holidays has the biggest gift of all," Maureen Healy, child psychologist, author of The Emotionally Healthy Child, and parenting coach at Growinghappykids.com tells Romper. "Picture perfect moments — things that look really good — are nice, but nothing compared to how a child feels. Helping children feel seen, appreciated, and loved is our biggest gift to them now and throughout the year."
As Clark Griswold famously expressed, "We're gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny f—ing Kaye!" And he meant it. He was borderline obsessed with the perfect tree, a fancy feast, and that over-the-top display of lights that it lead to several breakdowns of epic proportions. (That moment you go to turn on 25,000 lights and nothing happens is the worst.) Kicking down plastic reindeer in the yard in a fit of rage happens to the best of us.
Just like in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, even the most well-intentioned "fun old-fashioned family Christmas" doesn't always go as planned. Sometimes, you're going to have a Clark-level meltdown. It literally happens at least once each Christmas season for me. And I shouldn't be anymore surprised about that than if I woke up with my head sewn to the carpet, but I am. I always am. As Healy points out, even difficult circumstances during the holidays can lead to frustration and less-than-perfect experiences.
"Children need to learn that things don't always work out the way we imagined, but the important part is that families love each other. Of course there are many experiences during the holidays which are difficult, like loss, disappointment, and custody proceedings, as examples," Healy tells Romper. "This means the holidays may not be the 'picture perfect' moment in our lives, but we need to learn to make the best of the cards we're dealt."
Clark sets impossibly high standards for himself because he’s trying to have the family Christmas he’s wanted to host in his own home his whole life. But, he’s set standards “that no family can live up to” because he is the “last true family man." Trekking through 2-foot-thick snow with his wife and kids to find the perfect tree only to have to yank it out of the ground because he forgot a saw shows that his motivation is incredibly pure. Nostalgia and creating cherished memories is the clear driving force behind his incessant desire for family Christmas cheer.
"Parents need to focus on creating the magical feelings at the holidays versus how things look to others (i.e. getting big gifts, perfect dinner, nice clothes). Having all the goodies life can offer is great, but it's the caring and sharing part of the holidays which plants the seeds of happiness," Healy tells Romper. "Focus on enjoying decorating the tree even if an ornament breaks, or giving a lasagna to an elderly neighbor as well as teaching children to help others. This is the real meaning of holidays or holy days."
Maureen Healy, child psychologist, author of The Emotionally Healthy Child, and parenting coach at Growinghappykids.com