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’Tis the Season for Teachable Moments: 9 Ways to Help Your Kids (Politely!) Connect and Communicate This Holiday Season

“Aww, man! I wanted a new game for my Xbox, not another sweater.” Or, “…click…click…” (That’s the sound of a teenager texting instead of answering Aunt Debbie’s question.) If you’re a parent, you’ve been there at one point or another, and you know that a child’s social missteps - even if they aren’t purposeful or malicious - can be mortifying.

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.

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. The good news is, there’s no better time than now to take advantage of teachable moments, before all of those parties and gatherings begin.

The more you practice good connecting skills with your children, the more they’ll become ingrained as habits. Here are nine holiday situations to instil productive communicating skills in your kids:

1. Teach them that sometimes it’s cool to unplug.
One of the biggest complaints that adults have with “young people today” is that they’re always “plugged in.” To some extent, that’s true - email, social networking, text messaging, mp3 players, and more have radically changed the way this generation communicates and spends its free time. Now, technology isn’t bad in and of itself, but we all know that it can lead to disengaged and even rude behaviour - especially at holiday gatherings. You’ll probably meet with some resistance, but it’s important to teach your kids when they need to step away from the keyboard, and why face-to-face interactions are the most rewarding of all.

Place a basket at the door during any family event and collect all electronic devices before the mingling starts. 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. Point out that if they stay distracted by text messages and Facebook friends, they’ll miss out on fun and memories with cousins, grandparents and siblings. Plus, kids need to understand that not giving others your attention is just plain rude… and that it won’t be allowed in your family.

2. Arm them with ice breakers. For youngsters who spend most of their days “LOLing,” “BRBing,” and “TTYLing,” having a good old-fashioned verbal conversation might be unfamiliar, if not downright intimidating. Especially if your child isn’t a natural chatterbox, it might be helpful to give them a few ideas of how they can strike up a discussion with people they don’t see every day.

Even before the days of smartphones and Facebook, it was completely normal for youngsters to feel reluctant to approach older adults. You’ll be doing your kids a big favor if you arm them with icebreakers that they can use to proactively connect. Before holiday events, discuss what some good topics of discussion might be and help them to make a list of strategies for drumming up conversation. They’ll also be able to power through any awkward lulls in conversation that might otherwise discourage them from taking the connecting initiative in the future.

3. Explain the importance of expressing gratitude.
We live in a “me, me, me” society, and even more than adults, kids tend not to think far beyond their own emotions and experiences. (Don’t blame them; much of it is biological.) During the holidays, that selfish hardwiring tends to manifest itself in a cursory “Thanks for my present!” before the child in question runs off to play with their new loot or rip open the next package. This year’s gift-swapping is a good opportunity for your kids to learn how to express gratitude in a much more meaningful way.

Explain to your children before the first round of presents is handed out why it’s important to show gratitude. Make sure they understand that each present represents the fact that another person cares about them and spent time and money to make them happy. Then, talk about meaningful ways to show gratitude. Perhaps it’s setting aside a few minutes after gift giving to say thanks privately to the gift giver. For example, your daughter might say, ‘I really appreciate the new coat, Grandma. I’ve been eyeing it forever and I can’t tell you how excited I am to finally have it!’ You might also suggest that your children keep a small pad and pen so that they can jot down what they received, and from whom. Later, set aside some time to sit down and write thoughtful thank-you notes together.

4. Make sure they mind their manners. During a typical weekday dinner on almost any given day of the year, you might decide to let a muttered, “Eeew, this is gross,” pass without comment. After all, you’re tired from a long day at work and you really don’t have the desire or the energy to disrupt the meal with a lecture. However, the same under-the-breath comment at your mother-in-law’s Christmas extravaganza is the last thing you want to hear from your son. (And that’s only one of many potentially embarrassing situations that might crop up.) Therefore, take advantage of every opportunity to reinforce politeness and to explain why various behaviors aren’t appropriate.

There are plenty of opportunities over the holidays for kids to practice their manners. Now, and as you start to attend various festive events, be alert for opportunities to remind your children what the appropriate thing to do is, and to help them exercise those ideals while they are still in the moment. For example, if your child cuts in line out of excitement while waiting to see Santa, reinforce that they need to wait their turn, and explain to your child that jumping ahead of others is disrespectful to them. Also, try not to ‘let things slide just this once.’”

5. Empower them while you’re traveling. Plenty of families pack up and hit the road to visit family during the holiday season. You may be tempted to handle everything on your own for the sake of convenience, but this is a wonderful opportunity to empower your children by allowing them to navigate “adult” situations.

Capitalize on all of the teachable moments that arise as you travel with your family. For example, let your daughter interact with the hotel receptionist and take care of all check-in aspects except the payment. If you need extra towels in your room, let your child call down to the front desk to request them. You could even let her call the airline’s automated number to double-check a flight time and status. When you accustom your children to these tasks early on, they’ll be much less timid and uncertain as they venture out on their own in the years to come.

6. Help them to host an event. For most of us, the holiday calendar will be peppered with social events. Your family might even be hosting your own festive get-together. If that’s the case, teach your child the value of being a host and “working” their own party. If you’re throwing a neighborhood gathering, for example, go with your child as they travel from door to door personally inviting each family on your street. Assuming your guests live farther away, sit with them as they phone those to whom they’re closest and asks them to attend your soiree.

Once the big event is here, have your child greet all of their friends when they arrive. “Then, ask your child to keep an eye open to make sure that everyone feels welcome and included - while enjoying them self, of course! You can also help your child to direct the flow of the party. (‘Now we’re going to play pin the tail on Rudolph!’ Or, ‘If you need more sprinkles for decorating your gingerbread man, just let me know!’) Lastly, teach them to thank all of the guests for attending as they leave. The fact is, many people don’t learn these skills until they’re adults, so you’ll be giving your child a major leg up.

7. Help them connect at the cash register. ’Tis the season for shopping, and the fact is, if you want good service, you must first be a good customer. Learning the value of connecting with the people you do business with - from clients and vendors right down to the lady who checks you out at the grocery store - can mean better experiences for you and for them. While your kids won’t be pitching their company’s product or trying to compromise with a contractor for years to come, they can definitely start learning the skills that will help them do so.

The next time you and your kids head out to the market or to the mall, help them figure out how to engage with store employees. Suggest that they thank an employee who showed you where to find an item, let a manager know about a great service experience, or ask the cashier, for once, how his or her day is going.

8. Make sure they deliver teacher gifts. It may seem silly to adults who have been conducting their own affairs for years, but personally delivering a gift to an authority figure - particularly a teacher - can be difficult for kids to do. Often, it’s a brand-new way in which to interact with this respected adult, and many children simply aren’t sure how to proceed.

Instead of having your child leave a gift anonymously on their teacher’s desk, or even handing it over and racing away in embarrassment, coach your child on how to deliver a gift in a meaningful way. Don’t assume your child can wing it - create a script they can use to tell their teacher how much he or she appreciates their teacher. Your child might even mention what they have enjoyed learning about the most. Also, tell your child to include their best wishes for a happy holiday season!

9. Remind them to stay on their best behavior - especially in the presence of adults. As most parents are acutely aware, there are more than enough opportunities over the holidays for kids to be under the watchful eyes of adults who don’t normally see them. For better or for worse, it can feel like your success as a parent is up for debate. Yes, you’ll want your kids to behave for your own sake… but it’s also important to teach them that appropriate behavior, as well as right and wrong, don’t change from situation to situation.

From parties to playdates to family gatherings, explain to your kids that even though they may not be directly interacting with an adult, that adult might still be observing and evaluating their behaviour. Tell tweens and teens especially that you never know which adult (whether it’s a friend’s parent, a coach, a teacher, etc.) might give you (or turn you down for) your first job or write a college recommendation for you. This concept will also hold true later in life - after all, an uncouth joke in the break room that’s overheard by your boss can have serious ramifications.

Ultimately, remember that there is no such thing as a perfectly behaved child. You’ll probably hit some rough patches as you navigate the holiday season, but if you’re proactive about teaching your child to connect, they will be the exception rather than the rule. And remember, by helping them to grow into connectors, you’ll be giving them - and yourself - a truly invaluable gift this holiday season.”

Maribeth Kuzmeski, MBA, CSP, is the author of 6 books including… And the Clients Went Wild!, and The Connectors (Wiley),, and is a frequent national media contributor and international speaker. Maribeth and her firm, Red Zone Marketing, Inc., consult and train businesses from financial services firms to Fortune 500 corporations on strategic marketing planning and business growth. For more information about her book, The Engaging Child: Raising Children to Speak, Write, and Have Relationship Skills Beyong Tehconology (Red Zone Publishing, 2012, ISBN: 978-0-9717780-3-0, $18.95), visit

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