I have long been a victim of my own big dreams. I see in my mind's eye evenings of relaxation while my kids listen to Handel's Messiah and finger paint a Christmas light art project I saw on Pinterest while nibbling on peppermint cookies and gingerly sipping egg nog. And then everything goes to heck in the first five minutes. First, no one likes finger painting. Second, no one, NO ONE in my family knows how to nibble. Every beverage will get spilled at some point (usually on purpose, by Will). And this whole evening of delight ends in five minutes. I have finally learned how to plan meaningful, fun, magical memory-making events with my kids WITHOUT the trauma that comes from trying to execute dreams that are not age-appropriate. Here are my thoughts.
The first thing to remember is that you need to plan activities to scale. Do you know what I mean? In terms of how complex, how long, how invested they need to be. It's so easy to plan this amazingly awesome movie night and then get discouraged when, fifteen minutes into it, the kids are jumping off the couch screaming their heads off, throwing handfuls of popcorn in every direction. But then you feel like an idiot, because of course they can't sit still and snuggle to watch a movie! They are too young! Their attention span is too short!
So - keep activities short enough that they will be invested, but if it's a craft, be flexible with the time. Some of my kids will keep focusing and working on it forever. But none of them can sit through a whole movie unless they're sick. Maybe just being flexible is key here.
But with how complex things are - this is big too. I remember when it finally dawned on me last year around this time - kids are not adults. We love complex projects, that involve lots of steps and details (well, most of us). Kids do too, but on the correct scale. If I give them something too complex, they lose interest within minutes, sometimes seconds. If I give them something that is just right, they will love it and stay focused on it and we will enjoy our time together.
Some ideas: with my older two kids, we love to draw together. Last week on a snow day when the babies were sleeping, we pulled out my drawing papers and pencils and each sketched a still-life of one of our poinsettias. It was so fun and relaxing to chat while we worked. Kjel finished first (because she is youngest) and so I suggested she get her crayons and add some color. Gage finished next and I asked him to add some more detail while I kept working. Mine is still not done, ha. I'm such an adult. But the whole process of drawing together lasted almost an hour! A WHOLE HOUR! An hour of fun, relaxed chatting and creating together. THOSE moments are what count. I know my kids felt loved, appreciated, and trusted as we worked together.
I think that is key too - sometimes we get sooooo invested in making things magical that we overcomplicate. Do you do this? I do. Kids DON'T CARE! Simplify, simplify, simplify.
"Spontaneous delight" in the words of the Eyres, is also wonderful though I'm a HUGE advocate of planning for and carrying out the memories you want to make. However, when the spontaneous ideas come and they are simple and doable, do them. For example, last night after dinner Steven asked the kids if they wanted to go out for a nighttime walk in the snow. They were all SO excited. We bundled them up and he took them for a good hour around the neighborhood, pulling them in the sled. Not planned, but easy to execute. Simple. Magical.
The summation of this post is that when I used to try to manufacture memories out of dreamy ideas I had without taking into account the ages and maturity levels of my children, I was often overwhelmed and disappointed. I felt like a failure. Accepting and LOVING this young kid stage has totally changed my life and every holiday! Spending five minutes on a simply planned activity, with joy and fun and laughter is SO MUCH MORE magical than trying to spend an hour on a beautifully prepared activity that they aren't ready for.
Good luck with your little ones! If you are raising kids that are all below school aged, hang in there and simplify to the very simplest activities but do them with great love and gusto, and you WILL feel the magic. I promise! And so will they! You are a wonderful parent. I promise.