Everyday Etiquette: Holiday Q & A

By Diane Gottsman

With the holidays just around the corner, the same old questions always seem to pop up just before a big family gathering. It is always better to tackle them before the gathering takes place, rather than after the mishap or unintentional faux pas occurs. Here are some of the most commonly asked holiday questions:

Should I force my children to hug adult relatives they don’t remember or have never met?

Expecting a child to hug someone who he considers a stranger is uncomfortable for both the adult and child. Greeting family members with respect is required and should be discussed in advance. Let your child know that although they do not have to hug, they are expected to say hello and shake hands.

What should I teach my child about introductions?

A young child should be encouraged to look the other person in the eyes, extend his or her hand for a handshake and say his or her name. This is a process that will develop as your child matures, so be grateful for baby steps and praise and encourage his or her efforts.
My son is slow to warm up to other kids. Do I force him to play with his cousins or allow him to sit next to me and the other adults during the first few hours?

Ahead of time, talk about who will be at the holiday gathering. If you have pictures, spend some time looking at them together and talk about some funny or poignant stories from the past that he can visualize. This will help him feel a little more familiar with his extended family.

I have a finicky child who will only eat noodles and hamburger meat. Is it rude to request the host of the meal to plan a meat and noodle dish into the holiday menu? (P.S. She doesn’t like butter on her noodles.)

Yes, it would be rude to ask the host to plan a dish specifically for your child. That said, if the host is your mother or a close family member and you feel comfortable enough to share your concern, mention it and at the same time offer to bring the noodle dish yourself. Make sure and bring enough for the entire family.

My children usually get hungry long before the holiday meal is served. Would it be appropriate to request a tray of kid-friendly appetizers to stave off their appetite? Incidentally, I have a good relationship with my sister-in-law and don’t feel it would be a problem.

If you can talk candidly to your sister-in-law, you can certainly mention it. But instead of asking her for a tray of kid-friendly appetizers, offer to bring the tray yourself.

Must my children eat everything on their plate or should they leave a little to be polite?

Trying a little bit of everything is a kind gesture and if they end up eating everything on their plate, even better. It is a signal to the host that they enjoyed the meal.

We are not of the same religion as most of our relatives. What should my family do when the others bow their heads to say grace?

As a sign of respect to your family, simply bow your head or sit silently out of respect to the rest of the family. Your family does not have to join in the prayer, but it is a courteous gesture to follow the body language of the host.

I think it is a sign of respect to dress my 9-year-old son in his best outfit for the family holiday party, but my husband says it’s better to just get him to the holiday party any way we can. What’s your thought?

Insisting your son wear a suit and tie with his newly purchased leather loafers may be your son’s personal definition of torture, especially when he arrives and finds his cousins wearing blue jeans and cargo pants. Take the climate, location and formality of the function into consideration when deciding what the holiday attire will be. Call a few relatives and ask what their children will be wearing. If you decide you want your child dressed in his best and you have several hours to drive, allow him to dress comfortably until you arrive at your destination. Take a presentable, yet comfortable change of clothes that he can easily change into after a few hours.

Last year, my daughter broke a dish at my sister-in-law’s house and I wasn’t sure what to do (so I did nothing). My sister-in-law insisted that it was not a problem, but I later found out that it was her late grandmother’s favorite candy dish. What was the correct way to handle this accident?

First of all, it was a gracious gesture on your sister-in-law’s part to not make your daughter feel bad about the accident. Kudos to her! It’s important for all of us to remember that accidents do happen and making the best of the situation is all we can do, after the fact. When something is broken or damaged, it is a kind gesture to offer to replace it with a similar item. Do not make your child feel bad over the accident as it happens to all of us. Your child should, however, immediately offer a sincere apology.

In my home, we do not emphasize use of the terms "Ma'am" and "Sir." I feel awkward when my children are around other children who use these terms as I feel the parents are judging my children’s manners. My own mother just asked me, as a holiday courtesy, if I would consider asking my children to respond to the adults at the holiday function with "Ma'am" and "Sir." Should I skip the party or stick to my guns?

Why not consider a middle ground? Skipping the party is not the answer, nor is acquiescing to a request you do not feel comfortable with. Using "Ma'am" and "Sir" are courteous gestures, but not the only two gestures of kindness and respect to choose from. Rather than saying, "Yes ma'am," it is just as courteous to answer using the other person’s name. For example, "Yes, Aunt Sue, I would be happy to help you carry the box of ornaments." Or, "No, thank you, Uncle Joe, I will pass on the sweet potato pie." While using the terms "Ma'am" and "Sir" are very popular in some areas, there are many more courtesies that can be utilized. Talk to your mother about your feelings and thank her in advance for her holiday open-mindedness.