Christmas in Two Homes

November 21st, 2011
Image © by jon.swanson | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

A suitcase, step-families, many grandparents, a manger, Santa, and maybe Hanukkah. Airplanes, long car rides, and different beds. Quick stops in many places. Gifts, food, and different ways of celebrating.

It's no wonder children may ask "When am I where?" Families whose children pack a suitcase and shuttle between parents find the packed schedule of the Advent-Christmas season a special challenge and a draining, emotional experience. During holidays they often must visit the non-custodial parent, grandparents on both sides, and possibly step-grandparents. And that's not all: varied faith traditions can confuse children and challenge teachers to interpret!

Let's consider how holiday life in two (or more!) homes affects children's celebration of the season... and your planning for those children.

A Clash of Schedules

A call: "Zachary was supposed to light the candles for the Christmas Eve candlelight service, but his mother once again has reneged on bringing him back early! Maybe you should just take him off your acolyte list!"

A note: "Sophia has her heart set on being in the Christmas program, and she's learned all her lines. But the required rehearsal is on her Dad's visitation weekend! Can she still be in it? Please?"

A sigh: "I've given up on Annabelle being in children's choir. Her Dad says he doesn't want to give up his Sunday evenings with her. I had such fond memories of being in children's choir. If our church really cared about single parent families, they'd put children's activities on week nights!"

Don't be surprised if you experience an unintended backlash of loss and frustration!

Everybody's Uptight

Often the whole family experiences volatile emotions at holidays. Cherished traditions and habits often must be discarded when parents divorce or re-marry. Changes in traditions heighten even adult emotions.

• All the aunts and uncles are upset because our family always opened gifts on Christmas Eve, but now that's when Claudia's Dad has her. Everyone's life is changed because of their divorce.

•Sam's grandmother is offended by his excitement over going to the new Nana's house to play with step-cousins his age.

• Hailey's aunt worked hard on Hailey's favorite Christmas desert, but Hailey has eaten two holiday feasts already and doesn't want any at all.

Children have a mixed bag of feelings. They are often nervous and over-stimulated about meeting new relatives. A child may fear getting on an airplane alone to visit Mom and also bubble with eagerness for the reunion. Two siblings may fight about the trip to see Dad: one can't wait; the other is heartbroken to spend the entire holiday away from friends. Almost all children of two homes lose their "down" time for playing with friends during the holidays.

Jealousies between step-children may also be exacerbated by holidays. What if the family was all geared up for a Christmas movie, but discards the idea because Samantha saw it at her mother's last week? (Resentment!)

What if Cade was dying for a new video game his parents call too expensive, but step-brother James got it at James' other home where Matt will never see it? (Envy!)

How Can You Respond?

Of course, you as a teacher have less control over this chaos than the children do. But there are several ways you can help:

1. Adapt for Absentees.
Keep in mind the schedule constraints of children of divorce. Don't penalize children who have no control over their schedules. Arrange for "make-up" rehearsals or alternative activities. Don't make participation in special Christmas events dependent on attendance.

Label and set aside handouts and Christmas treats for absent children. When he entered Sunday school every other week, Jamaal asked his kindergarten teacher for last week's leaflet. Puzzled, she asked Jamaal's mother, "Doesn't he go to church on his Dad's Sunday?" The mom said, "Maybe he just wants whatever went on in his class here while he was gone." The teacher then began using sack mailbags for every child. Papers, crafts, and any treats were added whenever someone was absent. What a family-friendly teacher!

2. Allow for Emotions.
Be sensitive. In notes home, carefully choose your words: use affirming and reassuring language.

Be aware that the grief process is not over just because the divorce is. Holidays are a time families particularly want to be together, so grief that they are separate is sharper than other times. Grief isn't linear; it's more cyclical. Feelings tend to circle back through stages of grief, such as denial, anger, or sadness, especially as the situation changes or as children mature and see things in a different perspective. A child who has seemed fairly adjusted to two families may suddenly wail, "I don't want to go away for Christmas!"

In both parents and children, you may notice sad faces or aggression motivated by anger or confusion. Sometimes all that is needed is a listening ear, a reminder of your continued care, or an acknowledgment of conflicting feelings.

3. Keep Communicating.
Help overcome the information gap. For children who were "with the other parent" last week, send home a mid-week email or call them. Ask parents to preaddress several postcards early in the school year. Use them for occasions such as "The class decided to bring canned goods in a sack next Sunday," "Everyone is bringing a dollar for pizza," or "We know you have to be away, but we miss you when you're not here."

4. Plan for Multiples.
For any gift-making activity, plan supplies so that children can make a gift for step-parents as well as parents. Or, word the suggestion, "Make a gift for someone special." Let them choose for whom.

One teacher of fours said, "I remembered what you said, how most moms would be delighted for children to make the step-mother a gift so they wouldn't have to help pick it out. But David asked how come Tiffany got to make two gifts, and I said her parents were divorced. Then he wanted to know what divorce was! I told him that divorce is when, in some families, the Mommy and Daddy decide to live in different houses, so Tiffany needed to make two so each house could have one. Was that all right?" That was just right! No one said inclusiveness and sensitivity happen without thought and effort!

5. Differing Faiths.
Be alert for any family that straddles two denominations or even religions. It's good for the class to hear how another denomination is celebrating the holiday. Use a child's description of "my other church" as an opportunity to talk about Christ being the center of the season. "Isn't it marvelous how many ways we can welcome baby Jesus?!"

If one parent is non-Christian, talk to the parent who attends your church. Is the child's involvement in your church accepted by both parents? How are the two faiths presented to the child? Have the parents agreed on the child's participation in certain religious customs?

When the third grade teachers began describing a Seder meal, Eric took over. He corrected them about the foods eaten, describing what he had experienced at his Jewish step-grandpa's home. The teachers said, "The Seder was an important Jewish meal, and still is. Thank you, Eric, for helping us know more about it. Now let's hear how one Seder meal became a special time together for Christians . . ." They then moved the lesson back to its focus on communion and its purpose in the Christian community.

You can affirm a child's narrative of experience and still make clear what you and your church believe.

Teaching the children, not the lesson!

But isn't the lesson the focal point of Sunday school? When will I have time to teach? Remember that the children's relationship with you, powered by your faith in God, is of primary importance. Your concern for how a child lives in two homes, may be the most important lesson for that child.

Look forward to the coming of Christ who was willing to be with us and will be with you, and remember the children of two homes. Small efforts you make may give flesh to the abiding truth, Emmanuel.

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