Those family visits can be one of the very best thing about the holidays but, let's be honest: They pose some challenges too. Particularly when we're visiting our elders.
It's hard to know how to abide by the etiquette of a home not our own, and hard to know when - unintentionally - we are testing the bounds of our hosts' hospitality. Despite our best intentions, tempers can flare and harsh words - later regretted - may be spoken.
Now that I'm growing older myself, I've come to realize that there are some simple steps that can be followed to help ensure a pleasant family visit. I wish I'd known them when I was younger. It would have made things so much simpler but, somehow, people never speak about them. Silly, really. We want to enjoy our family visits, not dread them.
So here are some things I've figured out along the way:
Be prepared. Set aside some time before your visit to make a list of what you may need. Write down every single thing that comes to mind. You can cull it later but, remember, it's better to over-pack than to find yourself up in the middle of the night because your youngest child or grandchild won't drop off to sleep without their favourite teddy bear.
Plan to take bedding. If you have an infant or toddler, providing safe comfortable bedding is always your responsibility.
Even if you know your hosts have enough bedding, taking along sleeping bags for the kids will spare them some laundry after you leave. Taking along familiar pillows and pillowcases can help ensure a more restful sleep.
Check with your hosts before you leave. Things can change unexpectedly, especially if you are staying with elders. If they've had a lot of visitors they may be too tired to enjoy your visit, and much too polite to say so.
Before leaving for your visit, call your hosts. Ask how their week's been and listen carefully, taking your cues from their conversation. If they've been ill or had a lot of company, you may want to amend your plans. I know that this can be a real nuisance so it's important to have a fall back plan from the beginning.
If plans for your visit do change, remember that your elders have accommodated you for a lifetime. Now it's your turn to accommodate them.
While you're checking with your hosts, ask if there's anything they'd like you to bring.
Plan some "down time" into each day of your visit. Even though we love our families to bits, too much of a good thing can be, well, too much. Plan a daytime outing for each day. It can be something as simple as a walk in the park, or it might be something like skating or an afternoon show at the local movie theatre. Whatever you plan, do invite your hosts along but don't be insulted if they decline. Everyone needs a breather now and again.
Don't assume that because they love your kids, your hosts will want to be left alone with them while you go out. However much they may love your children, elders may find caring for them without your help tiring, and even a little aggravating. If they ask or offer to babysit, go for it. Otherwise, assume that, while visiting with your children, your elders want your company too.
Pitch in. Pick up after yourselves, help to clear the table, and wash the dishes. If your hosts are the kind of folks who don't mind sharing their kitchen, cook a meal or two, planning the menus around things they enjoy and are used to eating.
At least once during your visit, say "I'm going to take a few things to the laundromat. Do you have anything you'd like me to wash for you while I'm there?" Under no circumstances should you accept an offer to do your laundry for you but, if they offer, it's okay to accept your hosts' kindness in inviting you to use their washer and dryer. Of course, it goes without saying that you should leave the laundry room as neat as a pin.
Call it a night, early. Except on the holiday itself, it's always wise to get the kids to bed at their regular bedtimes and to call it an early night yourselves. If you're not an early-to-bed person by nature, retire to your room and pass a couple of hours quietly reading, or online. It gives your hosts time and space to recover from their day and to get organized for tomorrow.
Know when to leave. Benjamin Franklin once said that "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days." That may be pushing things a bit, especially if you've traveled a long way, but do remain sensitive to the needs and preferences of your hosts. If they're flagging, you can always make arrangements to leave a couple of days early. It's the courteous thing to do.
Write a thank you note. The real kind. That goes in the mail. If your hosts are elders, this is especially important. They were raised in a time when sending a thank you note was considered a required courtesy.
Your note should thank your hosts for their hospitality, mentioning one or two things that you particularly enjoyed about your visit, and it should express your appreciation for their kindness in making you welcome.
So that's it: All common sense really.
Go forth and enjoy your visits.
Cherish the ones you love and tell them how dear they are to you.
Have a wonderful holiday.