Recently, the New York Times ran a story about how people have been expanding their use of dog trainer Cesar Millan’s advice beyond their interaction with their dogs. They’re trying to be “calm-assertive” with their kids too.
With that in mind, I thought I’d come up with a Millan-style survival guide the holidays. After all, most families are pretty complicated and someone needs to be the pack leader.
1. Activate the Pack: Instead of suffering through meal preparation and cleanup all by yourself, delegate tasks to members of your family, particularly those who tend to walk in the door and park on the couch to watch football without even offering assistance. Anticipate this behavior and put them to work immediately by saying, “I’m so glad you’re here, I need your help with…” Don’t be wishy-washy about it; just be confident and relaxed and your family members will become part of the process. That way you can all enjoy being together and completing a project as a pack, which means the meal will taste that much better. Whatever you do, don’t tell everyone you want to do it all yourself or you don’t need any help. That’s like laying on your back and showing your belly. Very submissive!
2. Lead the Conversation: My grandfather is famous for his storytelling at family dinners and I think it helped him remain in charge of his family (with 9 kids, he needed something!). The storyteller at the table commands the attention of the whole group. Sure, maybe you’d rather float under the radar, but if you do you’re likely to get sucked into a conversation you didn’t want to have. Whether it’s politics or in-vitro fertilization that sits at the top of your worst-topic-of-conversation list, you can put a stop to the whole thing with a “great story.” Have two or three prepared before the holidays so you can launch into them immediately when things get hairy.
An alternative for those who aren’t confident in their oratory skills is to switch a controversial topic to one that is less so. To do this, you have to become a master of the segue. Your brothers-in-law are debating healthcare legislation? That’s when you say, “You know who needed a lot of health care? That lady on Oprah who got mauled by the chimp!” I lifted that idea from NPRs Morning Edition, but it’s a good one. Just remember, if you’re calm and assertive (and prepared), you don’t have to get bullied by an unpleasant conversation.
3. Controlling the Kill: If you’re dieting, the holidays can be a nightmare. Even if you’re trying to keep your eating under control, those pesky family members are always at the ready with offers of a second helping or a piece of pie. Sometimes the pressure is too much. If you find yourself experiencing this, you are at risk of losing your alpha position. Act quickly!
An alpha eats what he or she wants to eat; nothing more, nothing less. Use the phrase, “No, thank you” liberally and don’t feel as if you have to explain that you’re dieting. Your only etiquette obligation is to decline politely if you don’t want something. If the other person keeps offering, he or she will recognize the sound of a broken record soon enough.
4. Empty the Den: There’s a country somewhere where when the hosts want to go to bed, they serve orange juice and all the guests know it’s time to go home. I wish I could remember where that was, and I also wish we had a similar custom here in the United States. It would make that awkward time so much easier. Not to worry, though. There’s a calm and assertive way to get your point across without glasses of juice.
Most people pick up on signals pretty easily and will leave shortly after things are cleaned up or after dessert. You can’t be subtle with those who do not read these signals well. If Uncle Henry is deciding to stay put to watch the Tonight Show on your couch and you’re ready to call it a day, you must be the pack leader and make your decision clear. Party’s over! Grab Uncle Henry’s coat and approach with upright posture. “Uncle Henry, thank you so much for spending Thanksgiving with us. We’d love to spend some more time with you, but it’s time for us to go to bed. Would you like some help getting out to the car?” If you’re handing out leftovers, now would be a good time to plop them in Uncle Henry’s lap so that couch situation isn’t quite so comfortable.
5. The Puppies Are Yours: If you have kids, part of the dread around the holidays is the overtired, cranky behavior to which your spawn will treat you. This is where the alpha behavior will really come in handy, as kids respond really well to calm-assertive behavior.
Enforce naptimes for little ones and even not-so-little ones (depending on the situation, this may include your spouse) who might get over-stimulated and become unpleasant around you and other family members. Who couldn’t use a little time to unwind in the middle of Christmas day before getting back to the fun? This will require a little discipline on your part too, as you’ll have to keep your schedule in mind in between basting the turkey, preparing the seven fishes, or hauling six bags of discarded wrapping paper out to the curb. But not letting the holidays unravel into a totally discipline-free disaster will help keep everybody (including you) satisfied when it’s all over. This plan, by the way, will be great for your dogs, too. They will definitely benefit from the enforcement of a routine.