On Being “The House” At Thanksgiving (And Beyond)
As we get ready for Thanksgiving—prep here includes a tight schedule of tasks for the week prior, containing everything from making pies and relishes to finally dusting the dining room—I’ve been thinking more and more about what it means to be “The House.”
A lot of parents are familiar with this concept, especially if you grew up in a house where your friends were… well… if not exactly unwelcome, maybe just seen as kind of a nuisance. I’m here to tell you that if you manage to be The House for your own kids, they will find it inconceivable that not every home is like this. “You love it when we have friends over,” my son says. “It’s your favorite.” I don’t know if favorite is the exact right word, but he’s right, I do love it. I like knowing where my kids are and what they’re doing. I like it when their friends are clearly comfortable here. I do enjoy cooking for a crowd, especially when the audience is appreciative.
And yes, let’s be honest; on the rare occasion when I hear a whispered, “Your mom is so awesome” or similar, I do a little internal high-five with myself. Because remember when you were whining about how I was the absolute worst? Yeah, well, your buddies think I’m great. Maybe you‘re the obnoxious one, kid! (What? I can’t be a great mom and enjoy a little schadenfreude, too? What teen wants to hear that their mom is cool? And what mom wouldn’t feel victory at the resultant discomfort?)
Being The House means cultivating a (reasonable) open-door policy from the time the kids are small, and adjusting as necessary once they reach their teens. It means having dedicated places and spaces for them to sprawl; it means having a playroom space when they’re little and silently surrendering the TV remote once they’re older. It means withholding judgment on the pals with whom they choose to spend their time, and gently enforcing house rules so that regardless of who those kids are outside of your house, inside they are kids you’re proud to know. It means always having snacks on hand and knowing who likely doesn’t have a hot dinner waiting at home (and then making enough that when you say, “Oh, stay and eat with us, it’s no problem at all,” it really isn’t). It means suggesting, “why don’t you have some friends come over?” when teen angst threatens to sequester them in their rooms, and then backing off and letting them figure it out.
I always wanted my kids to grow up in The House. I think we’ve been able to manage it, despite the thousand and one other parenting mistakes that we’ve made along the way.
The flip side of this kind of house philosophy, of course, is that being The House comes along with rules and limits and expectations. You don’t just fling open the doors and let chaos reign. My kids know they have to clean up and do their chores before they have guests. They’ve known since they were small that the host is responsible for damage control; they don’t have to make their friends clean up, for example, but if they don’t, they’re responsible for taking care of any mess later on. (Surprise, they’ve all learned to put their dishes in the dishwasher when they’re done. Turns out it’s not hard!) They also know that if their guests are rude, they may no longer be welcome. While my kids are reaping the benefits of a pretty flexible house policy, they’re also learning that a certain measure of cooperation and good behavior is required for these privileges. And really, it turns out that teens are pretty good at self-policing; on the rare occasion when one of my children has gotten a little lippy with me in front of guests, it’s not unusual to later hear a hushed, “Wow, you’re being kind of rude to your mom. You should apologize.” They’re not dumb, and the peer pressure there is sometimes the good kind.
We tend to have a houseful for Thanksgiving. Our families are far-flung, and so it’s often our little nuclear unit and friends from different places (work, etc.). There’s no standard over the river and through the wood’s sort of holiday routine for my teens. All they know is that the table will be full, and the food will be plentiful, and the laughter will probably be loud.
This is the first year one of my teens asked to have a friend join us for the big meal. I said of course, trying to act casual, but it means more to me than my kids will ever understand that they know the door is open, here. I think that regardless of the minutiae and power struggles of daily adolescence, if they know deep down that this is a safe and welcoming place (for them and their friends), everything’s going to be okay. I hope it’s a nice way to grow up. I’m really grateful I get to see so much of what goes on, even if they claim it’s just because we always have decent snacks around.
So I’m busy this week, sure. Cooking, cleaning, planning, and doing that once-a-year tablecloth ironing I so loathe. But I’m so grateful for every minute of it, and especially grateful that we—and our kids—have so many friends around us with whom to share our relative good fortune.