Emergency Etiquette for Thanksgiving: What to do when in-laws attack

Kelsea Petersen

This holiday season, we're giving thanks for family ... well, for most of them.

The blessings of family gatherings also come with a few burdens. We're grateful for pumpkin pie and TODAY.com's expert, Catherine Newman, author of "How To Be A Human" and longtime etiquette columnist for Real Simple magazine, who is here to answer some of our trickiest parenting questions.

The weight watchers

My relatives won’t stop commenting on people’s bodies, including my kids’. “You’re so skinny!” or “You’re looking a little chubby.” I don’t know if they even think about what they’re saying. It makes me really uncomfortable, and I always try to teach my kids not to comment on people’s bodies. How do I get them to stop?

Ugh! It’s the worst — like being catcalled, but by your great aunt who’s politely passing you the gravy. And the stakes are high, since we know that kids are vulnerable to both disordered eating and unhealthy ideas about how they should look.

One study suggests that one in five women and one in seven men will have suffered from an eating disorder by the age of 40 — and the problem appears to be increasing. So let’s start with your own most important response here: what you tell your kids about their bodies and what you tell them about what they’re hearing.

“Your body needs to be as healthy as possible so that you can do the things you want to do in the world,” is a great place to start. A child should understand that their body is not an ornament, an object or an invitation to commentary.

You can fill their toolboxes with some all-purpose deflections: “I’m lucky to be strong,” they can try saying, or “These legs definitely get me where I’m trying to go.” Or some redirections: “Did I show you my muskrat diorama?” or “Is there coconut in this pie crust?”

If you want to communicate directly with your relatives, you can explain to them in private that you’re trying not to focus on the kids’ bodies — “I know your intentions are so good, but it turns out that even positive comments can be harmful” — and offer them some other ideas for conversation. Many people genuinely don’t know what to talk to kids about, and they may welcome a quick primer on World Cup soccer, Taylor Swift, Marvel movies or LEGO.

Can we all just roll with it?

My husband’s mother spends all day cooking for the holiday, and inevitably my kids only want dinner rolls or dessert. I want them to eat healthy, but I also hate feeling like I’m getting judged for what they eat. What should I do?

When my kids were little, I wanted someone to make me one of those doctor’s-office eat-the-rainbow posters, but the honest version, with only white food: white rice, white bread, buttered noodles. Lots of kids eat like that — or go through phases like that — and you just keep exposing them to different foods and cheering them on for tasting new things.

But healthy eating in general is a separate issue from the one that’s on the holiday table, which is whether your MIL is going to judge you for what your kids eat. And what, if anything, you should do about that.

A sidebar here, but isn’t it annoying that it’s always the moms who get judged for how kids behave? Why is it not your husband — her own child — who bears this extra special burden? OK, OK, back to your question. Here’s the thing: it really doesn’t matter what your kids do or don’t eat at one particular meal, and you can communicate that attitude to both your kids and your MIL.

“Oh, the kids have been talking about your cloverleaf rolls all year,” you can say. “I promised them they could eat their fill. Don’t worry, though. I am thrilled you made all these lovely vegetables, and I’ll be having their portion of green-bean casserole.”

If she presses it, just say, “It’s a special occasion, so this isn’t a battle I’m picking right now.” It’s fine for the kids to learn that there are different rules on different days (maybe they find toys inside a stocking on Christmas morning, but that doesn’t mean that they can just tear into everybody’s socks all year and get stuff). Can you have pie and only pie for dinner every night? Of course not. But aren’t holidays fun?

When the turkey is dressed, but not your kids

My kids live in T-shirts and gym shorts. I’d rather not pick a fight over clothing, but I know my relatives are going to judge if we’re not dressed up for dinner. How do I pre-empt the snarky comments? Or should I just suck it up and make my kids wear fancy clothes?

I think you should encourage your kids to dress up for dinner if that’s the family culture of your holidays. Not because of the snarky comments (sigh) but because it’s good for kids to learn that sometimes you defer to what other people care about.

“I love the way you guys usually dress,” you can say, “but it’s important to Nana and Papa that everybody look fancy for the holiday, so we’re going to wear our nicest clothes.”

Here’s where I diverge from more traditional ideas about dressing up, though, because I think there’s a lot of room for interpretation. When you take your kids to buy dressy clothes (we’ve always done this type of shopping at a thrift store), encourage them to look for outfits they’re truly comfortable in. Comfortable in terms of their bodies — no horrible choke-y neckties or a dresses with itchy lace — and also in terms of their sense of style.

At 12, my daughter picked a suit jacket she liked, which was how we learned that she’d grown to loathe girly clothes. Great! Whatever. It doesn’t really matter what they wear, as long as they’re willing to recognize that there’s a special occasion. This will come in handy later, too, when it’s a funeral or a wedding and they really do need to dress up.

But if they don’t get their fancy on for this particular holiday? If you decide they can just wear sweatshirts and track pants? That’s fine too. “I love that they feel so comfortable around you,” you can say if anybody bothers to bother you about it. “Aren’t we lucky to be together?”

More social dilemmas, solved:

This article was originally published on TODAY.com