How to Survive (and Even Enjoy) Spending Thanksgiving With Your Family

Take these steps and you might even enjoy spending time with your family.

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For those still wavering about whether to head home for Thanksgiving (is my family the only group of procrastinators?) or – having agreed to go – are now dreading it, some words of advice: Go on, make the trip. Thanksgiving travel is a nightmare. But it's worth suffering through. And, once you get there, bury the hatchet.

Sure, your brother-in-law brags too much, your sister whines, your dad is distant and your mom will spend the whole visit harping on you for your myriad shortcomings. But, don't forget, they each have good sides as well. Putting up with them is always better than the alternative. And you can find ways to steer the conversation in order to make it a pleasant visit, offering real connection.

My friend's dad recently passed away unexpectedly. He was gregarious, smart, interesting, crazy about his grandkids, doting on his daughter-in-law and was his son's #1 fan. And he was in good health, so his passing was a surprise. My friend reminded me to pay more attention to my parents while they're around and in good health, because all of a sudden they can be gone.

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Last week, we also remembered the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, which devastated the entire nation, and broke the hearts of those who loved him. One day, the people important to us are here, and the next day – too soon – they're gone.

So go on, make the effort.

But what if your Dad is on a crusade against public schools that teach evolution and you're a public school science teacher? Or you run a coal company but your sister is a climate scientist. Or your brother-in-law has joined Jews for Jesus and wants your entire Jewish family to convert? Or your sister is running for Senate on an anti-gay platform, but you're a lesbian? Even the Cheneys could patch things up for Thanksgiving – with some effort.

After all, the first Thanksgiving brought together the Pilgrims and Native American tribes who hadn't exactly been best buddies. Some Pilgrims had raided Native Americans' food stores during those first miserable months, and there were plenty of other sources of tension. But, after surviving the first horrible winter (and losing many of their number), the Pilgrims had finally built shelter and – with significant help from the native tribes – learned to hunt and grow sufficient food. That first harvest was a success worth celebrating with a shared meal, and thanks were in order. As Nathaniel Philbrick writes in his National Book Award winner, "Mayflower," "There were profound differences between the Pilgrims and Pokanokets to be sure ... [but] the mutual challenge of survival dominated all other concerns."

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They buried the hatchet, and you can, too.

How to get through the holidays without conflict and even reconnect with your family members in positive ways?

  • Reminisce: Do your homework before you head home. Arrive with memories of family fun to spark laughter and bonding with your siblings and parents. Sure, your siblings may annoy you as adults, but you had tons of fun as kids. "Remember the time we built that igloo in the yard and hid from mom when the school bus came?" "Remember the time the neighbor's dog followed us home and peed on dad's boots?" "Remember when Uncle Dave…" Engage your family members in reliving (positive) family moments.
    • Brainstorm Future Fun: Start a discussion about interesting places you'd each like to visit. Maybe even trips you'd like to take together.
      • Hear more History: You can never hear enough about what America was like a generation or two ago. Ask your parents what they remember of World War II. Or what stories were passed down to them about World War I. Ask them to re-tell your family's immigration story, or what they heard about "the old country." Ask how much a nickel could buy when they were young. You may learn a thing or two, they'll appreciate your interest and you can laugh at the kids' gaping jaws when they hear life existed before the invention of TV and Xbox.
        • Bring Early History: Do a little research. Read Philbrick's "Mayflower" and its account of the first Thanksgiving. Share with your family a stronger appreciation for how brave and determined the first colonists where. Or read David McCullough's "1776" or Barbara Tuchman's "The First Salute," and show up at Thanksgiving with remarkable stories to tell about the founding of America. It doesn't need to turn into an argument about current politics. We're all patriots at heart.
          • Bond over Fiction, Movies, Pop Culture: While it may not be wise to praise "Dallas Buyers Club" as the best movie of the year around certain relatives, you can probably think of some movies, novels, music or pop culture on which you'll all agree. For example, did anyone in America feel proud for Miley Cyrus after she "twerked" on national TV? What happened to the good old days of Hannah Montana?
            • Express Care and Concern for Kids and Health: Expressing interest in, and concern about, your nieces and nephews (if it's not done in a competitive spirit) or a family member's health (unless it's a touchy topic and they'd rather not be reminded) is usually appreciated and a way to bond over mutual concern for loved ones.
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              Oh, and, whatever you do, don't leave the table to go shopping! Stores that are open on Thanksgiving Day, thereby ruining their employees' holiday and cutting into yours, should not be rewarded. Don't take the easy out. Stay at the table and make the most of the opportunity to enjoy your mom and dad while they're still around and in good health.

              • Read Susan Milligan: People Shouldn't Be Allowed to Talk on Cellphones on Airplanes
              • Read Laura Chapin: Why the Senate’s Nuclear Option on Filibuster Reform Matters
              • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad