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All-inclusive holiday It's not an easy meal for young kids -- but it is possible to involve everyone and create lasting Thanksgiving memories

So maybe giving Lauren a big bowl of glitter with which to bespangle a dried autumn leaf for the holiday centerpiece was a mistake.

She's only 2, after all.

But Tyler -- a mature soul already at 4 -- furrowed his brow in concentration as he glued feathers to a construction-paper turkey, ignoring his little sister as she decorated herself and the floor with sparkles.

When he was done, the turkey was a masterpiece.

And now both creations -- glittery leaf and festive turkey -- will decorate the Thanksgiving table of the Conti family in Orchard Park, when they sit down on Thursday to a homemade spread that ends with a big finale.

"Mike puts the Christmas lights up beforehand," said Bridget Conti, of her husband, as she helped her kids Tyler and Lauren make Thanksgiving-themed crafts one evening last week. "Then on Thanksgiving Day, after dinner, we do the Griswold family thing -- we all go outside and watch the lights go on."

"One year," she added with a laugh, "we were out there in the blinding snow."

Parents and experts agree: Thanksgiving Day can be challenging for families.

And that's not because of all that extra cooking and baking. Rather, it's because T-Day is a holiday that doesn't have the built-in kid appeal of, say, Christmas, Hanukkah or Halloween.

As in: No presents? No candy? A long dinner with lots of adults talking? What's the point?

But experts on American families said that now, more than ever, Thanksgiving can be a prime opportunity for families to create memories and traditions that will involve the smaller members of the clan -- and may last for generations.

Families live such hectic and complicated lives nowadays that a special -- but low-key -- day like Thanksgiving can become an oasis of togetherness for children to look forward to, said Dr. Cindy Bunin Nurik, a nationally known family therapist and founder of the Mommy and Me Association.

And yes, kids as young as 2 can understand that, she said.

"The holidays are all about family," said Nurik, who lives in Fort Lauderdale. "That needs to be instilled in us. Family is the most important thing we have on this planet. Kids can learn that -- even from 2 years old."

For the Conti clan, that's a priority.

Thus, they made crafts for the holiday table of 13 relatives last week, as part of a tradition the family shares.

Bridget Conti and her sister, Elizabeth Bonerb of Buffalo, helped Tyler and Lauren with glue, feathers and crayons, while not too far away their spouses Michael Conti and Peter Bonerb sat enjoying the fireplace and some conversation.
The Conti family's tradition of getting together for a holiday-inspired art session -- even sandwiched in between the busy work and home schedules both couples share -- is one that experts like Dr. Nurik heartily endorse.

The point is the together time, Dr. Nurik said, and not necessarily the task that is being accomplished -- although it's nice if a pumpkin pie or art project results.

"The most important thing is for parents to use this time they have off from work and school to do some bonding -- to reconnect," she said. "It's all about connecting. With technology, we don't do that as much anymore."

Family traditions don't have to be complicated or expensive, said Dr. Nurik, author of "Fun With Mommy and Me," a book of activities for parents and kids.

In other words: It's better to start simple and build from there.

For Thanksgiving, kids can be allowed to help decide on the menu, make the shopping list, go to the grocery store, and then do basic kitchen tasks, she suggested. It might sound obvious, she said, but a lot of families don't do this.

The main thing, Dr. Nurik said, is to look at the time as an investment in your children's future.

"If families spend time together like this," she said, "children grow up knowing how important family is. It just becomes ingrained in them -- it becomes part of who they are."

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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>Getting the kids involved

Thanksgiving is a great holiday to start building some kid-friendly family traditions around, said Dr. Cindy Bunin Nurik, an expert on modern-day families.

Here are some ideas to get your family started.

"Kids can learn so much from these simple things," Dr. Nurik said.

Remember: The point is the time you're spending together -- not the perfection of the end product!

* Giving to others. Make a plan to spend a little time each Thanksgiving learning about, and sharing with, those less fortunate. Weed through closets and drawers to give clothes to the needy. Same goes for food -- take some of what you have to places that distribute it to those who are hungry.

* Menu planning. Kids love to talk about their favorite foods, so let them discuss what dishes should go into the Thanksgiving Day feast. And then let them help draw up the menu, and the shopping list the family will use.

* Shopping. Take the kids with you when you go to the grocery store to pick out the turkey and buy the trimmings. Let them help you choose the ingredients. And take the time to answer questions.

* Cooking. Even letting a small child help stir a dish or sprinkle in a condiment gives them a sense of ownership of the meal -- and pride in it. Bonus: They'll eat better, too!

* Setting the table. Kids learn counting and organizing skills from this time-tested chore.

* Learning about the family. Ask guests to the Thanksgiving celebration to bring old photographs of the family. Show them to the kids and let them guess who the people in the pictures are, and what they're doing.

* Digital family trees. Thanksgiving can be a great time to use technology to connect rather than divide -- perhaps by scanning family photos and making CDs and DVDs that become great family archives.

-- Charity Vogel

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