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Holiday Baking: A Recipe for Family Fun or Frustration?

When I was a girl, my mother would spend the weeks before Christmas making dozens upon dozens of different kinds of Christmas cookies. There were drop cookies, refrigerator cookies, decorated cutouts and bars. There were pfefferneusses, pinwheels, chocolate drops and stars. Whenever friends came to visit during the Christmas holidays, she would carefully arrange a few of each kind and shape on a big doily-bedecked platter to serve with coffee. Everyone would ohh and ahh. Everyone would want to taste every kind and pick out a favorite. Everyone, but everyone, would marvel that she could make so many. It was clearly a culinary feat! It was part of what made Christmas special.

Fast-forward about 30 years. My own daughter is now 3. As a full-time worker, I’d long ago given up on the idea of making 20 different kinds of cookies for the holidays. But, thought I, why not do as my mother did and fill the kitchen with wonderful cookie smells? Why not show my daughter that cookies don’t just come in a box? Why not start a “tradition” of making at least one kind of Christmas cookie? I bet she’d love it!

I forgot one important thing: My mother never, ever, let us help make those famous cookies. We’d come home from school to the wonderful aroma of pfefferneusse and a few of the broken or overdone rejects to eat with our after school milk. The rest were carefully stored in cans for those holiday platters.

I learned why I had never shared in the baking the hard way. I pulled out the flour and sugar and butter and vanilla and sprinkles and cookie cutters and pans and announced to my little girl that we were going to make cookies. We were going to have fun. We were going to make something beautiful.

An hour later, flour was all over the child, the floor, and the counters. My daughter was having a tantrum and I was in tears. Why? Because I had made a fundamental mistake in parenting: I thought baking cookies together would produce, well, cookies.

Focus on the Process

I think one of the hardest things for a new parent to learn is to adapt to the pace and abilities of a child. Doing things with kids is not about making something to adult standards or doing things perfectly. During the early years, the focus has to be on the process. The measure of success is the time together and the fun of just playing around with stuff. Parents whose measure of the worth of an activity is the product are bound to frustrate the child and disappoint themselves. Focusing on the product is a setup for failure. Focusing on the process is a prescription for fun.

Fortunately, I’m not a slow learner about such things. My daughter and I calmed down, cleaned up the mess, and started over. This time we had fun making clouds with the flour, pouring things into the batter, and poking at the dough. This time I honed my ambition down to making half a dozen lop-sided stars with far too many sprinkles to be attractive. This time I saw my daughter’s pride in doing some things “all by myself” rather than imperfect cookies. Wisely, I put most of the dough in the fridge. Hours later, with a smiling little girl safely tucked in bed, I took great pleasure in rolling out the rest of the dough and making a dozen absolutely perfect cookies. Then my husband and I poured some coffee, inhaled the wonderful smell of baking — and ate them all up!

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Holiday Baking: A Recipe for Family Fun or Frustration?

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). Holiday Baking: A Recipe for Family Fun or Frustration?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.