As parents, we save all year and make sacrifices for a summer family trip, so expectations are high come vacation time. Here are a few strategies from an experienced mom on how to make your vacation with the kids as smooth and memorable as possible.
Oh the sweet anticipation...I am a mom with four kids aged 7 to 13 and I approach summer trips with trepidation. The end of the school year is arriving fast and summer vacations are around the corner. We save money all year and make sacrifices to ensure a summer trip is possible. We carve out precious "days off" from work and align everyone's schedules, never an easy task given camps, events, activities, and family commitments. So the stakes are as high as the expectations.
The Disney Pep Talk
Several years ago, we were visiting my brother's family in California. They have four children roughly the same age as ours, so there is always lots of excitement when we get together. The night before we embarked on a Disneyland adventure, we received the equivalent of a pep talk from my brother as our elated children busily planned out departure times, the order of the rides, and the foods they would eat, all in squealing, happy voices. Dan said to us, "Watch the families tomorrow. They have saved endlessly and looked forward to this trip to Disney forever. But watch: Inevitably many parents get stressed and yell at their kids. And this is at Disney, which is probably the most fun place in the world."
A conversation grew from there, and my husband and I wondered: Why do kids, at times during every vacation, refuse to have fun or be fun? Or is it us and our approach as parents?
Sure enough, the next day at Disneyland, we saw children weeping in long lines with sweaty, sunburned faces. We saw disappointed parents watching children dropping or wasting their expensive food. We saw tired, writhing kids who could not be convinced to go on a ride, their parents yelling, "How can you not want to go on this? It's why we are here!" We saw other parents shouting, "We are on vacation in Disney! You should be having a great time and instead you're complaining." And several parents were observed getting infuriated when their little one announced 45 minutes into a wait that he/she had to go the bathroom and could not hold it any longer. Fun, fun, fun.
Because our kids, like most kids, can act ungrateful and refuse to have fun in the most wonderful places, we now have a "Disney Pep Talk" before every vacation. And we created some strategies for making family vacations as smooth and memorable (for the right reasons!) as possible.
Don't expect kids to be grateful for all the sacrifices it takes to go on a trip.
They are not going to thank you profusely or act wonderfully. Instead, watch for the moment of wonder or the "pure joy" smile - it is these moments that make the trip happy. Photograph them; they are what you will remember later.
Leave a little give in the schedule.
Most kids are not naturally continuous "do-ers." If you have an agenda packed end to end with activities, the kids will start complaining, wanting to just hang out. Think of your kids sweating in Washington, D.C., hiking from monument to monument in the blistering heat and waiting in the sun at the spy museum. All good ideas - but some down time is needed for them to retain their trip enthusiasm.
Let each person choose one activity and one restaurant destination during the trip.
After we select our destination (even if it is a repeat), we put out a menu of options and each child can choose one of the options or propose something else. If one child chooses swimming, we make sure we get some swimming into the vacation, whether at a hotel pool or a beach. They also get to choose one type of food that we will be sure to eat. This is a huge hit with our kids and helps us minimize complaints during the trip. Our youngest and oldest like to do very different things but each knows that their treasured turn will come.
Set the expectation: Traveling is a nightmare.
Whether by plane or car, summer vacations are filled with other people on vacation and there are inevitable delays, traffic, and waiting. Have a plan for the long waits. Don't expect the perfect trip; if everything goes swimmingly, then it is a bonus. Electronics may be your best friend during these moments.
Electronics are awesome, but you need to set some ground rules about usage.
The ubiquitous iPods, Smart phones, iPads, DSs, and other devices can really help children stay distracted during a hectic travel schedule - but they should not be so consuming that the kids check out and not participate in the trip.
Everyone has to bring a book.
This is a big rule, and my kids now look forward to going to the bookstore to select a special book for the trip. We have a Kindle and the kids love to borrow it to read. I also give extra credit for creating and writing in a journal; they can write words or draw or both. I give them $1 per page for quality journal writing. It is almost certain the kids will be asked to write something about their summer when school resumes, so they are getting a head start.
Try to pack light and smart.
This is a basic, but we all continue to overpack and drag around things we just don't need. So now our family sits down to make a list together, then we make packing an event. "Okay everyone, bring down three pairs of pajamas." Then: "Everyone go get five shirts, and one has to have a collar." And they have to carry what they pack.
Oh - and make them go to the bathroom before you go anywhere. Happy travels!?
Eileen Wacker, a Harvard Business School graduate, has lived and worked in seven different countries; one of her four children is a daughter adopted from China. Wacker is the author of the new children's book "Silent Samurai and the Magnificent Rescue," the third installment of the Fujimini Adventure Series.