The Family Vacation (Republished)

The Family Vacation (Republished)

The family vacation, an American tradition. Whether it involves renting a house on Cape Cod, taking a trip to Disney World, or all piling into the family car or RV, it usually implies more togetherness than families experience any other time of the year. Spending time together – that’s our goal, right? That’s what family means, right? We want to believe this, but our anxiety has made popular a plethora of hilarious movies that poke fun at the disasters, large and small, that occur when families try to enjoy togetherness on a family vacation.

Are there things we can do to make a family vacation live up to the expectations we have for it? What causes the strife that so often occurs?

The most common cause of tension and disappointment when two or more people spend time together is that each person has expectations that he or she has not expressed to the other. Dad was assuming Mom would be doing things with the kids and he would get in lots of golf (but he never said this out loud). Mom was assuming they’d stay a couple of days when they stopped at her sister’s house (but she never said this out loud).

Often we are not even consciously aware of these expectations, but when they are not met, we are gravely disappointed. Perhaps you are taking your family to a place that is the source of fond memories from your own childhood. You expect them to enjoy it as much as you did. You are hurt, even angry, when, at the Grand Canyon, your kids want to sit in the car with their video games. It is natural for parents to want their children to be excited about the things that are meaningful to themselves. Perhaps Dad has his heart set on taking his son fishing and seeing the excitement on his face when he catches his first fish. Dad can hope his son will love fishing as much as he does. He can present it with excitement. But he must be careful not to expect it.

Rule 1: Explore your own expectations and hopes for your vacation and express them honestly and with good will to the rest of the family. Try to explain why these hopes are important to you so they can relate. And do this before there is a problem.

Rule 2: Encourage this same self-awareness in others by asking about their hopes and expectations. Listen without interruption or criticism. Try to see through their eyes.

Rule 3: If there are obvious conflicts, problem solve together and think outside the box. What is the essential ingredient of what you want? Be open to other ideas that accomplish the same goal and may please others as well.

When young children are involved, planning vacation activities becomes much trickier. They are less able to express the essence of their desires, less able to empathize with the desires of others, and less able to problem solve creatively. And they are usually given much less of a say in the planning. The unhappy result is often whiney preschoolers, sullen teenagers and disappointed, angry parents.

Creative parents can prevent this family train wreck in several ways:

  1. By modeling self-awareness, self-expression, empathy and creative problem solving.
  2. By encouraging older children to do the same
  3. By putting themselves in the place of children too young to do this and imagining what they would enjoy on a day-to-day basis. The parent can then give the child a limited number of realistic choices or declare what is going to happen based on her own good judgment. E.g. “We’re all tired from yesterday’s trip to the amusement park. Today we’re going to the beach.”

Keep in mind that a whiney, demanding preschooler is probably exhausted and in need of more downtime than the rest of the family. Young children can be overwhelmed by unfamiliar activity more easily than older children or adults. They need time in the day with familiar activities that they can control and with a minimum of outside disturbance. Wanting to watch a favorite movie for the sixty-fifth time may well be a request for something familiar that he can control. Even whining for a new toy may be an expression of the need to narrow his environment to a single object that he can control. Indulgence on vacation isn’t the same as indulgence in everyday life. Loosen up. On the other hand, But don’t let your child’s main vacation memories be of all the videos he watched in the hotel room. Children will remember forever the pleasant “face time” the family had together.

Sometimes children get their hearts set on a particular activity that parents do not want them to do. This situation can have a happy resolution if the parent can help the child analyze why the activity is so appealing. She can then offer a more acceptable activity that fills the same desires. Helping the child to make the substitution with eagerness and grace is all in how the substitution is presented. If the emphasis is on why he can’t do his preferred activity, the alternative will be seen as a poor substitute and accepted grudgingly at best. If, however, the alternative actually does appeal to the same desire and the emphasis is on how it will meet this desire, the child will be enthusiastic and in the process begin to learn that flexibility can be a win/win situation. E.g. If your twelve year old wants to rent a dirt bike because his friend has made it sound so macho, suggest to him how impressed his friend will be that he went parasailing (or whatever adventure you’re willing to substitute). Don’t discount the aura of excitement you can lend to an activity by sharing your own authentic excitement. Modeling is always the most powerful means of teaching.

And finally, don’t forget to consider developmental appropriateness. My son had fond memories of the Radio City Christmas show. He could hardly wait to take his own son. He was crushed when the child just wanted to play in the lobby. What he neglected to consider was that his memories were from age thirteen. His son was only two! May you have happy times with your family this summer and build fond memories together.

Carol Tolonen is a developmental psychologist and parenting coach. She is trained as a psychotherapist and as a spiritual counselor. She has 26 years experience teaching science and outdoor education to the children at Putnam Indian Field School.

Originally published July 2015