As we head to the end of the school year, many start thinking about planning a family vacation. Our family loves to travel, and we have always taken a collection of younger relatives and friends along with us. Here are some techniques that we have learned over the years to make the trips much smoother.
1. Follow Their Interests (But Stretch Their Boundaries)
Of course, you have to pick activities suitable for your kids’ ages and interests. At the same time, children typically don’t have enough life experience to know when they are missing out. One brilliant technique that I learned from a friend is to give each child responsibility for planning one or more days of the trip. Parents have veto power in regard to safety issues, but no one can complain about anyone else’s choices for the day.
2. Tap Into the Power of the Pack
We always encourage our older kids to bring friends along. We did not have nearly as much responsibility for entertaining everyone because the friends tended to take over that job. As our kids grew older, we could send them out to the beach or on hiking trails (in groups) and stay inside relaxing. Of course, you need to watch for the negative sides of group dynamics, particularly the tendency to create a group that excludes one of more of your children. Also, if you have a large number of kids, adding a friend has the potential to change the family dynamic in negative ways. On the other hand, allowing a child who feels like an outsider to bring a friend may even out the groups. Like all of these suggestions, adapt the principle to fit your particular situation.
3. Send Kids On Their Own Vacation
Summer is traditionally a time for kids to go to camp, and that tradition is strong for very good reasons. Camps are an excellent time for kids to learn new skills, test their independence, and make new friends. Find a camp that you can trust that’s within your budget and send all of the kids off. It will be a good opportunity for them to learn to get along without you there to referee, and common experiences create strong bonds. Even less-than-positive experiences can be good. For example, nothing can bring a group of kids together like getting caught in a thunderstorm or learning how to deal with an overturned canoe.
4. Opt for Homes/Condos Over Hotels
We always rented homes instead of hotels whenever we could. That layout allowed the children (and us!) to have some privacy in their own rooms. At the same, it did not separate the family in the way that multiple hotel rooms might. It also helped keep costs down, as spaghetti costs the same pretty much anywhere we have traveled.
5. Plan Ahead for Approval
If you are raising someone else’s child, then there is always someone else who has to sign off on your plans. Extended trips with foster kids usually require permission from their case worker. Stepchildren under 14 cannot get a passport without both parents’ signature, and many court orders require both biological parents to agree to out-of-state travel. Get these details pinned down early, before anyone gets their hopes up.
6. Cheap Can Also Be Entertaining
Not every vacation has to involve Disney World. Some of my strongest childhood memories are roadside picnics. The food was our usual fare, but changing its location to a concrete table in a park was magical. A “staycation” with day trips to nearby public parks or national recreation areas can be just as entertaining for your children as an expensive getaway. You probably have several free parks or reasonably-priced attractions nearby that you haven’t taken the time to visit. Once you start looking, you likely will be surprised at what you can see in a day trip.
7. Plan Some Down Time
Our final suggestion may be the most important—don’t commit all of your time. Leave plenty of time for rest or spur-of-the-moment visits. The internet is filled with stories and videos of the infamous “Disney meltdowns” when exhausted children (or their parents) just can’t take any more. As my sister said at the end of one long day of a family vacation, “It’s hard work having this much fun.” Even on vacation, the laws of physics and biology apply to us. Leave plenty of time for afternoon naps or unstructured time.
There are plenty of other techniques that can work for your family; these are simply the ones that we have turned to most often. Just remember that the point of a family vacation is for the entire family, including you, to have a break, and for the family to build stronger relationships. There are plenty of ways to reach those goals, and your family can find its own unique way to get there.
Debbie Ausburn is a social worker, foster parent, criminal prosecutor, and civil trial attorney. That background has given her unique insights into defending child care centers, camps, schools, and mentoring organizations. She has volunteered with and defended youth-serving organizations throughout the United States in matters as diverse as personal injury cases, intrusive government regulations, libel and slander issues, and claims of sexual abuse. Debbie is the author of Raising Other People’s Children. She also blogs about legal topics at youthserviceslaw.com, and parenting issues at otherpeopleschildren.org. She is based in Atlanta, GA.