As we head to the end of the school year, many of us start thinking about 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 for your kids’ ages and interests.  As our youngest step-son told me halfway through one trip, “Debbie, I’ve just about reached my limit of old buildings where something happened a long time ago.” At the same time, children don’t have enough life experience to know what they are missing out on.  So we had no qualms about insisting on some old buildings, but we learned not to push our luck too far.

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 over safety issues, but no one can complain about anyone else’s choices for the day.  The last time we went to Washington, D.C. with grandchildren, we tracked down the Hope Diamond, an insect exhibit, and the moon rock.  Then on our day, we visited some old buildings where something important once happened.

2.   Tap Into the Power of the Pack

We always encouraged our older kids to bring friends along, especially after realizing that it made our lives much easier.  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 hiking trails in groups and stay inside relaxing.  We very rarely heard “I’m bored” when our children’s friends joined the trip.

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, then adding a friend can 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 a traditional time for kids to go to camp, and the 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 — as a Marine told me once, “Nothing brings a group together like hating the same commanding officer.”  A less stark version of the same principle holds true at camp — 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 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 will. It also helped keep costs down, as spaghetti costs the same pretty much anywhere we have traveled.  Finally, in faraway destinations, a trip to the grocery store can be part of the travel experience and just as exotic as an expensive museum.

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.  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 Be Entertaining, Too

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 fo 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 meltdown,” 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.

Also give kids some independence.  If they are old enough, when you visit an attraction, give them a cell phone and time/place to meet, and let them spend the rest of the time as they choose.  Negotiate with your older children to walk with a younger child through a museum while you and another child relax in the lobby.  If you can find safe ways for children to decide their own schedule for a few hours, everyone will be much more relaxed.

There are plenty of other techniques that will 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.  

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Debbie Ausburn

I make my living as a lawyer, but what I do is take care of other people’s children.