Save our summer!

A no-nonsense guide to surviving your family vacation

I know why parents go insane. You know, the idiotic blathering, rocking in fetal position, “Wow, those Doodlebops are actually pretty talented” kind of insane. I know because I’ve glimpsed into the steaming orifice of madness itself.

I’ve been on a summer family vacation.

What is the mania that lures us year after year to this ultimate bacchanal of parental sado-masochism? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just order in and torture ourselves and our children at home? Yet, like the lemmings we are, we continue to surrender the only nanoseconds of Canadian weather that won’t freeze-dry us with expectations as unrealistic as they are inane: “What kid doesn’t love an 18-hour car ride!” and “You’ll have a lot more fun this year bunking with cousin Eddy. He almost never wets the bed anymore!”

Fortunately, there is still hope for saving your summer and putting some sanity back into your family vacation that doesn’t involve hallucinogens or taking cautionary notes while watching National Lampoon vacation movies. Try some summer-saving strategies from parents and experts who have been in the vacation trenches and lived to tell the tale.

Our panel of experts

Rob Stringer Binbrook, Ont., parenting educator and coach, and founder of parentingwithintention.ca.
Scott Wooding Calgary child psychologist and author of The Parenting Crisis: Parenting Today’s Teenagers.
Kate Jones My smart, straight-talking, won’t-be-packing-your-brand-of-crap-in-my-carry-on friend who always seems to have awesome family vacations with her husband and four-year-old daughter.

The family car trip

The dream
Give yourself a medal. Not only have you saved on all those airline tickets — the equivalent of your kid’s college fund — but what better opportunity to bond with the fruits of your loins than over some rousing choruses of 99 bottles of beer on the wall…with your spouse mouthing the words “You complete me” as the raw majesty of the Canadian wilderness thunders past your peripherals?

The reality
Congratulations, tightwad. While you’ve been canoodling with your toonies, your toddler’s dry heaves of outrage at being straitjacketed into a car seat for five hours have turned to the chunky and bilious variety, while your preteen is threatening to impale himself on his iPod from utter boredom.

The fix
Jones: If your child has a meltdown every time you go for a car ride, then a vacation in the car is probably a bad idea. That said, if you find yourself unprepared on a car trip and things turn ugly, even with the requisite snacks, drinks and stuffed animals, there’s not a lot to be gained by telling a screaming toddler to put up and learn to love the five-hour drive. Try scheduling some playground breaks along the way, or stop at the nearest Wal-Mart or dollar store and spend the five to 15 bucks for a child’s book, crayons, music CD or DVD. Hey, you probably don’t think twice about dropping seven bucks on a latte and scone.

Stringer: Car trips have gotten a lot easier for kids with the advent of Game Boys, iPods and DVD players — but not everyone has them. Ask yourselves, “How can we add some game to this?” There are a million games you can print off the Web and play in the car (try momsinvans.com or just google “car games for kids”). And here’s a thought: Have a conversation. What a great time to share stories about when you were young.

Wooding: A long car ride is anathema to most teens because it’s boring. Anything over two or three hours is too much at a stretch, so if you have to drive, put in lots of interesting stops or fun breaks along the way, whether they’re roadside parks, local attractions or a restaurant your teen likes.

The family cottage – with family

The dream
Mom always did like you best, especially now that you’re giving her quality time with the grandkids surrounded by the glittering waters of the family’s lakeside idyll. In fact, your kids may disappear for hours between sandcastle building with their uncle and storytime with Grandpa, leaving you the opportunity for a solitary paddle in the canoe or even a nap. And look! Sarah’s getting a jump on grade nine, all curled up in a Muskoka chair reading the collected works of Shakespeare. Vacations really are better en famille.

The reality
There was a reason you moved out in college: to get away from these people. Now, your mom is traumatizing your two-year-old because of the three grains of sand that trickled out of his Croc and onto her silk runner. And you’re stuck caring for your kids without all the conveniences of home and surrounded by people who refuse to wash dishes or change a diaper, while Sarah is doing her best Lindsay Lohan impression in Grandpa’s liquor cabinet.

The fix
Jones
: There’s a difference between your own cottage and your family’s. You need to be respectful of their rules, but they also need to be realistic about having small children there with every piece of Royal Doulton in full view. Then there’s my friend who never goes to the family cottage because she becomes the maid, cook and nanny. Sometimes going to a rented cottage, or cheap all-inclusive resort where there isn’t any work involved, can make for a better, more relaxed time with your extended family.

Stringer: If there’s family tension, talk about it in advance. For instance, “They’re kids, Mom. There’s going to be sand.” Nothing gets resolved if nothing is said. Getting together with relatives is great for adults and kids to change their perspective, develop empathy and learn to be flexible. So maybe playing with that not-so-cool cousin isn’t exactly your kids’ idea of fun, for example, but they can do anything for just one day, especially if you promise they can do something they want the next.

Wooding: Teenagers may have gone to the same cabin for years and loved it, then all of a sudden they no longer want to go. Often parents think, “They just don’t want to go with me.” But the reality is, their reluctance has nothing to do with you. The great enemy for teenagers is boredom. As long as there are activities to balance the downtime, however, it can work. Come up with excursions or activities, such as a movie, water skiing or a dance, or invite one of their friends along.

The educational trip

The dream
My four-year-old falls in love with Italian theatre during our trip to the Canadian Opera Company. And after our tour of the Parliament Buildings, Ben’s presenting his grade-nine project on safeguarding the Canadian economy from the American recession.

The reality
“Awesome…like looking into the face of heaven itself.…The Mona Lisa: so close you could touch it. Isn’t it breathtaking, kids? Kids? Honey, why is Grace yawning and pointing to the ceiling?”
­“She’s not, dear. She’s giving you the finger.”

The fix
Jones:
When you take kids on that well-intentioned trip to see important things, all they usually want to do is play at the hotel pool. You’ve got to be realistic and add some fun. We took a trip to see an outdoor concert of the Boston Pops, but we made sure there was a park for our then three-year-old. If you take your kids to classical concerts with the expectation that they’ll develop a love for the symphony, however, you’re misled.

Stringer: Vacations like these can fall flat because what parents think is a really cool vacation might not be the same for the rest of the family. If you’re looking for kids to get into these cultural adventures, why not get them involved in planning them? If you want to go to the Smithsonian, for instance, they might find the hook, like a Simpsons exhibit. The Internet is great to show the kids pictures and give them a choice.

Wooding: Sit down with your teens and you’ll be amazed at the great ideas they have. Anything that would be considered fun for kids is good, so visiting Westminster Abbey, for example, might not be such a great idea, but taking a ride on the London Eye might be better. You can also do some balancing: education one day and just plain fun the next. Your kids will let you know. They’re not teenagers for that long, and it’s not such a big sacrifice to lean heavily on the side of pleasing kids. After all, if they’re happy, you’re happy. If they’re not happy, well…you don’t want to know.

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