Vacation, With the Kids

 Summertime is upon us.  The school year and our regular activities are winding down for a few months.  The unstructured hours of the long summer days are a blessing for young children and their parents.  Traditionally, this is a time when families put commitments on hold for a few days or weeks and embark on a summer vacation.  

Maybe you are taking a long weekend at a nearby beach or traveling half way around the world to visit family. You may attempt a “staycation,” visiting local attractions instead of going away.  Whatever you choose to do, family vacations can be fantastic, allowing us to enjoy uninterrupted time together building memories that your children will be sure to carry with them into adulthood.

     Sounds nice, huh?

     It can be.

     It will be.  Right?

Well, moments of your time together will be amazing.  But some moments with young children in tow, will inevitably be unpredictable, not go at all according to plan and even be a bit stressful.  Along with daydreaming about the long hours lounging on the beach, you may consider, for example, how the time at the beach may actually be shorter than the time it takes to pack up and get out the door.

After spending a much anticipated week at our family beach house with my husband and three kids, I left feeling disappointed. We had traveled extensively since the birth of our first child 4 years ago – we certainty know how hard it is.  But this was our first real vacation in years – most of our travel involves visiting family with lots of running around, but this time it was just us.  A whole week together! I imagined the kids playing out on the lawn while I grilled burgers, followed by a relaxing dinner on the deck, staying up late, long mornings at the beach, breakfast at the local diner, and walking around town shopping for souvenirs.  

The reality was much different.  By the time the oldest woke up in the morning, the baby was ready for a nap, so breakfast was at the kitchen table, and the cooking and cleaning still needed to be done!  Staying up late only left us with an overtired 2 year old, who is much harder to put to bed and wakes up earlier the next day.  And his 5am wake-up calls lasted the whole week. I began to feel like I was working harder than normal and doing it without having a babysitter to call on.  And then it rained.  And rained.  And rained.  There were no long mornings on the beach and not too much to entertain the kids with while we waited for a glimpse of sun.

This feeling of frustration and disappointment was lying right below the surface, a feeling that our three emotional sponges absorbed and punted right back to me.  And it got me thinking about what we could have done differently to prepare for our vacation.  I had spent a lot of time collecting the necessary supplies, packing and planning, all in an effort to prepare for a smooth and pleasant trip.  What I forgot to do was prepare mentally and emotionally.  I learned a few lessons on this trip that I’d like to share, not only from a child development perspective, but from a personal one too.

Your trip’s been planned and you are ready to go.  Here are some ideas you may consider packing, that won’t exactly fit into a suitcase!

1. Before you leave, make some time to discuss expectations (and possible realities) with your partner, trying to get on the same page before the vacation begins

  • Do you expect to keep your normal schedule while traveling or do you plan to shake up your routine and not worry about naps and what time meals are at?
  • What about commitments outside of the family – how will you both feel if one partner steps away from the fun to answer some work emails or join a conference call?  
  • Sleeping arrangements can be challenging when traveling – if your child sleeps soundly in their bed at home but not in a hotel, how will you both feel if you share your bed on vacation or split up and sleep in separate rooms?
  • Chores!  Being away with little kids can often be more work than being at home, especially if you’re in a rental house without a hotel maid to make up the room.  If one partner is the primary caretaker while the other works, it can be challenging to suddenly divvy up chores and child related responsibilities while away.  Talking about these things before you leave and coming up with a plan can help alleviate the feeling that one parent didn’t get a break or that the other is being ordered around on their vacation.

2. Give each other some time off

  • Spending time together as a family is wonderful, but the adults deserve a break and since you probably won’t be able to get a break together, try giving each other some established alone time…a round of golf, a trip to the nail salon, a long run or some alone time alone at the beach or a local museum can do wonders to replenish your energy and help you enjoy the rest of the day.

3. Go out on a date

  • If you are comfortable with this idea, line up a sitter so the adults can go out for a few hours alone.  Many hotels have babysitter recommendations and sites like or can have a pre-screened, certified babysitter at your door in a matter of hours.

4. Spend some one-on-one time with your kids

  • If you have more than one kid, they no doubt have different interests and energy levels.  Take your oldest on a special sea shell collecting trip while your baby sleeps or take your toddler out for breakfast before the other kids wake up.

5. If your kids are old enough include them in some vacation decision making

  • You may remember hearing your own parents complain that you weren’t thankful or appreciative of the trips they planned, but did they ask you what you wanted to do?  Of course the parents make the decisions, but giving your kids, even children as young as two, occasional decision making power (what restaurant to eat at? Mini-golf or the hotel pool? A long walk or a trip to a local playground?) can create a feeling of inclusiveness and good feeling that carries over throughout your time together

6. Discipline can be tricky when traveling - be prepared

  • What behaviors you are going to insist on and what you will let slide when on vacation?
  • You may have to relax your rules around well balanced meals or technology - ice-cream before dinner and Sesame Street at 5am to keep the others still sleeping for example! Remember that children are flexible and with consistency, will go back to their regular diets and rules when you return home.  
  • What are some reasonable consequences – this is important to think of before you are stuck in a lockdown with your toddler.   Remember that consequences must be immediate and related to the offending behavior for them to be impactful.  Be careful not to punish yourself by saying “If you don’t stop _______, we aren’t going out to dinner,” when indeed that was your only plan for a meal!
  • Go easy on yourself and your kids – the change of routine and environment can be extremely stressful for a young child.  Be careful not to misunderstand their behavior by taking it personally if it feels like every day is a battle and they are unwilling to participate in all this family fun!  If your child is sensitive to being overtired, hungry, and in an unfamiliar place, try hard to carry on a few of your usual routines, such as bedtime and mealtimes…and if you cannot do that, it’s ok, just remember to be empathetic to how your child is feeling and prepare them for what is coming next: “After nap, we are going to put on our bathing suits and go swimming before we go to dinner tonight.”

If we can remember that things will likely not go according to plan, we may find a moment to enjoy the completely unexpected and unplanned moments in between.  One rainy afternoon on our recent trip my boys were napping and I went to read a magazine.  My husband texted me and said, “Lucy and I are sitting in the garage watching the rain fall.”  

That is a magical moment you don’t get every day.  Look for them.  You will find them.  Cherish them and remember that one day your family vacations will be different, and you may actually miss the days when your children didn’t want to spend one waking (or sleeping) moment without you!

-Barbara Nelson