A parents’ guide to enjoying rather than enduring family holidays
Think of a family holiday and what springs to mind?
Are you picturing theme park hotels, kiddie meals, sandcastles and sunburn, and endless screaming kids? Are you imagining one of those family friendly resorts with the kid’s club that entertains the little ones while you lie on a beach? Do you immediately start dreaming of dropping the kids off with the grandparents so you can enjoy a real holiday? Or do you fantasise about locking your kids in the stocks for the duration?
For me, I don’t have to imagine family holidays. I only have to remember.
I close my eyes and picture staying in a Finnish summer cottage:
Cruising up the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea:
Patting cheetahs in South Africa:
Canoeing in a tropical fjord:
Visiting a Karan hill tribe in Chiang Mai:
Having an impromptu meal with an Arabic bedouin:
Diving in warm tropical waters:
Exploring Egyptian pyramids on a guided tour across Cairo:
Having a snow fight in France:
Or one of dozens of other similarly memorable moments we’ve had travelling with our kids.
While our three kids consumed their fair share of kiddie meals when they were younger, they also ate such weird and wonderful delights as snails, frog’s legs, warthog, zebra, raw fish, teppanyaki, sauerkraut, miso and sago; and drank hibiscus juice in Egypt, fresh coconut juice in PNG, and even warm camel’s milk in Saudi Arabia.
Sure, there have been a handful of family resorts along the way. We’ve visited Disneyland in Paris, and done the obligatory theme parks on the Gold Coast. But, for the most part, our children have had as many rich, cultural experiences and adrenaline-pumping adventures as we have.
So what is the secret?
If I had to narrow it down, I’d say two things: making kids a part of the planning, and keeping the planning to a minimum.
Before the trip:
Kids like to feel they’re an important part of the trip, rather than just a tag along. The best way to do this is to make them part of the decision making process. This gives kids ownership, making them feel like it is their holiday as well. While this is important for children of any age, it is especially important as kids get older. Nothing ruins a holiday quicker than a temperamental teenager who feels like they’ve been kidnapped away from their friends.
Vacation planning starts months before you ever leave home. It starts the minute you decide you want to go away for a few days/weeks/months and enjoy a different destination. Some people know exactly where they want to go on holidays, while others only have a vague idea and will take to the travel brochures.
This is the best time to get the kids involved.
If you’re unsure where to go, try this great ‘game’ to narrow down your choice. Get everyone to write down three or more places they would like to visit. Put these into a hat and then everyone in the family gets to draw one piece of paper out. Get a big piece of paper and write each choice along the top. Make a list of things you know about those destinations. Put the paper up on the wall in a prominent spot where everyone can see it.
Over the next week, have some brochures available if the kids want to look at them. Talk about the destinations as much as possible. Maybe even try some of the different cuisines. Let the kids ask any questions they might have.
Then get everyone together to vote. For each destination, list reasons for and against going. You can either vote outright or as a process of elimination, removing the destination with the least votes until their is only one choice left.
Over the next few months, talk about your chosen destination as much as possible. Discuss the locals, the foods they eat, the jobs they do, their history, their achievements, the clothes they wear. Try not to make it seem like homework but just a natural part of discussion. The trick is to get the kids excited about where you’re going, and to let them start thinking about what they might like to do or see. Smaller children might need some help here.
While there will be choices you and your partner will need to make yourselves, keep the kids involved as much as possible. Select a handful of accommodation options and let the kids have the final vote. As it gets closer, start to make a list of things to do. Give everyone one veto and tell them to use it wisely. At the end, you should have a list of things in the local area that the family will be happy to do.
On the ground:
After months of planning and dreaming about your family holiday, the day has finally arrived. You’ve boarded the plane or packed the car and arrived in your carefully chosen destination. Once you’ve settled in and gotten over any time differences, it’s time to start choosing things from your activities list.
The trick here is not to let your list dictate your holiday. Use it as a loose guideline. Nothing ruins a holiday quicker than being locked into a plan. Remember, younger children have short attention spans so keep it simple. Don’t attempt to squeeze fifteen things into one day unless you want a whiny, screaming child ruining everyone’s holiday. A better alternative is to choose one or two things off the list and concentrate on those.
While some things need to be booked in advance, try not to book too much ahead of time. Let the weather and your children’s moods influence your choices. Keep them involved in the decision making as much as possible, using whatever system works for your family. For some, that might mean discussing the next day’s events over dinner. For others, it might need to wait until morning.
Always allow plenty of time to get ready, and set aside time for a leisurely lunch. A family holiday is about relaxation and spending time together not cramming as many activities as you can into your day. And always be ready to go with the flow.
Some of our greatest travel experiences have been completely unplanned. For instance, when we were travelling through Finland, an associate invited us to visit their summer cottage. To be completely honest, from what we’d heard about Finnish cottages, we didn’t think we were going to enjoy it at all. No electricity, no TV, no running water. Not even a working toilet. As Australians, the idea of an ‘outback dunny’ was not what we had in mind for our holidays. Yet, by the end of the afternoon, we were having so much fun we took up her offer to stay the night. Long story short, three days later, we had to ‘force’ the kids to leave. They wanted to stay at the cottage while we went to Helsinki! The kids spent hours fishing and swimming in the lake. They played with the local kids, even though they barely spoke English. There were very few planned activities. We just went with the flow – spending hours sitting by the lake, watching the sun rise or set, eating fresh strawberries, and smoking salmon by the fire. Every night, we’d spend hours in the wood-fired sauna, washing our hair in the nearby lake. Nobody cared that there was no television, or that they had to go outside to the toilet. Almost ten years later, our kids still talk about that trip. They still want to go back to that lake and spend some more time.
View the world through your children’s eyes and remember, the most important thing to carry with you on holidays is your sense of humour. Enjoy, not endure, holidays with your kids.