Plan your holidays together and set expectations but most of all, parents, loosen the reins a little, writes Aviva Goldfarb.
The low point of the trip wasn’t when my husband, Andrew, and I hiked into the Grand Canyon without our teens, because Solomon and Celia opted to stay behind in our tiny cabin. As insane as it seemed for them to miss their chance to explore this most spectacular natural phenomenon, that morning, we chose to let it go.
The worst moment had been the day before, when our kids’ undisguised misery while visiting a mitten-shaped rock formation in Arizona sucked all joy out of a hike.
We learned some crucial lessons on that trip that have improved family holidays since. For example, just because a trip sounds dreamy to Andrew and me — in that case, daily hikes through the astonishing natural treasures of Utah and Arizona — doesn’t mean it’s our kids’ idea of a great time.
Since then, we’ve had some fantastic trips with Solomon and Celia, now 19 and 17, including an awesome adventure to colonial cities, volcanoes, Monkey Island and a remote beach in Nicaragua, and a driving loop around gorgeous, hipster Oregon the year before. The tweaks to how we approach family travel have dramatically reduced tension. But we know we’ve also been lucky in terms of favourable weather, great activities and being able to afford these trips.
Through trial and error, we have found an approach to travelling with our teens that suits us all. Here are nine things that we have tried to incorporate into our getaways. I hope they help make your family holidays more enjoyable.
1 Involve them in planning. Depending on your kids’ enthusiasm, this may mean giving them choices between several destinations and having them look over the itinerary before finalising it, or it may mean they take the lead on planning the itinerary. But even giving them a small amount of control can help them feel like they are part of the process and elevate their enthusiasm about the trip and activities. Diana Beckman’s kids rank their top three activities for each destination. They visit everyone’s top choice, and try to get to others, with the expectation that there are no guarantees beyond the top picks. This ensures the kids have better attitudes about participating in everyone else’s top priorities, because they know they’ll get the chance to enjoy their top choice(s), too.
2 Set expectations ahead of time and express your needs. When Beckman’s kids were 12 and 16, she took them on a long road trip. On the day of the longest drive, she prepared her children by telling them ahead of time that it would be a long day for all of them and that she would need their help navigating and keeping her entertained while she drove. Both kids were fully engaged, checking on her frequently and offering her shoulder rubs and snacks. That eight-hour car ride was an unexpected high point of the trip.
3 Have some separate time or space. We enjoy each other’s company but it helps, especially on long trips, to be able to retreat for a few hours. When possible, we choose a lower-priced hotel so we can get two rooms. The time apart helps all of us better appreciate each other’s company.
4 Don’t make every activity mandatory. Minimise the “shoulds” and “musts”. If your kids are old enough, let them choose whether they want to participate in some outings. When they don’t feel forced, they are more likely to join in most activities. If your kids are not old enough to be left alone and you have at least two adults on the trip, divide and conquer when necessary.
5 Leave plenty of downtime. Teens like to have time to relax, check social media or just be alone. We have found that at least a few unstructured hours each day, usually in the afternoon, keeps moodiness at bay and makes the scheduled outings more fun for all of us. We try hard not to overschedule, which has the added benefit of leaving time for spontaneity, and for Andrew and me to do something without the kids.
6 Travel with a peer pack. Holidaying with other families with kids of similar ages, whether they are friends or family, can make trips more fun for everyone. On New Year’s Eve at Morgan’s Rock Ecolodge in Nicaragua, we met two families from New York and Montreal who travel together every winter break so that the kids and adults have stimulating companions. Alternatively, consider inviting the kids’ friends or travelling to places where other teenagers are also likely to be staying. That way, they — and you — can make new friends.
7 Don’t try to control everything, including their experiences. We try to keep our mouths shut and let the kids do things their own way, even if it seems like the wrong way to us. On our last night in Nicaragua, we planned to watch the sunset from the beach as a family. As the sun was disappearing behind the horizon, Solomon still had not joined us. I was tempted to find him and call him over before the sun disappeared, but I resisted. It turned out he was on the beach, happily observing scuttling hermit crabs. We each enjoyed the sunset in our own ways.
8 Put your fears aside. We let the kids go off on their own in a new place, even though it sometimes makes us nervous. On New Year’s Eve, Solomon and Celia met some other teenagers at our hotel and wandered down the pitch-black beach after midnight while we were still listening to the band. A few of the other parents went searching for the kids, and although we were a little concerned we stayed put.
At their ages, they are operating independently most of the time, and it is not fair to put on the shackles just because it is a family holiday. As they have grown older, we have chosen to trust their judgment, even in unfamiliar settings, and even when it causes us some anxiety.
9 Set boundaries about technology. For us, this means not getting international phone plans in foreign countries. That way we can all disconnect so we can reconnect. Many families find it helps to decide and discuss in advance whether and where they’ll use technology while on holiday. For Andrew and me, vacation is a time to step away from the smartphones, so rather than nagging during the holiday, we discuss boundaries ahead of time. Admittedly, that has boomeranged: the kids sometimes have to remind me to stop taking notes and photos with my phone during meals.
As Solomon and Celia get older, we are acutely aware that we may not have many more holidays left with just the four of us. So we are willing to be flexible about where and how we travel, hoping that they’ll continue to want to explore the world with us, even where the Wi-Fi is spotty.