Traveling with Kids During the Holidays

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by Kyran Pittman

“This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun.”

–Clark Griswald, National Lampoon’s Vacation

Is yours one of the millions of families who will be traveling this holiday season? Are you already making plans for spring break, or even next summer’s getaway plan? Before you haul the suitcases out of the closet, let’s take a look at the other kind of baggage we tend to bring along on family travel: expectations. For many of us, it’s a battered, mismatched set that starts coming apart even before we leave the driveway.

And how could it not, when we’ve stuffed it to the straining point with unrealistic ideals? We spend weeks, perhaps months, envisioning ourselves and our kids in a blissful bubble of togetherness — relaxing, having fun, meeting happy adventures, making memories. Reality is nowhere on the itinerary.

Then someone gets sick or feels tired. Somebody doesn’t like what’s for supper, or can’t sleep without his favorite pillow. There are sulking spells and tantrums when things don’t go according to plan. Sibling rivalry flares, personalities clash, feelings get hurt.

And those are just the grown-ups’ issues. Throw a child into the mix, and it’s a wonder any of us come home from family travel with our family intact.

What if we had a checkpoint for catching those outsize expectations before we leave, like those metal frames for measuring carry-on luggage at the airport? Having logged many thousands of miles by air, land, and sea with my own family of five in the past 15 years (including an epic road trip from the Southern U.S. to Eastern Canada), I think I can offer a few guidelines for keeping family travel plans proportionate to reality.

1. Focus. What’s this family vacation about, anyway? Time with each other or visiting with relatives and friends? Relaxation or sightseeing? Adventure or indulgence? It’s not that a family vacation can’t include elements of both, but it makes a huge difference when everybody understands the main focus. When we vacation at grandma’s house, we know that the focus is connecting with extended family. We might work in a side excursion for some “just-us” time or local sightseeing, but we don’t feel cheated because we didn’t get to play tourists the entire time. By contrast, when we went to Orlando for spring break last year, the focus was “doing” the theme parks (and did we!). Nobody felt cheated of quiet relationship time. That wasn’t the focus. Agree on a main focus for the trip, and organize priorities around it. 

2. Flexibility. Whose family vacation is this, anyway? Hopefully, the answer is “everyone in the family.” Unless you are a family of clones, that means there will have to be some give and take. There’s only so much time, money and energy to go around. When we were planning our spring break vacation, I asked each of our kids to read the Land of the Traveler magazine and list the three Orlando attractions they most wanted to see, and made sure at least one of each boy’s must-sees was a priority on our itinerary – even if it meant skipping something I was “sure” they would like more. I also gave my introverted husband the option of flying home a few days ahead of us to recover from the theme park pace. He gratefully took it, and didn’t complain once about the three days I had him marching from dawn to dusk. With younger children, it’s especially important to separate your own agenda from theirs, or at least be willing to scale it. I saw little kids at Disney World who were overwhelmed and over-extended. I totally understand a parent’s eagerness to share the magic with her child, but a little magic goes a long way when you are small. Your dream vacation may be a nightmare to your spouse or child. Be sensitive to the limits and desires of everyone who is along for the ride.

3. Reality. Expert travelers have a rule of thumb about packing what you think you need, and then removing half. I admit I have trouble applying that principle to my suitcases, but it’s a great rule for chucking expectations. Your family on vacation is still your family, at best and at worst. Traveling together can be an amazing bonding experience, but it won’t magically alter personalities, increase your bank account, or forever define your kids’ childhood. So resist the temptation to plan a trip as if it could. Contrary to Clark Griswald, it isn’t a quest after all – it’s still a vacation. Make plans, not expectations.

Kyran Pittman is the blogger behind Planting Dandelions, and author of the same titled book. She has three boys and lives in Arkansas — much to her disbelief.

Please share any thoughts or questions you might have below in the comments section.  We love hearing from you!

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series,  along with our beautiful children’s booksappsmusichandmade dolls, and more.

Posted in: Parental Wisdom, Family, Holidays