7 Simple Rules for Happy Family Vacations

Kennedy and Jackie O on vacation with kids and puppies

Last week my family took an impromptu vacation after the sudden realization that if I didn’t break out of my local mommy cow path (park, potty, grocery, park, potty, grocery) I was going to go all stabby. So we threw the kids in the car with enough underwear to make it through the weekend and headed to New Hampshire to enjoy some national parks and check out StoryLand (ie. amusement park for the under 7 crowd).

The hotel and various parks we visited were full of other families dragging their kids around on vacation which got me thinking about all the things we do to help or hinder our ability to actually ENJOY our kids while on vacation. So we’ll take a brief pause and spend a few minutes on what we can do to have fun with them (especially when far from home).

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  1. Lay out the ground rules BEFORE you get there.

    Don’t wait until you’re in the neon-bright gift-shop to announce that we’re not buying any giant candy bars. Think about the rough spots you’re likely to encounter and have a family chat about them well in ADVANCE of the activity. We had a few simple rules: we stick together, we’re not buying anything other than lunch, and when Mom & Dad say it’s time to go, we go. We talked about it over breakfast so there were no surprises once we got there.

  2. MEAN what you SAY.

    I had never taken my kids to anything remotely like an amusement park. It was big, noisy, crowded, and we saw one scary guy wearing a large deer skinning knife openly on his belt. At a park geared towards preschoolers. With no deer in it.

    At the park I stressed to my 4 YO that it was REALLY REALLY important that we stay together. In fact it was pretty much THE cardinal rule of the park. We talked about this before we got there and I gave him a few reminders as we ambled about the park. Then, he ran off clearly ignoring my pleas for him to stop. When I caught up to him I got down on his level, looked him in the eye and said, “If you run away again we will walk out to the car and leave the park. Got it?” Thankfully he did. Because I would have absolutely eaten the $100 in entrance tickets and shoved two very upset kids in the car and left. Yes it would have ruined the trip and made me pretty unpopular. But it is more important that my kids a) make safe decisions and b) know Mommy means what she says, than it is for us to have a fun few hours at a park.

  3. Nobody likes a buzz kill.

    How would you feel if you were playing in the pool and somebody demanded that you stop to check the math on your 2011 tax returns? I was at the pool watching a tired-looking Mom bark at her daughter who was refusing to practice what she had learned at swim lessons. I don’t go on vacation to work and wouldn’t take kindly to somebody asking me to. Don’t require something of your kids that you wouldn’t ask of yourself.

  4. Be realistic.

    We had been driving home for 3 hours when my 4 YO lost it. His whining had hit a peak and he started crying about how he just wanted to go home and never take any more trips. He was kicking the back of the driver-side seat. He wasn’t being a selfish brat or an ingrate who didn’t appreciate the financial hit his parents had just taken to let him go on the flume ride. He was a kid who had been asked to sit in a boring car playing with a few matchbox cars for TOO long without a break. The meltdown was entirely our fault. We should have taken a break sooner, let them out for a snack or to run around…

  5. Everybody makes mistakes. Fix it and move on.

    Luckily we were near the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury, VT. Everybody got a cone and some time to run around in the grass. It’s OK to make a parenting mistake. Do what you can to make up for it, learn the lesson, and move on. And ice cream fixes almost everything.

  6. No sleep on vacation = bad vacation

    The whole reason we go on trips is that there is cool stuff to do THERE. Why would anybody want to go to bed? Blow through naps, the kids are having such fun, right? You’re on VACATION, live a little. So what if the kids stay up jumping on the beds (they can jump of course because they aren’t YOUR beds, right?) till 11:00 pm. It’s VACATION.

    I watched these two kids scream their way through dinner at a nice restaurant while their parents looked around anxiously to see who was staring. These kids were clearly EXHAUSTED. They had built up a vacation sleep debt and were in full meltdown mode. As they fidgeted and threw cold french fries on the carpet their tired bodies were filling their brain with cortisol which almost guaranteed that these parents were going to be stuck with 2 miserable kids back at their hotel room who would literally be unable to fall asleep.

    I don’t want to have to leave a 30% tip because my kids wrecked the joint. I don’t want to be wrestling cranky kids at midnight. I don’t want to be the Mom who drags her tantrummy kids out of the pool while everybody pretends not to look. So really it’s all about choice. What is more important to you?

  7. Sleep is sleep (where doesn’t matter).

    Kid sleeping in stroller near a stroller parking sign

    Strollers = portable nap haven.

    After a long morning of traipsing around the park both kiddos fell asleep seconds after we got into the car. When we got to the hotel, we pulled the total ROOKIE maneuver of trying to transition them from the car to the hotel room where (I fantasized) they would continue to nap for 2 hours so I could too. Of course this failed totally and they ended up with a 10 minute nap which could have easily been a 45 minute nap had we just owned a simple truth of traveling with kids: embrace the car/stroller/etc. to help them get some shuteye. Plan your drives so that your kids can conk out in the car. Bring a stroller that reclines and go for a long walk around nap time. With so many exciting things going on, take advantage of the distraction-free zone that you have at your disposal.

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Come to think of it, these rules pretty much apply to hanging out at home too. Does anybody else have any thoughts to share on family trips?

{photo credit: Azfar Ahmad}