Families that vacation together can stay bonded together By Heather Cunninghamphotos by Josh Hawkins Packing has become a regular chore for the well- traveled Vickie Casanova and her daughter Reyna, 8, of Oak Park.
When Batavia mother and licensed clinical social worker Sue Koestler learns my oldest son is 8, she says something that smacks me right in the gut: "Then you really have about six years left, six trips to share the experiences and make the memories of traveling together as a family."
Only six years? According to Koestler, once a child hits 14 family vacations become much harder to fit in, not only because his schedule becomes busier but also because he is more reluctant to vacation with family.
It seems as though I won't have nearly enough time to create family memories. I panic and think I had better get busy, get it right and make sure I fit it all in.
Koestler speaks from experience; she has three fast-growing children-the oldest graduated from high school this June. She vacationed with them all over-most recently a trip with her 12-year-old daughter to Ireland-but Koestler is grappling with the belief that family vacations are almost over for her family.
Each year Chicago-area parents heed the siren call of Disney World or the Wisconsin Dells because they want their children to experience our country's definition of a happy family vacation. But when parents factor in the cost, the stress of the planning and the "Are we there yets?" along the way, it's easy to wonder whether the effort is really worth it.
"Absolutely," says Marie Egeland, a Geneva-based psychotherapist at Intermission Therapies Ltd. and owner of I. Travel, a tour company that plans trips for families, couples and groups to places such as Ireland, Scotland and Italy. Egeland is so sure that traveling together is a crucial part of family bonding that she considers it a type of family therapy. In fact, she is currently writing a book on travel as family therapy.
Leave home, find family She got the idea for the book while working in a family therapy practice in Wheaton. Watching the drama of unhappy families unfold around her made her think about her own family and the vacations that had knitted them together. And when she thought back to growing up with three siblings and parents, she thought about their vacations. "My family was relatively close, but my dad was a workaholic," says Egeland. "Before my mother had her fourth child she taught school for a year to earn the money to buy a trailer so we could all travel together.
"Those vacations make up most of the sensory memories I have of my father, who died five years ago … for two to three weeks of vacation each year, he was ours. I remember my parents getting up really early on the first day of our trip each year and setting up sleeping bags in the back of the car," she says. "Each time I would pretend I was still asleep so that he would carry me."
Over the years the family visited the 48 continental United States-the trailer broke down before they got to Alaska and, well, you can't drive to Hawaii.
As a therapist, she says, she began to realize what her family had gained from vacationing together and to use that knowledge in counseling other families.
"Vacationing together the right way-it is us against the world-is really honest, because it either connects you more strongly or reveals defects in the family that need to be resolved," says Egeland. "For us, getting away so that we had the time and the energy to concentrate on each other is what gave us the emotional foundation to weather the storms that inevitably came our way."
Jamie Swanson of Streator, a client of Egeland's and pastor of the community's Park Presbyterian Church, agrees.
"My desire to vacation with my kids probably goes back to when I was a child. My parents had a 16-foot Airstream and every summer we would take three weeks to a month and just go," he remembers. "The purpose was to be together, get away and see the world. That has always been my same motif and the centerpiece of our family vacations was a trip together to Europe."
Unfortunately, Egeland says, most families do not vacation the same way Swanson remembers. "We vacation the same way we live and oftentimes we want a microwave trip, to be able to push a button and create memories that are going to last for the kids," says Egeland. "In doing so, we create more stimulation for each other when what we really need is more rest, more peace, more downtime spent listening to each other."
When we don't get it right, opportunities to mend and strengthen relationships are missed, says Egeland.
"Travel means journeying every day, but vacation is standing still and breathing, which is one reason that you can't vacation at home," she says. "At home, the house screams at you with demands, but once the family is removed from that kids really have access to their parents and parents are truly removed from the environment that often distracts them from their kids."
Let go of role-playing Can a family vacation really provide total downtime for every member of the family-even mom? How easy it is to relax and connect with your family when you are dealing with traffic, getting lost, schlepping children through busy airports, coordinating meals away from home, breaking up arguments in the back seat and washing out wet swimsuits?
Egeland says we need to drop our at-home roles while vacationing. "The key to successful travel family therapy is getting out of your comfort zone, taking risks together and leaving the roles that you play at home behind," she says.
Egeland says she always laid it out for her children this way: "I told them that we are not bringing Mom on this trip; we are bringing someone who looks like her but her name isn't Mom. It is Marie and she has as much of a right to a vacation as they did, maybe more." Accordingly, she let each child pack their own possessions, boil their own hot dogs on the cook stove or order for themselves off the menu. "We have this misconception that everything is about creating memorable experiences for the children, when it is perfectly acceptable, even better, to let the children create their own memories."
Vacations can be stressful for families when parents feel as though they need to continue serving as the family caretaker when they really need to be taken care of themselves once in a while, says Egeland. She encourages families to give up entrenched roles before they hit the road.
"If dad always has been the one to carry the map, the only one to look at it, that is a strong symbol of who is really in charge … not only of the trip, but of much more," she says. "In a bigger sense, if kids are not handed ‘the map' themselves before they are 15 years old or so, how are they going to know how to live their life when they are on their own? I tell parents to begin to hand over the figurative map a long time before their children are ready to leave home."
Doing that, she says, will make it easier to continue vacationing together as the children get older and ultimately move out on their own.
"When you explore unknown territory together as a family, when you transition out together, it is not as scary for adolescents when it comes time for them to transition out alone," says Egeland.
Family planning Letting go of family roles also means letting go of expectations. Parents embark on the vacation with a fantasy of the perfect family sitting around the campfire, roasting marshmallows and have heart-to-heart discussions. "The reality is that if they are not doing that at home they won't necessarily do that around a campfire," Egeland says. The key to success is to plan less and listen more.
Egeland shares a story about a father who takes his son fishing, turns to the boy and asks, "Son, aren't you glad we are here today together?" The son replies, "Mom says I had to spend quality time with you. That is the only reason I am doing it."
The father's heart might have been in the right place, but his son felt coerced into doing something he hated in an ill-fated attempt to create a happy memory. Egeland says it happens far too often when it comes to family vacations.
"Once your children are school age, they should be involved in the planning of the vacation, and before that it should be arranged with their developmental needs and interests in mind, not what parents think that they might enjoy," she says.
Koestler says that once children are in late elementary school or middle school, they should be asked: "If you could go anywhere on vacation, where would you want to go?" Parents should answer: "Let's look into this and see if it is possible."
"I have three children that can't agree on a fast-food restaurant, so getting them to come together is sometimes really hard," says Koestler. "But if, for example, one wants Disney and the other wants to camp, try to explore the campgrounds at Walt Disney World. Most of the time there is a way to make everybody happy."
Egeland's personal case study: In 1998 she and her husband sat down with their daughters and told them they wanted to take a special family trip for the millennium. They decided together to go to South Africa to visit a friend and her family. Then they sat down and talked about the sacrifices they would make to be able to afford the trip.
"We dropped cable, magazine subscriptions and the cleaning lady, and the girls, who were 10 and 14, starting doing the cleaning," says Egeland. "We rented movies and read about South Africa and made a really big deal about looking forward to the trip together. We would tell them we could go out and eat one evening or stay home and put the money we would have spent into the Africa money jar. In many of those cases we stayed home, they drew out menus so home would feel like a restaurant, and we saved the money."
While my own family never saved like that when I was growing up, I do remember my father talking about summer vacation months before it happened, stoking our excitement and imagination, making its arrival something to savor and anticipate. Now that I am grown I realize that those weeks before vacation were almost as good as the vacation themselves.
"It's true," says Egeland. "I disagree with families who surprise their children and whisk them off to Disney World. In doing so they take away their element of anticipation, and that is one of life's goodies. Oftentimes the process is more important than the product."
Egeland suggests having a family meeting, sitting down together and asking your children where they would really like to go. "Maybe you start by asking them if they would like to go camping on the family vacation or stretch the family budget and fly somewhere. The huge umbrella word here is empowerment," she says. "The kids will always say they had a good time after the fact if they were given the choice from the beginning."
What should parents do once children hit the magic age of 14 and want to stay home with friends rather than vacation with the family? Even if the children are already in college, Egeland says they should not be given the option of missing the family vacation. Instead, they should be included in a dialogue from the very start of trip planning, and parents should take some of that time to discuss why their teen doesn't want to go if they are not interested. "You need to let them own a part of it and let them know that you respect that they don't want to go, but that this is something that the family is doing together," she says. "Find out along the way what might make them feel more enthusiastic about the trip, and see if adjustments can be made."
Working out the details Once you hit the road, collaboration should continue for the entire vacation, says Swanson.
"Make your kids invest in the vacation decisions you make as a family," he says. "Last summer, we took a 15-day romp on a shoestring and drove 5,700 miles together in a van, camping all the way and getting as far as the Pacific Ocean. We virtually had no plans; we just stopped in every state and went to the information areas and got maps. Each time we talked and argued viciously as a family about how far we were going to drive and where we were going to stop. We all shared cooking responsibilities, the kids had their own tent and they went on their own little hikes together as well. It was an amazing experience."
And that should be the goal: the amazing shared experience.
Egeland says family vacations create the kind of emotional currency that knits parents and siblings through shared memories. It ensures they will always be connected in some small way, if only by one summer trip to the lake or vacation in the mountains. Family travel tips Here are some family vacation travel tips from the experts: • Minimize packing and unpacking. Travel light and try to pack only once when you leave and once when you head home. • Don't travel far. "With little ones, just visiting the Mississippi Palisades or Starved Rock can be great. There are so many wonderful things to do so close to home," says Batavia mother and licensed clinical social worker Sue Koestler. "Give younger children three options and let them choose from those." She also suggests taking more car trips when children are young, but plan on doubling driving time in order to make plenty of stops along the way. • Take turns being in charge. Let a different family member plan the day's activity or navigate the travel each day. • Start early. If you wait to travel as a family until the children are adolescents, "it becomes dicier because you do not have history to fall back on and relationships are in transition," says Marie Egeland, a Geneva-based psychotherapist who runs a tour company that plans trips for families. • Splurge a little. If you wait until you can afford a vacation, your kids will be gone, says Egeland. So make some sacrifices and go while the kids are young enough to still want to join you. Jamie Swanson of Streator, a client of Egeland's says his family spent five years saving for a trip to Europe, the most expensive vacation-and "most complex and wonderful"-they ever took. • Make it fun for kids. When Koestler took her daughter to Ireland, she gave her a camera so she could photograph all of the sites Koestler wanted to visit-a part of the trip that otherwise wouldn't not have appealed to the girl. • Try one-on-one trips. This is a good option for families that can't coordinate schedules or to give each parent some individual time with the kids. • Make downtime a priority. "When we go camping we rent cabins with no phones and no access to anyone, and just spend time playing cards and board games, hanging out with each other and leaving everything else behind," says Koestler. "Not having to nag them about things like homework and getting away from the everyday stress does build your relationship. A lot of times our kids don't want to be doing everything; they just want to enjoy themselves and relax." • Give older children their space. Koestler suggests getting older children their own room if possible, and letting them sleep until noon if that is what they want to do. "Take that time to go for a walk or do something you want to do," she says. "Then, when they wake up refreshed and not crabby, everyone will be ready for family time." • Throw out the schedule. "When my daughter and I went to Ireland, we decided what towns we wanted to go to, but nothing else," says Koestler. "We just figured what we didn't get done, we could do next time and didn't push ourselves physically. After all, the point is to spend time together, not check off the travel to-do list." • Be adventurous. Sometimes the best travel memories are the unplanned ones. "At one point in our trip my wife got off the train in [Koblenz], Germany, at 10 p.m. at night and the rest of us didn't," says Swanson. "We eventually got back to her in the middle of the night, but it truly was an adventure."
Heather Cunningham is an award-winning writer living in Batavia who writes frequently on parenting and health issues.