Search any parenting website and you will find hundreds and hundreds of tips for best family vacations. Despite this wealth of information, I have never found a tip that could guarantee perfect happiness on any family vacation. Interestingly enough, it is not the big things that can cause a family to break down. Flat tires, lost wallets, injured children…no problem. Try agreeing on a radio station, tolerating another squabble, or misplacing the keys…now that’s something that can get everybody good and tense.
Let’s face it: it is not realistically possible for all family members to feel happy or even behave calmly and maturely throughout the whole vacation. And that may include Mom or Dad. Tensions will rise. Negative feelings will inevitably emerge. That is why, after twenty years of clinical work and a lifetime of being close to family, my best all-time family vacation tip is this: take turns seeming discontented.
Now, feel free to substitute the word “discontented” for any of the most common feelings families normally have on vacation, including: grumpy, angry, sad, frustrated, uncomfortable, annoyed...you know what I mean.
Agreeing to take turns with challenging feelings means that whenever possible, in the moment of one person’s negative spell, nobody will get mad at them.
Instead, family members will be patient and tolerant of the negative person, wait for the negative spell to be over, and here’s the clincher: possibly even try to be helpful and supportive. Children are generally good at taking individual turns melting down; getting the entire family to operate this way sometimes takes work.
Let me give you an example of how a family could allow a disgruntled mother to take her turn. The mother, who did not get a good night’s sleep, can’t find the hairbrush just as they are about to leave (and they are running late.) She starts to raise her voice. “If we can’t put things where they belong, I’m not going to spend my entire vacation searching for something.” The father, if he is not agreeable to taking turns being unhappy, may become disgruntled by this complaining and say something like: “Why can’t you chill out? It’s just a brush, it’s a vacation. Why do you have to make a federal case out of this?”
As much as the father has a right to get annoyed with the mother for complaining, he is not taking turns - which is against the rules. Taking turns being disgruntled means that Dad will either a) say nothing or b) start looking for the brush.
Now it’s Dad’s turn. Dad is at the wheel, as he has been for the past three hours, and discovers that the map has somehow become soggy and he is no longer able to discern which fork in the road to take. He starts shouting: “KIDS! BE QUIET!” This is not the time for Mom to correct him and say, with affected calm: “It’s not the end of the world, dear, just pull into that gas station and get the directions, Geez.” This could make Dad feel foolish. If she can truly let him take his turn, she will think “well, nobody’s perfect” and either a) say nothing or b) gently ask the kids to quiet down.
Oh-oh, Little Sally’s Popsicle has just broken and she begins to wail. She insists that Daddy walk two miles to the nearest convenience store to replace it. Does Daddy go and get her one? Well, no. Does he try to explain "Sally, I’ve gotten you everything you wanted this week, for once, just once, you are going to have to deal with not getting every little thing you want.” Again, no - Sally is way too sad to realize she’s being foolish. Again, Dad should let her take her turn and either a) say nothing (perhaps offering a conciliatory lollipop) or b) ask her to wail a little more quietly.
Seeing children unhappy is so difficult for most parents – it’s so hard for us to just let them take their turn.
The hardest part is that tensions and frustrations are so contagious. That’s what makes it so hard to take turns. One person being tense can quickly cause the entire family to feel tense. It is not uncommon in most families, if all parties are tired, to sometimes become simultaneously disgruntled.
Another important aspect to taking turns: it isn’t always fair and equal game. Some members of the family may manage to remain calm and positive while others may need to take much longer and more frequent turns. Then there are those beloved family members who never seem to take their turn at all. Bless them.
While it may be impossible to have a vacation that is completely free of tension and frustration, or to handle them with complete maturity and calm 100% of the time, taking turns accepting being disgruntled in each other can almost guarantee that the whole family won’t simultaneously come down with a bad case of grumpiness, and that the trust that is built by tolerance, patience and acceptance will make each new vacation the best one yet.