How To Not Waste Your Family Holiday: 12 Top Tips To Make A Good One Great
A family holiday tends to be far too short, and come around far too seldom, for us to blow it through a lack of thoughtfulness and intentionality.
That’s why I wrote this blog. To help us parents make good family holidays even better.
This subject is top of my mind at the moment. Julie and I, and our five terrorists, have just returned from two weeks on the gorgeous East Coast of South Africa. Off the back of a few days of me working, we took holiday in surf-rich Glen Eden. (The picture says more than words can about the beauty of this place.)
A while ago I asked via social media for people’s top wisdom when it comes to making family holidays work. This updated blog captures a combination of their many voices as well as my end-holiday reflection.
Regardless of where you holiday – home or away – here is what you most need to know. Of course you might not agree with all my advice, but see what fits your unique vibe and family…
1. Clarify why you are taking this holiday.
This is the most important point, because this is where we tend to go wrong. Let me suggest what you should NOT be aiming at.
- Non-stop entertainment, thrills and fun.
- Once-in-a-lifetime making of memories.
- Every chance to get away from your kids.
- Seeing as many people as possible.
- Going to as many places as you can.
- Squeezing every drop out of every day.
So what should you be aiming for in a holiday? Here are three primary goals…
- Take a break.
- Bond as a family.
- Effectively transition seasons.
Taking a break. The manic pace of life, the daily demands of the grind, the monotonous routines – these slowly but surely drain us of our vital energies, our freshness of mind, and our enthusiasm for life. We cannot sustain freshness without significantly breaking from these drainers at least once, if not twice, a year. And it’s not just us. Our children need the break too.
Bonding as a family. The invisible emotional threads that bind husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, children and parents begin to thin out in everyday life. Especially when we spend the bulk of our days and weeks away from each other, and even when our bodies are in the same locale, our minds are still at work or school. Holidays, and the generous amount of undistracted time they provide to be together body and mind, are usually the best way to fortify our intra-family connections. Don’t fool yourself: some quality time is wonderful, but quantity time is far more important.
Transitioning seasons / years. Thankfully, life in the West, built on the Judeo-Christian principle of Sabbath, affords us breathers between weekly and annual seasons/years of work. Timeously taken holidays have a way of helping us end one season or year well, and then starting a new one well. That’s why holidays involve both a rest from our (last season’s) labour, and a rest for our (next season’s) labour.
2. Fear FOMO more than missing out.
Social Media has unleashed a happiness-eroding paranoia upon us all. It does its worst, I think, before or during holidays. There is no doubt that someone you know is not only in a more exotic holiday location than you, but is also keen to post pics that will make you envious.
One glimpse is enough to undermine your satisfaction with the ordinariness of your holiday and life. Other than cutting back on Social Media, tell yourself (because no one speaks to you more than you) that if you are together, you have everything you need for a great holiday.
How much money you are spending, and where and whether you are camping, holiday-housing, cruising or stay-cationing is really a secondary detail. Also, don’t compare your holiday with those who don’t have kids. It’s common knowledge that vacations with small kids are often more exhausting than energising. Sometimes, Julie and I joke that we need a holiday from our holiday.
But complaining is pointless. Much better to focus on the positives of family holidays: they will be gone before your know it; they force us to wisely maximize the hours in the day; and my favourite part, they provide the thrill of vicariousness. We experience many things (I am thinking of waterslides, sunsets, lagoons and rock pools) as if for the first time, through the eyes of our kids.
3. Replenish rather than indulge yourself.
When you feel empty (as most of us do after a long hard slog), we might think we need to be indulged. But what we really need is to be replenished.
Driving yourself hard through too many late nights, over drinking, over eating, over socialising (and for that matter, over spending) is hardly going to fill you up in the deepest parts. By all means have fun, but mainly let it be the kind of fun that doesn’t tax your weary body and mind even more.
The most basic way to rejuvenate after a long run of exhaustion is to sleep more.
Sure, you might have a few party nights, but as a general rule, go for earlier dinners and say no to late night activities or outings. Get to bed early, and (if you have a spouse) take turns sleeping in. If you can squeeze in an early afternoon nap, do so.
Another idea is instituting golden hour. Whether they are tykes, tweens or teens, institute a daily rest time where everyone, parents included, grabs some silent, solo down-time. It took our crew a few days to get their heads around it, but once we all got into the groove, everyone enjoyed this time.
4. Replace screens and devices with nature.
My wife came to the wisdom of reducing screen-time by events beyond her control. To start with, she accidentally left her phone at home. And on day 3, our daughter spilt apple juice on her Apple. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Screens suck you out of the present moment, and out of the presence of the people in the room or tent, the very place holidays are trying to put you in. A few times we let our kids play iPad games, but always they behaved terribly afterwards. Screens, especially smart phones, are part of modern life I know. (I call them Weapons of Mass Distraction.) But do they need to be part of holidays?
I am not so sure. Much, much better to detox from our soul-sucking dopamine addiction to Whatsapp, Likes, images and emails by immersing our self in creation. I am thinking of fun-in-the-sun: rivers, lakes, beaches, hillsides and mountains. This is surely the great perk of camping. But even if you stay at home, take the trip to nature as often as you can.
5. If you travel, stick to one base if possible.
Staying in more than one place can add a sense of excitement, but packing, traveling, then unpacking is seriously stressful. That’s why staying put in one place is generally better than dividing the time over two or more places.
On this point, I can’t resist a small jab at our over-estimation of overseas family holidays. Not only do they cost an arm and a leg, but with the hectic travel and itinerary involved, they tend to be way more stressful and less rejuvenating than a trip that would have come in at 10% of the price. That said, if I had the means, of course I’d take my kids to see the world.
6. Plan just one event a day, bigger ones every other day.
This rule of thumb is the single best advice anyone ever gave me about holidays. It reminds us that we are trying to take a break, not wear ourselves out on entertainment or exhilaration.
Generally these events / outings should be part-day, seldom full-day. And bigger ones need a 48 hour gap. In fact, once my kids latched onto this 2-day rhythm of a big event-day followed by a day of ‘hanging low’, they sometimes begged us for additional hanging low days.
7. Create a list at the holiday’s beginning, then pencil in plans a day or two beforehand.
Over scheduling and overfilling holidays has an equal opposite error: complete lack of structure or planning. As a family, we generated a do-able (and affordable) list of cool things we would like to do before our holiday is done. Then we kept an eye on the weather charts, and using the previous rule of thumb, we planned outings a day or two before.
However, on the day, if we didn’t feel like it, we were free to bail on the plans. Changing the order of plans, based on new opportunities or ideas, was also part of the fun. Like the time we found an orphaned baby bird in the garden and decided to replace our plans with a trip to the Bird Park, where we could both see birds and save one too. (Two birds with in one stone, literally.)
8. Play some games together.
Board games and card games are winners, One of my friends swears by Monopoly (older kids), another by several day-long Rummy tournaments. Another says a new school game – geocaching – is the highlight wherever they are.
As for us, making milkshakes or pancakes or smoothies together blew our kids hair back time after time. So did playing Duplo with the younger kids and Lego with the older ones.
If you’re driving, holidays begin not when you arrive, but as you drive away from your home. Taking snacks, having well-timed stops, listening to Roald Dahl audiobooks, watching a DVD en route (if you have a car-DVD-player) are all winners. Fail to occupy your kids in the car, and you will pay for it severely. If the drive is long, treating the trip as part of the holiday fun will effectively add two days to your holiday.
9. Take the pressure off by taking it as it comes.
The attitude of little kids is almost impossible to control. If we as parents or if our kids have too much expectation of how happy we will all be, what great memories we will make, or how great every day will be, we are doomed to be frustrated and disappointed.
It’s better to live in the moment and not focus on everyone being happy, or even well-behaved all the time. Focus more on where each person is at on that particular day. The joy is actually having the adventure together, much of it turning out different than what we imagined, not striving to achieve our exaggerated expectations.
10. Overlap some time with other people, but not too much.
My kids love holidays where other kids their age, or cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents are present. As parents we also tend to love the divide-and-conquer dynamic that comes from having more adult hands to help us with feeding and engaging our kids. And other kids to entertain our kids.
But, and there is a big but, all these other people means us married couples will spend less time with each other, and with our kids. All the fun aside, the rare opportunity for bonding as a family unit is missed.
If you do holiday with others, assertively schedule a few outings that involve just your family. That said, my personal goal is to spend at least two thirds of a holiday ‘just us’. Then again, with five kids we might have an exaggerated need for this.
11. Maybe enlist some domestic help, but careful here.
Julie and I never did this, but so many friends suggested, from experience, young families should take or hire help.
Other than the additional costs, there are two reasons to be weary of doing this. One is that, assuming you take your own domestic staff-person with you, you may be taking away their annual chance to spend with their family and friends.
The other is that the temptation is to carry on this terrible habit of outsourcing our parenting every chance we get. During the year, we may need help because we have so much to do in a day. But (in my opinion) holidays create more than enough space for us to bond with our kids in the most ordinary of tasks, including getting them to help with preparing tables and cleaning up.
12. Re-orientate yourself around pivotal questions.
As I said, holidays are not just for taking a break, and for finding each other as a family. They are also for effectively transitioning from one season or year to another. To do this, there are three kinds of question-asking that all this relaxing affords us: looking back, looking up or in, looking forward.
Reflect on the year or season before. This is looking back. What were the highlights and lowlights, the surprises and difficulties, the advances and setbacks? What would you have done differently? What did you learn? Who were the main people in your life? What are you grateful for?
Revisit your sense of calling, identity, values and beliefs. This is looking up or in. If you are anything like me, these constellation points in your soul have no doubt been obscured by life’s pace and demands. During the last half of a holiday, I love to use each day’s first half hour to read, journal, think and/or pray. These thoughts easily spill over into heart-to-heart conversations. Just this morning Julie and I discussed this question: ‘Other than marriage and parenting, assuming money is not an obstacle, what one thing do you most want to achieve with your life?’ Other great questions in this category are: Who am I? Why am I here? What do I believe? What do I value most?
Envision how you want to do life this year. This is looking forward. Ask yourself what you want to do differently. What pitfalls should you seek to avoid? What people should you prioritize? What personal practices can you build into your day or week? What life roles need additional focus? What goals should you shoot at?
As the cloud of stress lifts, and as your mind gets fresher on holiday, I suggest you start to think about these questions. Write stuff down. Maybe even ask your older kids these questions about their lives. This simple practice might be the difference between a good holiday and a great one.
Also published on Medium.