The family vacation is often lampooned as a torturous rite of passage—full of backseat bickering, auto (and emotional) breakdowns and the odd smells. While these common adversities do happen, they don’t have to destroy your family’s vacation. In fact, the family vacation still offers plenty of benefits for kids and family bonding.
Family getaways can strengthen bonds through shared experiences and memories—good and bad. Only the family knows how funny Dad’s poolside cannonball is. Or how a flat tire at midnight can inflate fears of being stranded. Vacation experiences like these become part of your family’s collective memory. And they can bring you together or divide you up.
But with a little planning and strategy, you can make sure your family vacation is packed with meaningful moments. Here are some bonding ideas to try during your next family getaway.
Try a New Activity or Sport
Before you leave for your trip, make a list of possible activities or sports that no one has ever experienced. Sharing first times and epic fails builds a collective empathy and appreciation for one another’s efforts. You may want to include your children in constructing the list. Regardless, include enough options to appeal to different interests, but not so many that it invites argument.
Choose activities that have small to medium time investments. All day hikes into the woods may sound exciting, but trekking six miles will over-stretch the group’s interest and energy levels. You’ll end the day with sore feet and grouchy dispositions. Instead, try learning to surf with your teenager. It’s healthy, unscheduled and you look cool even when falling. Or visit a small, quirky museum that’s interesting, yet takes a short time to take in. The point is don’t over commit the group to any one thing, despite how awesome it sounds.
Over-scheduling your vacation is what makes it feel like work. Don’t fill every moment with deadlines and must-see sites. Nothing bad will befall your family if you have to forego the Statue of Liberty. Everyone needs time to relax and recharge, so be flexible and schedule plenty of time to veg out.
But if you can’t get over the fear of missing out, combine downtime with something you can do alone as a group. Short naps, watching TV, screen time, reading, snacking or playing board games will let you relax and recharge together. Downtime is the part of your home life you bring on vacation. It connects you to your normal routine, resets the group’s energy and prepares you for the next leg of the trip.
Do Informal Dining
Most vacation plans include plenty of eating out. But formal dining can be a big stressor, especially for parents with young children. The fine china and fancy meals only make a kid’s bad behavior stick out more. Keep formal dining to a minimum, so you’re not ending your five-star meal as a ball of anxiety. Instead, opt for cafe fare or local family restaurants where the vibe is more relaxed.
Better yet, take the opportunity to turn meals into a bonding experience. Pack a picnic and go to the park. Grab some hot dogs, buns and a s’mores kit to cook over an open fire. Order from hotel room service, dress fancy and dine in your hotel room. Get take out and drive to a scenic overview. Pick a local restaurant at random and go on a culinary adventure. Cook a family favorite in your vacation home kitchen.
There are plenty of options for fun and adventurous informal dining. And it’s easier to have a legitimate bonding moment when you don’t have to worry about keeping your elbows off the table.
Build a Vacation Scrapbook
While most families construct their vacation scrapbooks after the fact, creating one while on vacation can foster bonding. Use scrapbooking as an excuse for you and your family to store keepsakes, record memories or post pictures. Organize your scrapbook chronologically or randomly. Divide it into sections by person or event … or not at all. You can construct one from physical materials or build an online scrapbook.
While you should encourage everyone to participate, don’t make it mandatory. That will only equate making memories to “doing homework.” Take a moment to ask your children why they are keeping or recording something. Why is it special to them? What did the experience mean? Use their answers to get to know them better and help them to explore their feelings. And explain your own reasons for including things. Use the opportunity to demonstrate how family traditions are about sharing stories and memories.