The low point of the trip wasn't when my husband, Andrew, and I hiked into the Grand Canyon without our teens, because Solomon and Celia opted to stay behind in our tiny cabin. As insane as it seemed for them to miss their chance to explore the most spectacular natural phenomenon our country has to offer, that morning, we chose to let it go.
The worst moment had been the day before, when our kids' undisguised misery while visiting a mitten-shaped rock formation in Arizona sucked all joy out of a hike. It led to hours of uncomfortable silence and passive-aggressive muttering - in both the front and back seats - on the long car ride to the North Rim that followed.
We learned some crucial lessons on that trip that have improved family vacations since. For example, just because a trip sounds dreamy to Andrew and me - in that case, daily hikes through the astonishing natural treasures of Utah and Arizona - doesn't mean it's also our kids' idea of a great time. From their view, walking over rocks and through canyons day after day became excruciatingly boring.
Since then, we've had some fantastic trips with Solomon and Celia, now 19 and 17, including an awesome adventure to colonial cities, volcanoes, a "Monkey Island" and a remote beach in Nicaragua last month, and a driving loop around gorgeous, hipster Oregon the year before. The tweaks to how we approach family travel have dramatically reduced tension. But we know we've also gotten a bit lucky in terms of favorable weather, great activities and being able to afford to take these trips.
We have friends who have returned early from vacations because the tension with their teens got so high, and some who have opted to travel without their kids. But through trial and error, we have found an approach to traveling with our teens that seems to suit us all.
Here are nine things that we have tried to incorporate into our getaways. I hope they help make your family vacations more enjoyable and less infuriating.
- Involve them in planning. Depending on your kids' enthusiasm for this task, this may simply mean giving them choices between several destinations and having them look over the itinerary before finalizing it, or it may mean that they take the lead on planning the itinerary. But even giving them a small amount of control can help them feel like they are part of the process and, therefore, elevate their enthusiasm about the trip and activities.
Diana Beckman of Alexandria, Virginia, has her kids rank their top three activities for each destination. They make sure to get to everyone's top choice, and try to get to others, with the expectation that there are no guarantees beyond the top picks. She finds that this ensures the kids have better attitudes about participating in everyone else's top priorities, because they know they'll get the chance to enjoy their top choice(s), too.
- Set expectations ahead of time and express your needs. When Beckman's kids were 12 and 16, she took them on a road trip from Nebraska to Wyoming. On the day of the longest drive, Beckman prepared her children by telling them ahead of time that it would be a long day for all of them and that she would need their help navigating and keeping her entertained while she drove. After that discussion, both kids were fully engaged, checking on her frequently and offering her shoulder rubs and snacks. That eight-hour car ride was an unexpected high point of the trip.
- Have some separate time or space. We enjoy each other's company but it also helps, especially on long trips, to be able to retreat from each other for a few hours. When possible, we choose a lower-priced hotel so we can get two rooms. The time apart helps all of us better appreciate each other's company.
- Don't make every activity mandatory. Minimize the "shoulds" and "musts." If your kids are old enough, let them choose whether they want to participate in some outings. When they don't feel forced, they are more likely to join us for most activities. If your kids are not old enough to be left alone and you have at least two adults on the trip, divide and conquer when necessary.
- Leave plenty of downtime. Teens usually like to have time to relax, check social media or just be alone. We have found that at least a few unstructured hours each day, usually in the afternoon, keeps moodiness at bay and makes the scheduled outings more fun for all of us, so we try hard not to overschedule. This has the added benefit of leaving time for spontaneity, and for Andrew and me to do something together without the kids, too.
- Travel with a peer pack. Vacationing with other families with kids of similar ages, whether they are friends or family members, can make trips more fun for everyone. On New Year's Eve at Morgan's Rock Eco-Lodge in Nicaragua, we met two families from New York and Montreal who travel together every winter break so that both the kids and adults have stimulating companions. Alternatively, consider inviting the kids' friends or traveling to places where other teenagers are also likely to be staying. That way, they - and you - can make new friends.
- Don't try to control everything, including their experiences. We try to keep our mouths shut and let the kids do things their own way, even if it seems like the wrong way to us. On our last night in Nicaragua, we planned to watch the sunset from the beach as a family. But as the sun was disappearing behind the horizon, Solomon still had not joined us. I was tempted to find him and call him over before the sun disappeared, but I resisted. It turned out that he was on the beach, happily observing scuttling hermit crabs. We each enjoyed the sunset in our own ways.
- Put your fears aside. We let the kids go off on their own in a new place, even though it sometimes makes us nervous. On New Year's Eve, Solomon and Celia met some other teenagers at our hotel and wandered down the pitch-black beach after midnight while we were still listening to the band. A few of the other parents went searching for the kids, and although we were a little concerned - is Celia safe? Will Solomon dive headfirst into the shallow waves and break his neck? - we stayed put. At their ages, they are operating independently most of the time, and it is not fair to put on the shackles just because it is a family vacation. As they have gotten older, we have chosen to trust their judgment, even in unfamiliar settings, and even when it causes us some anxiety.
- Set boundaries about technology. For us, this means not getting international phone plans in foreign countries. That way we can all disconnect so we can reconnect. Many families find it helps to decide and discuss in advance whether and where they'll use technology while on vacation. For Andrew and me, vacation is a time to step away from the smartphones, so rather than nagging during the vacation, we discuss boundaries ahead of time. Admittedly, that has boomeranged on me: the kids sometimes have to remind me to stop taking notes and photos with my phone during meals.
As Solomon and Celia get older, we are acutely aware that we may not have many more vacations left with just the four of us. So we are willing to be flexible about where and how we travel, hoping that they'll continue to want to explore the world with us, even where the WiFi is spotty.