I’ve been looking at how to optimize our family vacations for the past several years. As our two kids are hitting their teenage years, it’s getting more challenging than ever to find win-win outcomes during family vacations. How on earth can everyone be satisfied when we have very different wishes and needs? It seems impossible at times. Especially when us parents hold on to our expectations and make demands about how it has to be.
That’s a recipe for disaster if you want to prioritize connection with one another. This past summer I came upon a new realization that I believe is the best tip ever for going about a family vacation that is optimal for everyone: Let go of the belief, “we have to be together.” Letting go of “forced togetherness”
“Seriously?” you may be asking . . . “But isn’t being together what family vacation is all about!?” Well, yes and no is my response. I very, very much want to be with my husband and children and enjoy them as much as I’m enjoying what we’re doing. Enjoy is the key word here. When we prioritize all four of us having to stay together over everything else, we often miss out on enjoyment. Togetherness is a longing that is particularly big for the parents, and not something to give up on altogether. It's about finding the right balance.
Often we all win when we split up for a few hours enjoying fully what we chose to do and then come back together and swap stories. This can be hard on my husband and me who both want to do the same thing, but generally speaking it’s more fulfilling for us all when we can be flexible in how we go about daily activities.
How “forced togetherness” can go wrong
This summer, we spent a few days at a lake house in the Smoky Mountains, joined at some point by my sister-in-law and her two children.
Lots of swimming, canoeing and paddle boarding.
But one afternoon the decision was made by the parents that we would all hike in a nearby old growth forest (Joyce Kilmer) – it was too special to be missed. A big part of me agreed with this, because it’s something I prefer over water activity. YET, the youngest child (age 9) was fairly adamant that she did not want to go on a hike, no matter how primitive and beautiful the forest. She was clear. And she was clearly ignored. Forced togetherness took priority.
Yet this child was not going to be ignored once we arrived. She complained, moaned, yelled, even hit her mother a few times, because she simply did NOT want to be there and wasn’t going to let us forget it for one minute.
Needless to say, it was awfully difficult for anyone to enjoy our “special hike.” I decided afterward to be very honest and announced that I was very sad and disappointed about the experience and would never again force togetherness like that. How was it worth it? I was feeling resentful toward my niece for “spoiling” my treasured hike, and realized that wasn’t exactly fair. She warned us all that she didn’t want to be there, and we didn’t listen or respect her wishes. I decided to take responsibility for my needs and on another afternoon returned to the forest alone.
I had a WONDERFUL, peaceful, fulfilling hike on my own, while my husband and kids enjoyed swimming and kayaking together. Later that evening, I gave him some “me-time” while I cooked and cleaned up after dinner. It was a good balance of activities that had us all happy as we reflected back on the day.
Listening to my “full yes”
Fast forward a few days, and we found ourselves on the North Carolina coast, camping in a marshy state park in the evenings, enjoying the beach during the day. The heat index was brutally high, and while the mosquitoes were in their prime, we were withering on the vine, especially as we tried to sleep in the humid heat.
After two nights, the kids just didn’t want one more night of camping. They weren’t anywhere near a “full yes” to it, and through their complaints, requested (more like begged) that we spend our final beach night in a hotel room. I felt sorely disappointed. I leave for vacation each summer wanting more than anything to enjoy the beautiful nature and space America has to offer. So though I wanted to ease life for my two kids, I wasn’t at all prepared to leave. I spent some time pondering the situation before I reacted and made the surprise decision to let them go without me.
I came to realize that I had a full yes to camping and not to being in a hotel room with a noisy air conditioner. The silence I experienced was like medicine after several days spent visiting and catching up with old friends. I slept 11 hours that night, along with a symphony of crickets, cicadas, frogs, birds, and a distant thunderstorm. We reunited the next morning and EVERYONE was much happier than before.
How to let go of “forced togetherness”
The first step to letting go of “forced togetherness” is recognizing when you’re communicating from the perspective that it is the assumed top group priority, trumping all individual needs and wishes.
The second step is listening to and being open to individual preferences. When the idea that “we have to stay together” is off the table, it becomes possible to hear and try to include everyone’s wishes. During vacation, I often know that the two greatest needs include enjoyment and diversity of activities (mostly the kids’) and relaxation and harmony (mostly mine and my husband’s). With these in mind, I stay open and curious to hearing all the different ways in which we like to meet these needs. I ask myself, how can we combine it all so that everyone is getting their needs met?
The third step is asking for proposals. You might be surprised how very creative our kids can think. Give them a chance to consider how everyone can be happy – this is a life skill that kids can benefit from starting very young. It helps them to think less black and white, be more empathic and inclusive. It will also help them with making friends and becoming a leader who values all people’s input.
The final step is to ENJOY the full yeses, without any “should” thoughts like “But we’re on family vacation – we should be together!” Because this leads to guilt and lack of enjoyment.
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Written byCara Crisler
Cara works as an entrepreneurial Nonviolent Communication (NVC)-based coach, mediator and trainer. After going through her own process of discovering her “true self” and how to be authentic while staying in connection with others, she is now passionate about creating safe spaces for personal discovery, trust-building and honest sharing. Working with individuals, couples and teams, she builds connecting communication skills, like self-connection and empathic listening. She holds the European Mentoring & Coaching Council’s “European Individual Accreditation-Practitioner” and has more than 18 years professional experience working with educational and nonprofit organizations,including the United Nations. She lives in Amsterdam with her husband and two teenage children. You can learn more about her on her website for individuals and couples www.crislercoaching.com and her other website for organizations and teams: www.connectingcommunication.nl.