I love a summer vacation. Don't you? I think I have finally figured it out. I have been to Europe when I was in college. I have been to Myrtle Beach with my parents. I have been to popular tourist sites like Washington DC and Disney World. I have been to camps and cottages and cabins. But I feel like last year I figured it out. My favourite vacation is to a lake. I was raised near Lake Ontario and the feeling of sitting beside a lake, watching the small waves come and go just calms my soul.
So this year Roy & I decided to rent a lake house with my parents for our summer vacation. It is halfway between my parents house and our home. It is on a tiny little lake I had never heard of so it isn't too expensive. It feels perfect. At least from where I sit today, counting down the hours until we leave.
Our vacations have been mostly good but there have definitely been some bumps in the road. And esp when you are spending money on these trips I have tried to figure out what works for us and redo those ideas in order to have a good trip. So, as I'm getting everything together this week for our trip, I thought I would share some of the ideas we have used over the years that help our kids settle in and enjoy everything our vacations offer.
1. Take a trip. I know this is obvious, but it might not be. I know some parents take trips without their foster children because they need the respite. I know others of you are struggling financially and are considering not going anywhere. I would say, as much as you can, take a trip with all your kids (bio, foster, adoptive, whatever). I feel pretty strongly that one way we can demonstrate love to our kids is to play with them, and one of the best venues for play is when you are all connected, out of the home, away from devices, on a vacation.
Your vacation might be sleeping in tents 45min from home for one night in order to save money. That's great! Your vacation might be 7 days in Disney. That's great, too! It isn't about how much money you spend. It is about the connection you will develop. It is about creating firsts with a child or teen that has never seen or done anything like this before.
One summer we decided (for financial reasons) that we wouldn't do a vacation. And the week before the fall semester of school started, I felt it. Like I could just feel the disconnection in our house. We missed it. We missed those moments of connection. We missed laughing together. We missed trying brand new things together. The summer was over and we missed it. Money was tight and our decision to keep it in the bank was wise, but I wish we would have been a little more creative and come up with an option that would have allowed us to have some designated moments of connection, while on a tight budget.
2. Make everyone happy. Haha! Got your attention there right?!? I know, I know. You cannot do that (esp in some of our modern families). But here is the deal, what you can do is listen to everyone and know what they are expecting. Know what makes them relaxed and happy. Pick a trip that includes various elements that have something for everyone and make those elements a priority. So, with what is in your control you will attempt to create a true vacation for everyone. Let me explain what I mean with a story... One year we had a friend with a timeshare in Orlando that they gifted to us for one week. Roy and I both love Disney and thought this would be a great chance to actually take the two teens living with us for a once in a lifetime trip. I knew my fav part and priority would be going to Disney for fireworks at the castle, Roy knew his fav part would be a couple of the Disney rides he remembers from childhood (Splash Mountain & The Haunted Mansion). But our kids had no clue what to expect. So I made a list for them. They were 13 & 14 at the time and I had them help me know what they were looking for on this vacation.
The list included stuff like:
Playing basketball at the hotel
Playing in the hotel pool
Going on a roller coaster
Hanging out in the hotel room and sleeping in
Meeting characters like Mickey Mouse
Playing in a water park
There were about 20 items on the list. They were all items I was prepared to do if they wanted to do them. I had them cross out what they had no desire to do at all. I had them put a star next to their top three ideas. You might have been surprised to see some of their answers. They both wanted to meet characters! They didn't want to go to the water park (too busy). They didn't want roller coasters (too anxiety provoking). They wanted to hang out in the hotel room and sleep in and... of course, in my family, the wanted to play basketball at the hotel.
So when I had this information I could take their opinions into consideration. We decided to alternate days, first day was a settling in day at the hotel, the next day was a busy Disney day, the next day was a sleep in and play in the pool / basketball day, etc. We were also able to share with them Roy's fav rides & how I really wanted to stay for fireworks one night (even though they didn't know what to expect, they could see that we were all sharing so they accommodated my request).
As we head to the lake house this week I have intentionally chosen a home that has a basketball hoop in the driveway as I know my kids will be out there... a lot. I know them a bit better now. They have vacationed with us a few times. I didn't need to do a ratings list for this trip. But I knew having a hoop will help all of them settle in a bit easier.
3. Go slow. For kids from hard places, taking big trips can be very anxiety provoking. If you are in a new environment, new sleeping accommodations, some places (like water parks) can be sensory overloading. Sometimes starting slow, at their pace can set you up for a better trip. I would recommend to plan for them to refuse or not engage very much on the first day. If you can, give a lot of wiggle room on your departure time for kiddos that are struggling or have nothing on the itinerary once you arrive so they can take a nap or watch TV or play a video game to calm their anxiety until they are ready to participate.
On this note, we also have taken our time getting to our destination. For example, one year we were going to be meeting some family of mine at a cabin and our destination was 7.5 hours from our home. For Roy & I that was no big deal. But we realized meeting these new people and driving 7.5 hours was a lot for our family.
So we found a place to rent 6hrs away. It was a large cabin on a property that included a basketball court and horseback riding. So we got up early on day one and drove 6hrs (a lot for our kids!). Then we were able to hang out in this cabin, watch TV, eat some pizza, play some basketball and go to sleep.
The next morning when everyone was a little settled, most of us went horseback riding (one was too anxious and that was fine) and then we got in the car for a short 90 min drive so they were now all ready to meet the family and settle into the week at the cabin.
Taking is slow and allowing them to gradually become introduced to each step along the way was key for them to be able to relax and actually enjoy the trip.
4. Communicate. Offering frequent prompts about what is coming up next will help reduce their anxiety. This is all new for them and they will feel much more relaxed if they have an idea. Before we go I like to show them youtube videos or online pictures of the location so they have an idea of what it will be like. I give everyone packing lists or help them pack so they have an idea of what they will need.
In the car I give them folders with fun activities. This is most helpful with younger kids (the license plate game, etc). But you would be surprised how eager our 17yr old was one year when she played the license plate game for the first time! She was running around the rest stop checking out all the truck plates. One item in their car folders that I think is helpful is maps. Each kiddo receives a couple maps of where we are going. The first map is a big one showing the whole trip, total miles and expected length of time. Then they receive smaller maps of each state. This way they can look at cities as we go through them, and can see when we are getting close to crossing a state line. So for example, this week we are driving from Illinois to Michigan. so they have one big map of the trip. Then they have a map that shows just the route from our home to the Illinois-Indiana border. The next map is the route through Indiana. The last map is from the Indiana-Michigan border to our destination. This helps them know what is going on and where we are. Not everyone will look at it. Most will look for at least a couple minutes. But each trip, someone has become a mini navigator studying the map in detail and celebrating each town passed.
When you are on vacation, more than you even do at home, provide prompts. Post daily schedules and give transition warnings ("In 30 min we are leaving for the beach", "We are starting the campfire in 10 min", etc). Make sure you are clearly letting everyone know what are optional activities and what you are hoping everyone will participate in. On that note...
5. Be flexible. I would recommend not locking yourself into park tickets or other pre-paid admission costs that will frustrate you if they go unused. We have found that buying them the day of may be a little more expensive, but then we know who all is there and ready to play and it saves money in the long run as we don't buy passes that are wasted. This is also helpful if you know your priorities. In my Disney story, I shared that I was really looking forward to the fireworks. One of our kiddos was struggling and needed to go back to the hotel. Since we had already shared priorities, Roy took that one home and the other one stayed with me and we had a blast. It didn't require a lot of conversation in the moment. We knew that one was over stimulated by a full day at Disney, but we also knew that Roy would be the one to go home early.
6. Try new things. Vacation for us is a time to expose our kids to experiences they have never even heard of before. We are excited about expanding their minds and showing them how big the world is and what is all out there for them.
The year we headed down to Tennessee with some family we decided to try a zip line course. I'm going to say that about half way through I wondered if it was a mistake. Here we were, four adults, seven kids ages 10 - 17 and it was over 100 degrees as we were anxiously balancing on a full blown ropes course (156 elements) between the 15 zip lines. It was a lot. But over the four hours that we spent taking deep breaths and working our way through the trees we grew closer than we had the entire year leading up to that moment. What is something new that your kids have never experienced? Is there a way you can introduce them to new sights, new smells, new challenges that they will never forget this year?
7. Make new things fun. I hear you, you might plan something really fun and then your kiddo refuses to participate. That happens. One way we have made this easier is to create bingo cards. Each kiddo receives an identical bingo card at the beginning of the trip. Each card is unique for that trip and contains activities we hope they would participate in. For example, one year we went camping. The main attraction in this area was river tubing. I was hoping we would all be able to go together so that was the center square. The campground had an 11p curfew so I made that a square so our older kids wouldn't get us kicked out! The kids can opt out of Bingo. That is their choice. But most think it is fun now. We have not always had 100% participation on day one, but by the end of vacation all of our kids have earned at least one row. It gives them an excuse or increased motivation to try something new or anxiety provoking or un cool.
As you can see from this list, we offered rewards. For one row, $5 at the camp store (all of our kids earned this one). Fill in 15 boxes and you would not only get the $5 but on the way home we promised to go to the movies and since we never buy our kids snacks at the movies, those that earned 15 boxes would get a snack (all our kids also earned this one). Then, the grand prize was to fill in the entire sheet they would receive 2 items from the concession stand at the movies (only one of the 4 kids we had on this trip earned this one)
Here is the bingo card I just created for our lake house trip this week. This is a more chill week with my parents, so the center square is just about kindness. But I have also included some ideals I have... like that they might play a yard game with a sibling, help out around the house, or pose nicely for a picture for me! (Always a struggle with my teens).
It is super easy to create your own. I just go on google docs and create a table with 5 columns and 6 rows and start filling them in. Think about what would make your week fun and then the next time someone is bored ask if they want to earn a square!
8. Take care of yourself. If you have followed me online or in the newsletter for even a moment you know how often I preach this message. But remember, vacation is for you as well. Remember your priorities and values for this trip. For me next week I want to go kayaking and I want to have some moments sitting with a glass of wine looking out onto the lake. So I will communicate those to Roy and we will make sure we find time for that to happen. I know I will spend a lot of time hosting my parents and entertaining the kids. If I don't exhale myself this won't work. What are your hopes for your trip? How can you make them happen?
9. Create memories. It seems like our population is divided into two camps, those of us that like taking pictures, and those of us that do not. Which one are you? In our family, I take the pictures. I am the one capturing the moment, asking them to pose, retaking it until it is perfect. At first I think they found me annoying, but now, they get it. I have created memories for them. If you are a foster parent, there is a chance these children will leave your home and never see them again. Send them with photos of your adventures! If you have adopted, it is still important to continue to build that attachment by looking back on photo memories of your vacations. One tradition we have in our home is I create a family photo calendar every year. One is posted in our home, my parents have one, and then each of our adult children receive one to take home. Also, when our kids turn 18 I give them a memory book of their life with us. It includes photos of their brothers and sisters, birthday parties, and vacations. Capture the memories, frame them around your home and gift them to your kiddos. Maybe they want to post the pictures on their bedroom wall, maybe they want them in a photo book. But that is an important gift as you continue to build that connection with your kids and teens.
I hope you all have a wonderful summer!
I would love to hear your vacation stories.
Not looking for perfection, but just progress towards connection.