Summer vacations with the family can be hard to take

Out of the Woods by Nita Nettleton

Posted: Sunday, August 05, 2001

Ah, mid-summer! Your fiends and co-workers are beginning to trickle in from their summer vacations. Some stride into the office calm, tan and revitalized from adventures in exotic places. Others crawl in, wheezing and wounded, unable to even say their children's names, broken by their family outing.

It's fun to hear all the gory details of where the family went and what happened. Theme parks may be where the children thought they are going with the family, but the national parks and museums are where they wound up for the educational enrichment their parents crave for them. What cared-for child could be allowed to pass up the largest contiguous slime mold in the world or the place where the inventor of the modern corn planter "bit the dust?" If there are two parents co-leading the trip, they start out team tagging, working as a unit to cajole the kids into trying garlic fritters in Gilroy and sitting through the reenactment of the discovery of toothpaste wherever that was. After awhile, the marketing team breaks down as one or the other spouse turns out to be, well, less than committed to the mission. Even the parent who truly should be committed, sooner or later, lightens up and hopes to simply bring home the same number of family members as started out. Not necessarily the same individuals, but the same number.

The mistake most families make is in the assumption that there is any destination or activity in the world that a majority of them would choose. Maybe, deep down, parents know this, but set out anyway, hoping the kids will come around. Hoping the thrill of visiting the Bottle Museum and Abner Doubleday's birthplace (Why, yes, it is Balston Spa!) in the very same day will touch something in their hungry minds. Children can't drive the car and don't have their own credit cards, so are helpless victims in this ghoulish barrage of ridiculous time-wasters. Until they remember they are armed. They deploy the whine.

There is a formula that equates the volume and intensity of the whine to the Midwest mid-July midday temperature, the child's boredom threshold and the educational value of the activity. Younger children follow this formula with gusto. Older children have complications. They realize, if you're lucky, that you, the parent, the leader of the vacation, are the person who is putting them through college and babysitting their children for free until you die. You may have to remind them. Speaking of lucky, if you are really lucky on your family vacation, you'll be abducted by aliens early in the trip and you'll save a lot of money and heartbreak.

The people who come back from vacation all refreshed and energized had challenges, too, but only things like plane crashes and volcano eruptions. They can try to thrill the office with reports of being stranded for weeks in storm-tossed seas, hijacked by freedom fighters in the jungle or falling into occupied tiger pits. A parent in the crowd will feebly hold up a hand, rasp out a laugh and say, "That's nothing. We bought an all-day family pass at Insect World and made it all the way to the termite diorama." The other parents twitch with empathy. The non-parents blanch and run for the door.

The hope any parent clings to is that someday, perhaps much later, a child will remember a family vacation and connect the experience to something important they learned or were inspired to do and become. Well, give it up. What they will remember is who barfed on whom in the back of the car after eating too many cheese curds at the Tillamook factory. If you want a shared experience that lasts and is educational, don't go on vacation together. Get tattoos. It is a bonding experience, much cheaper and way less painful.


Nita Nettleton can be reached at

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