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Help! Poorly Behaved Kids Make Family Vacation a Nightmare.

What happens when all the sacrifices for vacations aren't appreciated?

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Family vacations are the topic of this week’s Fatherly Advice as a dad worries about his family’s behavior on an upcoming trip to Disney World. But are his wife and kids really grumpy jerks, as he claims, or are his high expectations getting in the way of everyone’s good time?

 

Dear Fatherly,

I’m about to take my family on a Disney vacation to Florida. We’re driving down the coast from New England so we’ll have a couple of days on the road before we get to Orlando. The thing is I’m really not looking forward to it because it seems like every time we go on a family vacation everyone is in a shitty mood all of the time. My wife has a tendency to be grumpy on vacation. My kids never seem to appreciate it and they always melt down. I know they are just kids (4 and 6) but it really pisses me off.

I work my ass off to make sure I can have vacation time so I can get out with my family and this trip is costing a whole bunch of money. I feel like if they act the way they usually do on vacation during this trip, I will seriously lose my shit. How can I make sure that my family understands how important this is to me and make sure we can have a good time on vacation for once. I just don’t want to have to be the one working so hard to make sure everybody is happy. It’s super exhausting. Is there a way to make sure we can all just relax and enjoy each other?

Traveling Dad,
Hartford, Connecticut 

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Your insistence that your family actually take vacations together is commendable. And good on ya for making sure that you take advantage of your vacation time. Too many people leave vacation days on the table in America. In fact, the U.S. Travel Association’s Project Time Off surveyed Americans last year and found that in 2017 a full 52 percent of Americans didn’t use all of their vacation days. That is crazy. It’s also a bad example. But happily, when parents like you and I make using vacation time a priority, we are teaching our kids that time-off is valuable and necessary. 

All of this is super duper good, and I’m proud of you for it. But it sounds like you have a serious problem with managing your expectations. And the frustration that comes from your high expectations not being met is likely showing your kids that vacations aren’t so much a time of bonding as they are a time for stress. That’s setting you back. And it’s not doing anything for your family. So that’s what we need to focus on.

Right now you sound like Clark Griswold bound for Wally World. And as entertaining as it is to watch Chevy Chase’s constant frustration of his high expectations not being met, it no fun to be that guy, as you know. Clark’s biggest flaw is his constant need for the perfect moment. Whether it’s a Christmas light display or a perfect summer family road trip, he is consistently disappointed when reality does not match up with his vision. And that’s what’s happening with you. It’s not about your family as much as it’s about your needs for the ideal break are not being met. I will tell you right now that your family vacation will get way better as soon as you’re able to look adversity and imperfection in the face and reply with a heart “whatever” and a shrug. 

I’ll take a guess as to why your wife is grumpy on vacation: She is probably very much aware of your expectations, and I bet that the pressure to make sure those expectations are met stresses her out. And depending on how much of the vacation planning and management you’re leaving her to do, that stress likely becomes more acute the more responsibility she has. Fact is, that’s simply not fair. 

Now, I have no idea what your division of labor looks like, but unless your wife simply does not like vacations, I would suspect that her attitude is directly connected with the pressure she feels making sure you and the families needs are being met. Take an honest look at the vacation planning and family management while traveling. Make an emotionless appraisal of the workload you share with your wife and try to even it up a bit. 

If you honestly feel like you’ve reached parity in your vacation responsibilities, then there’s something else going on. It could be that your struggle for an epic family vacation has poisoned them for your wife. Talk to her about it. Ask her how she’s feeling about the trip before you go and find out if she has any concerns. Go into it openly. Try not to get defensive if she has any criticisms. If you want to solve this thing, you’re going to have to listen. Chances are she just needs to see you ease off a bit on your expectations. 

Of course, none of this addresses your kids. And this is where your expectations are really going to have to be revised. Your kids are way too young to understand what it takes for you to get vacation time or pay for Disney World tickets. To be perfectly blunt, they do not give a shit how hard you worked or how much you saved to make the good times happen. It’s not that they are being calloused and selfish, it’s more that they simply cannot comprehend concepts like the value of work and money right now. It’s a bit abstract. And you remind them how hard you worked or how much you spent is not helping anything. They won’t get it and you’ll keep feeling resentful. 

As a dad, you must know that sacrifice is part of the deal. You gave up your bachelorhood and a lot of freedom to raise a couple of kids. Hopefully, you’re not resentful about those sacrifices because you understand what kind of joy and love your kids can bring. The money and time required to make these vacations happen are simply another one of those sacrifices. 

You understand that “good times” with your family are the goal of a family vacation. But your insistence that everybody is happy isn’t doing you any favors. I suggest that you focus on making memories rather than on insisting everyone is happy. Maybe even let your kids lead a bit. Their idea of fun maybe isn’t your idea of fun. So it might help if you follow their lead. Yeah, park tickets are expensive, but if they are getting tired and cranky, it may be time to leave Disney for a bit for naps and decompression. If they’re having a good time in the pool then you might want to let them linger there instead of sticking to a rigid itinerary. And maybe even join them in the pool for their good times. 

Finally, remember that kids are going to be their same weird selves no matter where you are. The kids you have at home are the same kids you have in Orlando. You can’t expect them to suddenly have fewer meltdowns because they’ve traveled two days south. In fact, disruptions in their diet and sleeping schedules might make it more likely for them to lose their minds. So cut them a little slack. 

I think that if you dial back the expectation a bit things will get much better. Vacations don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be.