Why You Should Let Your Kid Plan Your Next Family Vacation

The benefits might surprise you.

The following was produced in partnership with JetBlue, who helps families make memories in more than 100 cities. As the most caring travel provider with the mission to inspire humanity, JetBlue’s “Little Tickets” shines a light on today’s busy families and how a little time together can go a long way.

Kids may not seem like ideal travel agents, but letting them participate in vacation planning has a massive upside. Not only do children have loads of inspirational, out-of-the-box ideas, they also get super excited about specifics. Adults look forward to a week off. Kids look forward to seeing that one mountain in the southwest corner of a national park. There’s a beauty in that and in getting kids pumped about actively exploring the world rather than passively consuming it. And there’s beauty knowing that kids just want to spend time together with their family.

There’s also this: Vacation is a skill that needs to be taught and Americans, who left an estimated 662 million vacation days on the table last year, are notoriously bad at learning that lesson. Kids without agency become adults who don’t use their vacation days. All the more reason to let your kids help decide what to do with yours.

The best way of going about that is not offering a child free reign–not unless you want to try and find a vacation house in Narnia–but control of very specific elements of the itinerary. Not only can they manage a plan for attacking a theme park or a beach town, the critical thinking that goes into that sort of organization is great for their development. Dr. Dave Anderson, the senior director at the Child Mind Institute, says that kids look to adults to model decision-making choices. Show a child how to make a daily agenda and then let the kid try to follow suit. The results are likely to be impressive.

Anderson advises parents to narrate their decision-making process as they think about where to eat or swim or stay. This teaches children how to apply filters to decisions and factor in the competing needs of their traveling companions, which also constitutes a meaningful exercise in empathy. Pretty soon, the kid is capable of narrating their own decision-making process and better engaging in discussions when things take an unexpected turn.

Still, it’s important to have reasonable expectations and to ask children to make developmentally appropriate decisions. So, before giving them the reins to pick the family beach house, start with small family outings. For example, let your kindergartener help you decide whether to stop for ice cream on the way home from Nana’s house. Outline the circumstances and potential options: “It’s getting close to bedtime, we just had dinner, and I know you and your brother want ice cream. We can get a scoop very quickly now and then go straight to bed, or go sit and eat in your favorite spot for a longer time tomorrow night because it’s the weekend.”

All trip planning essentially begins with a question at the end of a list of facts: “What should we do now?” Small children can provide answers so long as the list doesn’t become unwieldy. They also need honest feedback and guidance so they feel rewarded when their plans (or something in the vicinity of their plans) transpires. That’s why it’s better to keep it small.

“You don’t want to have to take it back later,” Anderson says. “If you and your partner really want to go to the Bahamas but you give your child a choice between the Bahamas and the Grand Canyon, you’d better be okay with going to the Grand Canyon.”

As kids move on to elementary school age, you can offer them weightier decisions. You’re still not giving them high-level authority over the entire trip, but you’re offering them choices from a predetermined list of activities: “On Thursday afternoon, should we go fishing, go on a nature hike, or stay in the cabin and play board games?” One kid can plan one day, another kid the next. The first kid enjoys a sense of control, the second learns patience and to adapt to others’ needs. Both learn to take turns. Everybody learns to collaborate so long as children are given a very clear idea about the scope of their power.

“Parents will ask open-ended questions thinking kids understand what is being asked, and kids will go on a tangent or give answers the parents don’t like. That leaves both parties feeling unrewarded,” Anderson says. “Instead, be specific about what the choices look like and what they should consider.”

Come high school and college age, young adults need to be prepared to make more involved plans, particularly if they want to get out in the world or have a social life. If they’ve been primed to do that for the better part of 15 years, they’ll be in a better position to not just take care of themselves, but also thrive in unexpected circumstances. That planning monologue, likely internalized, will still serve them well. They will think in terms of opportunities and adventures instead of planning around obligations or, worse, limitations.

The seeming paradox presented by the suggestion to let kids be independent by boxing in their choices doesn’t bother Anderson because he’s more focused on the outcome for the kid than on the itinerary. “In a complex situation like vacation planning,” he says, “having fixed choices available makes it easier for them to make good choices.” And that’s ultimately what parents want to teach their kids to do. Well, that and explore.

 

JetBlue is on a mission to inspire humanity and be the most caring travel provider. That’s why “Little Tickets” shines a light on today’s busy families and how a little time together can go a long way. With more than 100 destination cities, JetBlue lets parents and kids plan endless family memories together. 

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