Going on vacation with another family is an emotionally complicated pleasure. You know the upsides – It’s more fun for the kids, less child care work for you, and on a deeper level there is something incredibly fulfilling about the connections fostered by families. Being with another family for more than an afternoon or an evening does that. Especially in this era of fractured family ties, a significant family friendship is like both an entry in your family’s “history book” and reinforcement of who you are as a family – and that you are.
Your young children will know the kids from that other family for their whole lives. Forty years from now, they will still have a special bond.
So it’s important and wonderful.
And it also has some hard parts.
Because nobody parents the same; and watching your friends do it at close quarters over a week or so might drive you crazy. If you’re in a vacation house or cottage together rather than a hotel, add the ingredients of cooking and dishwashing and you have a recipe for parental disagreement and weird issues with your friends’ kids.
Here’s how it can look: We were on vacation recently in a lovely rented house on a beach, with another family. After three days, I said to myself (and my spouse): “What’s wrong with this picture?” We’re all hustling to cook and wash up, and their kids haven’t gotten up off the couch yet or come unattached from their video games. I was not happy.
Two things were going on: One, I felt very judgmental about my friends’ parenting. Despite knowing that it’s against some very important rule of life, I couldn’t help judging and finding their parenting wanting. And two, I was mad at their kids for making us into their servants.
Don’t make the mistake I made. I brought it up with my friends. I opened my mouth wide and inserted both feet, suggesting that their kids should be made to cook and clean up. They responded defensively (What a surprise!) and said that at home the kids take out the garbage and empty the dishwasher. I guess it’s something.
I then realized the error of my ways (better late than never) and changed tack. I asked the parents for permission to go directly to their kids and tell the kids to help in the kitchen. They readily assented. Maybe at some (unconscious?) level they were grateful that someone was going to do the heavy lifting in terms of getting their kids off the couch.
For the rest of the week, before cooking every meal, I said to their kids: “Do you want to cook or clean?” Nothing fancy, no complicated explanations, just a binary choice which few kids would dare refuse from a friendly adult who is not their parent. The first few times they chose cleaning, perhaps due to inexperience cooking. They did it with dazzling mediocrity but they did it, and I praised them lavishly. Because I did appreciate it, and they were growing into new responsibility. And because the behaviours we praise are the behaviours kids repeat. At camp we call this behaviour management and it works pretty well to get kids to do stuff.
After a few meals they got brave (or bored with dishwashing) and started choosing cooking. Which was really fun. Teaching neophytes to cook simple stuff is a fun part of vacation and a great way to bond with kids. And really, does it need to be gourmet? If the kids make a few mistakes (and they will) it’s important to ignore their errors. Does it really matter if they get the mustard/mayo balance wrong on a sandwich? Validating their work will go far. Making them wrong will not.
The big silver lining here is the uptick in my relationship with those kids. All our relationships with children are precious. Those that make both sides feel good about themselves and each other are the most wonderful.
Other people's children can be challenging