The PNE (Pacific National Exhibition) is currently underway here in Vancouver, B.C., an annual fair similar to those that take place in cities all around North America.  In Ontario, where I grew up, the annual fair is called the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition).  The two fairs are rather similar to one another with carnival rides, midway games, animal exhibitions, lots of junk food to snack on and musical entertainment.  Now that my son is celebrating his 15th birthday, he’s not so keen to attend the PNE with his mom, so I called MY mom this week and asked her if she’d like me to take her to the fair.

There was a long silence.  “Oh, I don’t think so dear”.  And suddenly she was lost in the memory of the last time she attended Ontario’s CNE.  Apparently she, my dad and my sister had taken a road trip from Windsor, Ontario to Toronto, attended together and they had an enormous argument, with my usually quite reserved father loudly exploding with frustration and rage, to a level that caused passersby to gawk at the scene.  That was about 30 years ago now.  And mom still hasn’t quite got over it.

I can relate.  I’m still tending to my emotional wounds from our recent family vacation.  My husband (step dad to my son), my teenage son and a friend of his and I, spent 7 days aboard our 32-foot boat this month.  For the most part the boys camped, either on a little island or in a campground.  However, they spent two nights aboard and there were plenty of transition times requiring loading/unloading etc.,  and meal times with all four of us cramped into what increasingly seemed like a VERY small space.   We were blessed with idyllic summer weather, but it was exceptionally hot during the day.  My husband doesn’t do so well in the heat.  My son doesn’t do so well with transitions, or requests to help with tasks.  The combination of heat exhaustion, teenage belligerence, teen ‘work’ avoidance, adult frustration and limited space created the ideal conditions for some incredibly explosive moments.

The day the teens left for home (scheduled departure, not sudden), I had a good cry, and then slept all afternoon.

I heard about another family who was vacationing at their cabin and took their two teenagers out for a one-day excursion aboard their boat.  They said that it was one day too many.

Freakonomics had an interesting take on ‘nightmare’ family vacations.

I spoke to Alyson Jones about family vacations and how they can highlight underlying family dynamics and dysfunctions, what we can do to alleviate the dysfunctional moments, if necessary heal any damage and hopefully deepen our family connections rather than fray them.

Laura:  Alyson, so many of us privileged North Americans are blessed to live in spacious homes.  We usually have our own rooms, separate entertaining spaces for adults and kids.  Then vacation time comes along and we cram ourselves and our kids into cars (or in our situations – boats), travel long distances to new places with children who often don’t deal with transitions well and wonder why we’re ‘not having fun yet’.  What suggestions do you have for families who don’t want to give up traveling together, but are challenged by parenting either explosive or emotionally volatile children, and/or are explosive and emotionally volatile themselves?

Alyson:  Well I think the first thing one has to do is really check their expectations.  I think that these expectations can create disappointments.  Are parents expecting that the holiday is going to be relaxing?  Are the kids expecting that it’s going to be exciting all the time?  It’s these expectations, that sometimes in and of themselves are in conflict with one another that can create disappointment or conflict.

Laura:  Are there suggestions you have for pre-vacation planning or communication that might help with that?

Alyson:  There are certainly conversations you can have but realistically, if you’re living in the moment there are going to be challenges.  From a leadership perspective we have to anticipate that there are going to be challenges and we have to have strategies for how we’re going to get through them.

Laura:  Quite often we bring out our best and our worst and ourselves with our families, don’t we?

Alyson:  Yes, we do, and that’s what we want with our families, is the authenticity.  That’s what I’d like to highlight is that if we’re not just being polite, if we’re being real with one another, there are going to be moments that are challenging.  When a challenge comes, we work through it, and then the reward of that is we have more intimacy.  One of the great gifts of a family holiday is that it really can deepen the knowledge of one another and the intimacy.  It’s not necessarily going to be all about relaxation and fun.  It’s often those challenging times that we look back on and laugh about.  These are the stories we have, part of our family narratives.

I recently did a road trip with my family to and from Saskatchewan that was a lot of fun.  Part of what I really enjoyed was sharing with my kids some of the road trips I had with my parents when I was a child.

Laura:  Isn’t it interesting how it’s often the ‘dramas’ of life that are the most interesting?  Isn’t that what makes movies interesting?

Alyson:  That’s such a good observation, because even my young son said to me recently that there are no good stories without a problem to be solved.

Laura:  This has me reflecting, from a leadership perspective, that there’s a variety of different way of doing family holidays.  Sometimes we visit familiar places, like family cabins, which was very much a part of the fabric of my childhood and then sometimes we visit new places or even have sidetrips from our familiar destinations.  This is really part of how we broaden the horizons of our children’s familiar world, by traveling and experiencing the unexpected.

Alyson:  The family vacation is also a great way for our children to need us again.  As they become adolescents, and are being pulled away from us by their peers, the family holiday is a place for them to need us again.  This can be good for the relationship in a subtle way as they maneuver new places and new experiences with our guidance.

Laura:  I had a GREAT experience of that this summer as my teenage son was camping with a friend on a small island north of Quadra Island a couple weeks ago, and my husband and I were sleeping on the boat, anchored just off the island.  My son thought this was a great idea, until it was getting dark.  He’d accidentally dropped his walkie talkie into a hole, and although I could clearly communicate with him from the boat, all I could hear through the hot summer night, was the island bellowing at me, “MOM, there’s something outside our tent!!”

The 'private' island

Alyson:  I love that!  These are the stories that we tell, aren’t they?

Laura:  I’m thinking back now to my mom’s situation, and to other parents I’ve spoken to who are experiencing guilt or remorse when vacation experiences don’t go well?

Alyson:  Things don’t always have to be handled perfectly.  It’s about the conversations we have, the learning we gain by communicating.  The message the kids need to receive is that we can work through things.  It’s if things are left unresolved that there are ongoing issues.  I’m not saying you have to talk things to death, but taking some time to review issues and situations that arise provides learning for your children.  Resolving things is sometimes just acknowledging your piece in it.

That’s not necessarily a vacation gone bad, that’s just an opportunity.  It’s an opportunity for deeper connection if we deal with it.

Our vacation stories are often our favourite stories to tell.

Laura: So true.

Enjoy the rest of your summer!  Hope that your 2010 summer vacations are real memory makers!

A couple of our memories: