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Dealing with whining kids on a dream vacation

Oh, the sweet anticipation.

I am a mom with four kids ages 7 to 13, and I approach summer trips with trepidation. We save money all year and make sacrifices to ensure a summer trip is possible. We carve out precious days off from work and align everyone’s schedules – never an easy task given camps, events, activities, and family commitments. So the stakes are as high as the expectations.

First and foremost, my husband and I abide by the “Disney Pep Talk” rule.

Several years ago, we were visiting my brother’s family in California. They also have four children roughly the same age as ours, so there is always lots of excitement when we get together. The night before we embarked on a Disneyland adventure, we received the equivalent of a pep talk from my brother as our elated children busily planned out departure times, the order of the rides, and the foods they would eat, all in squealing, happy voices.

Dan said, “Watch the families tomorrow. They have saved endlessly and looked forward to this trip to Disney forever. But watch, inevitably many parents get stressed and yell at their kids. And this is at Disney, which is probably the most fun place in the world.”

My husband and I started discussing a critical parenting question: “Why do kids, at times during every vacation, refuse to have fun or be fun? Or is it us and our approach?”

Sure enough, the next day at Disneyland, we saw children weeping in long lines, with sweaty, sunburned faces. We saw disappointed parents watching children dropping or wasting their expensive food. We saw tired, writhing kids who could not be persuaded to go on a certain ride, with their parents yelling, “How can you not want to go on this? It’s why we are here!”

We saw other parents shouting, “We are on vacation in Disney. You should be having a great time, and instead you’re complaining.”

And several parents were infuriated when their little one announced 45 minutes into a wait that he or she had to go to the bathroom and could not hold it any longer.

So my husband and I decided to create some strategies to enjoy vacation moments because our kids, like most kids, can act ungrateful and refuse to have fun in the most wonderful places.

We now have “Disney Pep Talk” before every vacation and use these tips:

1. Don’t expect children to be grateful for all the sacrifices it takes to go on a trip. They are not going to thank you profusely or act wonderfully. Instead, watch for the moment of wonder or the “pure joy” smile – it is these moments that make the trip happy and memorable. Photograph those moments, and they are all you will remember later.

2. Leave a little “give” in the schedule. Most kids are not naturally “doers” on a vacation. When you have an agenda packed with activities, the kids will start complaining and want to stay somewhere and just hang out. Think of your children sweating as they hike from monument to monument in Washington in the stifling heat, or waiting in the sun at the Spy Museum. All good ideas, but some downtime is needed for them to retain their enthusiasm.

3. Let each person choose one event or activity and one restaurant during the trip. After we select our destination (even when we’ve been there before), we put out a menu of options, and each child can choose one of the options or propose something else. When one child chooses swimming, we make sure we get some swimming into the vacation, whether at a hotel pool or a beach. They also get to choose one type of food that we will be sure to eat. This is a huge hit with our kids and helps us minimize complaints. Our youngest and oldest like to do very different things, but all know that their turn will come.

4. Set the expectation – traveling is a nightmare. Whether by plane or car, summer vacations are filled with other people on vacation, and there are inevitable delays, traffic, and waiting. Have a plan for the long waits. Don’t expect the perfect trip; when everything goes swimmingly, it’s a bonus. Electronics may be your best friend during these moments.

5. Everyone must bring a book. This is a big rule, and my kids now look forward to going to the bookstore to select a special book for the trip. We have a Kindle, and the kids love to use it. I also give extra credit for creating and writing in a journal; they can write words, draw, or both. I give them $1 a page for quality journal writing. It is almost certain the kids will be asked to write something about their summer when school resumes, so they are getting a head start.

6. Try to pack light and smart. This is a basic rule, but we all continue to overpack and drag around things we don’t need. So, we sit down and make a list together, then make it an event. “OK, everyone bring down three pairs of pajamas,” then, “Everyone go get five shirts and one has to have a collar,” etc. And they have to carry what they pack.

7. Electronics are awesome, but there must be ground rules. The phones, iPods, iPads, handheld video games, and other devices are amazing and really help distract children during travel challenges, but the kids should not check out and not participate in the trip.

So, remember: Have the Disney Pep Talk, and always take time to savor your moments of joy on the trip. And make the kids go to the bathroom before you go anywhere.

Eileen Wacker is the author of the Fujimini Adventure Series of children’s books (