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90'S FAMILY : REAL LIFE : Family Trips May Hurt a Bit, Help a Lot

July 06, 1994|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Let's talk to a father of two girls, 15 and 11. He's a college professor who freely describes himself as impatient, controlling, demanding, judgmental and critical. And that's when he's at home.

Still, hoping to experience a "nice bonding kind of thing as a family," he agreed last summer to a $7,500, 28-day, 5,500-mile tour of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and Nevada. Traveling in a car . Sleeping together in one room .

His relationship with the 15-year-old was already iffy and volatile. The idea was definitely his wife's.

Like many planners of family vacations, he thought perhaps that being thrown together without possibility of parole might give them a chance to communicate and improve matters. But unlike many, he already knew it could just as easily turn into disaster.

"It was a high risk, high potential return kind of thing and left to my own devices, I would not have risked it."

A year later, he said he is glad they did it, even though the results were "mixed. Very mixed."

He still remembers barking when the rental car wasn't ready, losing his temper when waitresses were too slow. The final night of the trip he blew up at dinner, forcing one embarrassed daughter to flee the restaurant because she didn't understand why he insisted on moving away from a noisy family at the next table.

On the other hand, the scenery was wonderful and they did accomplish some family bonding during a white-water rafting trip that they loved and he endured. He said the trip forced him to accept his children's feelings even though they defied adult logic. And he gained a respect for their ability to travel without complaining. They didn't whine, nor beg for silly souvenirs.

Curiously, he said that despite the painful moments, once they got home, a warm glow began to surround the trip. Now, their photos and mementos elicit fond memories, not recollections of the hassles.

Whenever anything went wrong, he says most of the time it was due to his own low boiling point. To other parents he advises: "Make even more of an effort to be patient, tolerant, understanding and flexible. . . . And travel light."

This father's balanced expectations for the trip are just about the only thing that set his experience apart from many others, therapists said.

Psychologist Alan Entin of Richmond, Va., said the main problems with family vacations are the variety of conflicting and often unrealistic expectations of the travelers, and the fact that no family is used to spending 24 hours a day together. "We think things will be different when in actuality, we bring all our past experiences with us. It makes for an explosive situation."

In fact, vacations rank with death, divorce and marriage as one of life's major stressful situations, he said.

Sullen teen-agers present the biggest challenge, said Claremont psychologist Cathleen Brown. Her advice? Leave them at home.

She also suggests bringing along the kids' friends. Or teaming up with other families for group vacations. Or stopping off to visit relatives. "The nuclear family on vacation is just too tight knit," she said.

For younger children traveling in a car, she suggests bringing along plenty of games, drawing pads, puzzles, puppets and books. In addition, she advises awarding points for such behavior as positive observations or comments, jokes, silence or sleeping. Subtract points for arguing, complaining, whining and hitting. The points can then be traded for extra treats.

One tempting option, sending them off to camp by themselves for the whole summer, is just "chickening out," Brown said. Despite the pitfalls, family vacations are worth it and turn into lifelong, fond memories no matter how frustrating they are.

"Fortunately, kids forget the really bad part. Parents would be wise to look at it like a kid and just remember the funny things and the good things."

Vacations, she said, "are one of those things that looks really good when you're planning it and is nice in retrospect. The only hard time is right when you're there."

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