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The Road Best Traveled

You're visiting your folks and suddenly your little angels become the kids from hell. It could happen--easily. But there are ways to preempt the pain.


Aunt Becky came from Minnesota to visit the Saturday family and unwittingly morphed into her sister. She turned into the parent police, correcting every perceived behavioral infraction by her young nieces. With the visit in danger of being immortalized as the Time Aunt Becky Got Mad, her sister summoned the courage to speak up.

"I had to tell her, 'Becky, you need to lighten up on the girls. You don't need to do any discipline.' She just looked at me. 'Don't worry,' I said, 'I get to do that fun job,' " says Brenda Saturday, who intentionally used humor to soften the criticism while also acknowledging her children aren't perfect.

When you live away from your family, visits can be frustrating because your parents or other relatives see only small snapshots of your children, and there's no guarantee the picture they see that day is the one you'd put in the memory book.

When your family is the one traveling, it can be worse. Take your children out of their element, add the stress of holiday travel, top it with the watchful eyes of relatives and chances are, the children you brought on the trip with you bear little resemblance to the little darlings you live with at home.

Right, just try telling your relatives that.

What you can do is learn to manage the situation by responding to criticism without becoming defensive. Even an arched eyebrow over your child's conduct can make the most mature of adults regress because a visit to the relatives doesn't necessarily bring out the best in adults, either.


"We tend to go back to our earlier patterns of behavior, when we were children, essentially. That makes it harder to respond because we aren't at our most mature," says Jill Waterman, a child psychologist at UCLA. She recommends making a comment that deflects the criticism, such as saying, "It's really hard when we are all here together in close quarters," or, "We are all under a lot of stress."

"When grandma criticizes the kids, it's easy to feel criticized yourself," says Cathleen Brown, a Claremont psychologist. "If you are brave enough, it's helpful to say, 'I know the way we raise kids differs with each generation. If you make critical marks, if you comment on my mothering or correct the kids, it doesn't make me comfortable,' " Brown says.

Tina Ferraro calmly spoke up when the potty training of her 3-year-old became an issue on family trips to visit her mother-in-law in Utah. "In a very gentle way, she said it had gone on too long. I just said to her, 'Let's talk about the way it was when your children were little. The world has changed, circumstances have changed.' It was very civilized and friendly," says Ferraro, 40, a mother of three from La Crescenta.

Rather than reacting to the tension once it begins, try heading it off by dropping jokingly portentous comments like, " 'Well, I hope you are prepared for a whirlwind,' or, 'Well, you know, they do go to bed at 8,' " Waterman says. "Say something that indicates how different you know this is for them."


Keeping the needs of your children in mind also will help keep the visit on an even keel. Kids require space to run around in and time to do nothing, Waterman says, so suggest going to a playground or taking in a children's play. "It allows the relatives to enjoy the children in their own element. Having to hang out at the house is when the bickering gets going," she says.

Building in breaks is part of the game plan for Brenda Saturday, who takes her two daughters back to the Minnesota farm of her childhood at least three times a year. "You can gauge how the visit is going. If it's fine, we like to keep it fine. We try to take the kids out, just to give them a break.

"I don't get too many remarks from my family, but I may get looks when people get a little upset if the kids don't go to bed or are cranky. I tell my parents, 'You have to realize they are out of their element,' " says Saturday, 40, of Agoura.

Before leaving, Saturday sits down Liza, 8, and Tessa, 5, and goes over how their routine will differ from the one at home. She also reminds them about the family's house rules. "I tell them, it doesn't matter where they go, the house rules are the same. If you aren't allowed to do gymnastics in our house, or jump and stand on furniture, you're not allowed to do it anywhere else."

Thinking ahead to what it will be like when you arrive can go a long way toward encouraging a problem-free visit. Try traveling with a favorite video or two that can be popped in right after you get there, which buys the adults chat time and allows the kids to decompress. Also bring along books, toys or games. Waterman travels with a six-in-one game so her twins, now 12, always have an activity that can engage them. It also helps to encourage relatives to keep toys on hand that the children can look forward to playing with.

As every parent knows all too well, all the planning in the world won't triumph over the unpredictable nature of kids. So have a pithy rejoinder at the ready for all those relatives who've forgotten the joys of sharing breathing space with the combustible little creatures. Brown recommends telling your relatives what her daughter once told her: "If they did everything I said, they would be weird."

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