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KIDS ON BOARD

Double the fun -- or aggravation

When two families decide to travel together, they should negotiate terms first. An escape clause is a must.

August 08, 2004|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Every family is a separate country, complete with an economy, a set of customs and laws, a diet and a language all its own.

In some families, "no" means "never"; in others it means "try me again in an hour." For some families, lunch is optional, naps are a necessity and the budget is written in stone. For others, sugar and white flour are evil, strenuous exercise is a daily must and morning begins at 11. Some communicate by shouting and teasing; others rely on short, declarative sentences followed by long silences. Every family has its own policies on driving, directions and discipline.

So a trip taken with another family is one part vacation, one part United Nations effort. Although it requires a few extra steps in planning and coordination, a group can make travel easier and more fun. A larger number of adults ensures that if one person gets tired of talking politics or movies or dealing with the kids, another can step in. And an inter-family mixing of children is often so distracting that siblings may actually forget about the Hadrian's Wall that divides the back seat and stop keeping track of the number of times one child or another has held the map or ridden on Daddy's shoulders.

But the number of arguments, coalitions and opportunities to measure things -- "He got more ice cream," "No, she did," "Mo-om" -- can increase exponentially among children when more people are involved. With adults there may be less snack-related bickering, but, as they say, intimacy can breed contempt, especially the fourth time the whole party gets lost because the self-appointed navigator can read neither map nor road sign.

My family and I recently traveled with another family and though our biggest hope -- that each couple would take all the children once in a while, thus providing the other couple with an opportunity for romance or at least a nice dinner out -- did not come to fruition, there were many moments when it seemed the perfect way to travel. And a few when it did not.

We had spent a fair amount of time with our friends, who have one daughter the same age as ours -- 4 -- and a 9-year-old who is quite friendly with our 6-year-old son. We were familiar with their domestic habits -- eating, discipline, general attitude to the world.

The parents were curious, enthusiastic people, flexible and good-humored when things didn't go right -- the husband broke his leg a few days before the trip, but that's another story. They had expectations of the trip that were similar to our own. Practically perfect in every way, with the added benefit of being German, so when they snapped at each other, as will happen on any trip, my husband and I had no idea what they were saying and so didn't even have to pretend not to hear. (We let ourselves assume it wasn't anything terrible about us.)

The trip, through the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, involved a lot of moving around and driving, which we did in two cars. When we could, we tried to get hotel rooms next to each other because the kids would run in and out of each family's room with no thought to the state of undress of the adults. For much of the week, we stayed in cabins on the beach, one large enough so both families could hang out and have meals, which worked perfectly, though perhaps our friends did not appreciate the discovery that one of our cabin vacation rituals is hot chocolate for breakfast. (In deference to their superior nutritional standards, I made the milk-to-chocolate ratio much higher.)

When driving, we divided the kids by age rather than by surname, which cut down on the anthem of "she touched me" so popular on family trips. As the days went by, the adults began to compete for the older kids who, while favoring a mindlessly repetitive song involving a "rubber room," did not find many occasions to scream or cry, which could not be said of the younger girls.

Occasionally, the adults divided along gender lines, which was good for everyone's temperament. One afternoon was spent at Sol Duc Hot Springs, deep in the rainforest, where the mommies got hourlong massages and then went for a hike by themselves while the daddies watched the kids and shored each other up with exhortations of how downtrodden they were.

By any measure, our time together was a success. But before you try this at home, or rather on the road, here are a few things to consider:

* Make sure all members of the coalition are willing and communicative. We have a "no resentment" policy in our family when we travel. If you're having trouble with a decision, an agenda or member of the group, it's your responsibility to share it.

* What one kid gets, the rest will want. Loudly. So if one family regularly drinks soda and eats potato chips and the other family swears by fruit-sweetened cookies and whole wheat pasta, some sort of compromise should be devised in advance.

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