I was asked the other day, in general playground chit-chat, what it’s really like taking kids on holiday. The mum I was chatting to had been weighing up options for next year and, having not yet ventured on holiday with her own children, wanted an honest summary of the trips we’ve had. ‘What I’m really asking,’ she whispered, ‘Is whether it’s actually worth it?’
After a good chuckle over all the worst-case scenarios she’d been imagining, I tried to give her an overview of the things we’ve learned since we braved our first family holiday a couple of years ago. As is so often the case with conversations before school, we got interrupted by the small people we were talking about and I had to settle for concluding ‘it’s not always particularly relaxing but yes, it is worth it!’ Below is a slightly more elaborate summary of five things we have discovered thus far.
1. The reality will never match the fantasy.
Holidays never pan out quite the way we imagine them to and I’m convinced the bulk of any significant disappointment has its roots in the unrealistic expectations we set ourselves in the first place. It’s very easy, particularly when scrolling through the Instaperfect holidays of other parents online, to imagine that a change of scene will prompt a blissful change in the whole family dynamic. To dream that two children who usually try to kill each other in the living-room will leave their quarrels behind in favour of an entire week of sibling bonding, or that nobody will whinge just because you have saved up all year for this treat and whingeing is simply not permitted. (‘Just be grateful, why is nobody being grateful?!’ – Me at Limoges airport in 2016).
Sadly, there is nothing about going on holiday which magically resets the behaviour and/or overall personality of the small humans who push your frustration buttons at home, so starting the holiday with a more pragmatic view – i.e. that there will be ‘testing’ moments but that you will deal with them, just as you do at home – is a much safer bet. You’ll probably end up pleasantly surprised, rather than annoyingly disappointed.
2.Tantrums are more bearable on holiday.
There is something about being away from home that makes the aforementioned squabbling and whingeing more tolerable. Without the usual daily household chores and relentless email distractions, I have found myself better equipped to take a deep breath before I ask my children to stop screaming. In fact, I think I have a Holiday Mum voice which is calmer in tone and much less likely to end up as a shout. (Note: I also have a Frantic Airport Mum voice, because on-the-floor tantrums through Passport Control are not more bearable than the tantrums of home – you simply have to grin and bear that bit).
3. Kids are made for the outdoors.
Whether you end up in the sunny Algarve or camping in torrential rain in Cornwall, there is something instinctively joyful about watching children enjoying outdoor adventures. The hours we have spent swimming, crabbing or jumping up and down in muddy puddles (thank you, Peppa) have reminded me that children remember moments and not things.
We have also found that holidays are pretty much the only time our eldest doesn’t seem to obsess over watching telly or playing on his Nintendo – it’s as though the change of routine makes him forget the virtual world for a moment, which is a refreshing respite from his love of screen time at home. Our holiday snaps may not be Instaperfect in the traditional sense but they are snapshots I am proud of because they capture the things that childhood is all about.
4. Preparation is key
Although a healthy dose of ‘winging it’ will almost certainly creep in on any holiday with kids, there is clear virtue in planning and preparing certain things in advance. The difference with Tots holidays, we’ve found, is that a huge amount of the ‘what if we need X or Y?’ worry has already been considered. This means we have been able to tick off a big list of items without having to pack them – safe in the knowledge, for example, that stair gates, high chairs, toddler tableware etc. will all be available when we arrive.
Other useful prep includes researching reviews of any attractions you intend to visit in advance (water parks are best tackled with a plan of attack and a good understanding of height restrictions!) and when packing for day trips remember that you can never have too many snacks. Seriously, if you think you’ve packed enough snacks, pack some more. And then maybe a few more.
5. Family time is priceless
Although it’s more than possible that you may come home feeling like you need a holiday to recover from your holiday, there is something special about that uninterrupted family time which makes the whole endeavour worthwhile. Whenever we have been away, whether for a week abroad or a short UK camping trip, I have come home feeling like I know my children better. Yes, I see them every day at home, but holidays seem to bring us closer together as a unit.
We pay more attention to each other and bank the kind of family memories I suspect the boys will talk about in years to come: strolls on the beach, late-night swims, eating breakfast outdoors and, if we’re being honest, the time Mummy and Daddy nearly had a divorce on a roundabout after Mummy misinterpreted the foreign sat-nav. I happen to think the magic of holidays lies in the imperfect, anyway, which is probably just as well.