How to Plan Ahead to Ensure Fun for All
It’s that time of year again. Maybe it’s spring break, summer vacation or maybe it has just been a long time since you’ve visited your parents. They long for you to visit. They long to see your children. You love your parents, but the prospect of a stay at their home may seem anything but relaxing.
With a little planning, however, a visit to Grandma and/or Grandpa’s can be just as fun and rewarding as any other family trip. Here’s some advice to ensure that everyone in your extended family has a good time on these occasions.
Treat Your Holiday Visit Like a Vacation
When you plan a vacation, you research possibilities for activities with your children’s interests in mind; you find the best places to visit; you bring things along to entertain them. Do the same when you plan to visit the grandparents. Even if you’re returning to the place where you grew up, or one that you’ve already been to a hundred times, you’ve probably overlooked or passed up entertainment opportunities because you haven’t thought about them from your child’s perspective. For example, a friend of ours who grew up in Montreal visits her parents there three times a year. After one of us vacationed in that cosmopolitan city last year with our family and reported on places visited and sights seen, this friend was simply amazed. She’d never been to any of those places because, when it comes to her hometown, she simply doesn’t think like a tourist.
Here are some specific suggestions to help you find and make the most of the family-friendly treasures even on familiar turf:
• Get the kids involved in the planning. Search the Internet together and send away for brochures and information on activities in your parents’ town that your children might enjoy: horseback riding, swimming or boating, sporting events, biking, fishing, science museums or exhibits, zoos and other nature or animal attractions, theme parks, golf or miniature golf, movies, musical events and theater.
You can also contact the local tourist and visitors bureau. These organizations typically stock brochures and often publish directories and maps. Make the requests in your kids’ names so they will have the excitement of receiving the mail. If you’re going to a major city, you can also search bookstores for a specialized children’s guide. The excellent Kidding Around series covers most major metropolitan areas.
• Buy tickets for events and attractions in advance. This will help you avoid waiting in long lines if you’re traveling during school vacation times. It will also guarantee that you get yourselves out of the house – overcoming the inertia that can set in on family visits. Decide whether you’d like to attend these events with your parents, or whether they might afford a break from family togetherness and an opportunity for you to be alone with your children. As an alternative, your parents could take your children and give you a break. Either way, if your parents or children have special needs, such as handicap accessibility, be sure to mention these when you make your purchases.
• Order a local Yellow Pages for your parents’ town. You can do this by calling your parents’ telephone service provider and using your credit card. Then, you can get information on local stores, services and other businesses, book appointments, make reservations, and get driving directions – all before you arrive.
• Consider staying in a hotel. Most people feel that a visit to grandparents means staying in their home. But even if this is an option, it might not be the best way to enjoy the stay. Be objective about the conditions: Can your parents’ home comfortably accommodate your whole family? Do you have an infant with an erratic sleep schedule or high-energy kids who might wear out your parents if they’re together 24/7? Also, think about the extra entertainment value you get from hotel facilities such as pools, game rooms and even ice machines!
Make the Visit Easy
By attending to details in advance, parents can help keep intergenerational miscommunications to a minimum and encourage grandparents to relax and enjoy their grandchildren.
• Send a list of your children’s favorite foods and "must haves."Children can be fussy. To make it easier on both your children and your parents, send a written list well in advance of your arrival date so that your parents can stock up on exactly the same foods – including snacks – that your children are used to eating at home. Be specific about brands, varieties and so forth.
For example, Susan Chimeme, a mother of three, recalled how on one visit to her parents’, her father poured skim milk on her son’s cereal. Her son refused the “white water” – and she had to run out and buy 2-percent milk.
If your teens or preteens are vegetarians, it’s especially important that their grandparents have their favorite protein-rich, nonmeat foods in the house when they arrive. (It’s also wise to caution your parents not to urge them to eat meat.) If you’re bringing your infant or toddler, then, of course, you’ll want your usual brands of formula, diapers, wipes and so forth waiting for you, to save you from rushing out to the store after an exhausting plane or car trip.
Most important: You and your parents both want your children to associate these visits with good things to eat. For a child, the way to the heart is truly through the stomach!
• Think safety. Most grandparents have forgotten how to childproof a home, and they’re unlikely to have a supply of child-oriented medications on hand. Give them some help.
If your children are very young, be sure to bring simple safety devices such as outlet covers, doorknob covers (so your children can’t lock themselves in the bathroom), soft covers for sharp corners, nightlights and a few removable cabinet locks. (Don’t forget water wings and/or a life preserver if your child will be swimming.) Also, if your parents can’t borrow a safe crib, highchair and carseat, arrange to rent these things from a local company that can deliver them before you arrive. Pack your own first-aid kit, too, complete with bandages, diaper rash ointment, syrup of ipecac, prescription and over-the-counter child medications, insect repellent, tweezers, your pediatrician’s phone number and your medical insurance card.
When you arrive, do a “safety sweep.” Hide your parents’ medications, including those in handbags; clear sharp and other swallowable objects off the tops of dressers and low counters, and secure cabinets that contain household cleaners or breakables.
• Consider shipping toys, as well as sports and baby equipment, in advance. Why haul around board games, golf clubs, tennis rackets, fishing poles, skis and all that baby gear (including the safety equipment and first-aid kit) when ground shipment charges are so reasonable?
When Susan Chimeme visits her father, she ships everything via Federal Express, ground rate, a week in advance. Then, everyone in the family flies with only one carry-on and avoids a long wait for baggage when they land. Even more important, her father’s house is stocked with age-appropriate toys and intergenerational games that make the children feel welcome right away.
• Consult with the grandparents to plan activities they can share with their grandchildren. The best outcome for your visit is a strong bond between your parents and your children. Urge your parents to plan an afternoon or two to teach the kids something about one of their own lifelong passions: gardening, baking, drawing, flower arranging, fishing, golf or tennis, perhaps. Help them think through what to assemble or purchase and how to match the activity to your child’s age and abilities.
Or, help plan a grandparent-grandchild outing to a local attraction, whether it’s an airboat ride through the Everglades to see alligators or spring training for a minor league baseball team. Of course, it’s important to choose something your children will really enjoy, so get their input before you suggest something to your parents. Even if it’s just a movie, you can tell your parents to put off seeing that special picture until you arrive – both kids and adults will enjoy the anticipation of seeing it together.
• Let children help with household projects the grandparents plan. Older children can derive great satisfaction from helping their grandparents with small projects. One of our sons learned to use a screwdriver and drill when he assembled a bookshelf for his grandmother. Another went on an outing with his grandfather to buy soil and plants, which he then helped to pot. Now, he delights in seeing how much the plants have grown each time he visits. All of our children help their grandparents navigate the Internet and use e-mail so they can exchange messages between visits.
• Promote intergenerational understanding. If your child is painfully shy around adults, dislikes being kissed or rebels against parental authority, then talk with his or her grandparents about these behaviors before you arrive so they won’t take anything personally. Conversely, talk with your kids about their grandparents’ expectations. Emphasize how important they are in their grandparents’ lives and how much Grandma and Grandpa crave your children’s affection.
Mix It Up to Make It Memorable
Family togetherness is great, but you don’t need to spend all of your time together as a group. These visits can also create opportunities to strengthen relationships among different combinations of family members. Here are some suggestions that encourage emotional satisfaction for all:
• Take time off with your partner or spouse. Plan an evening out – perhaps a romantic meal in a nice restaurant or even an overnight stay in a nearby hotel.
"My wife and I usually go away for a night or two, giving us a mini vacation and my in-laws time to get to know the grandkids better," says Mitch Tyson, a father of two teens and a preteen.
If your children are too young to be away from you for long – or your parents are not up to it – then try a morning walk or early lunch.
• Give the grandparents time off, too. Remember that your parents have a routine they follow when you’re not around. Give them time to do their own thing while you take your children on an enjoyable outing. Encourage them not to invite a lot of visitors over, even if they are dying to show off their grandchildren. It will be more comfortable for all – especially shy children – if they arrange a time for casual introductions at a park or pool.
• Be tolerant of special indulgences. Let the grandparents break your rules. Remember: You made it out alive! Relaxing your standards a bit and letting your parents indulge your kids in extra desserts, later bedtimes or a new outfit will make everyone feel special without compromising your children’s values or your parental authority.
One of our mothers-in-law used to ply her grandchild with chocolates while they watched Are You Afraid of the Dark? together on late-night TV. Now that Grandma’s gone, the memories of these stolen pleasures grow sweeter each year for her granddaughter.
Or maybe you could use some indulging yourself. “Trips to see my parents are rare opportunities for me to be mothered,” says Mitch’s wife, Heidi. “I let my mother cook all my favorite foods and generally take it easy for a change.”
• Create family traditions. Sometimes the simplest activities can become treasured traditions that children look forward to repeating, visit after visit: making and decorating cookies, playing a board game or holding a croquet tournament.
“The kids treasure their routines at my parents’ house, where life is simpler and slower than at home: afternoons at the pool, nightly Boggle and Rumikube games,” says Heidi Tyson. She takes photographs so her children can make a “family visit” album. Then they can see how much they’ve grown and recall highlights from each stay.
Ronnie Mae Weiss is a travel writer who frequently writes articles with a family focus. She has often had the pleasure of visiting her parents with her husband and two sons. Marlene Ellin, a senior writer/editor for a software company, enjoys all forms of family travel with her husband and teenage daughter, including visits with parents and in-laws.