My children, aged 6 and 9, are usually well behaved in public. However, we have just returned from a family reunion holiday and both my husband and I were appalled at how they behaved. They, along with a few other children, ignored most of the ground rules about bedtime, meals, cold drinks, politeness, among other things. Sometimes they laughed so much that the younger one would throw up his food. They became enthralled by one of their cousins, who was the “ringleader”, and we could do really nothing about it. My children, so far, have a reputation of being good to be around, but I think people began to shun them this time and there were many comments particularly about them. There will be a similar gathering later this year for a wedding, and I would like to know how to keep them under some control there.
One consolation for you in the scenario that you paint here is that your children seem to have had the time of their lives and will remember this holiday with great pleasure for long. Your chagrin, however, is understandable. Watching your children defying every rule and spinning out of control, even if they’re having fun, is not easy. This level of excitement in children is rather high-frequency, and can be a bit too much for everyone around. What can you (and other parents) do for such holidays with the extended family/friends?
You could prepare your children by telling them a little about what to look forward to, and also tell them that many usual rules will be relaxed during the vacation, for them as well as for you, and that is part of the fun of a vacation. Mention a few things you will not insist on—say, bedtime, or meals at a certain time. Include in this conversation a few things you adults too will indulge in or allow yourself. Acknowledge that they are excited and want to have fun, just like you do.
But do mention that to enjoy the holiday and make it enjoyable for everyone, broadly they do need to listen to you on certain things. Perhaps you can come up with a preplanned signal between you and them, when you think things are getting out of hand. Children don’t like being pulled up or chastised in public, and particularly not when they are so excited, so see if you can tell them that you too don’t like to shout at them in front of people, but would need to agree on some way you can signal they need to stop doing what they’re doing.
Also come up with areas of behaviour that are non-negotiable, and tell them you will publicly stop them if they ignore the signal. What are these areas? a) Doing something that endangers themselves or others; b) irritating other guests at the place that you’re staying—this is a big one, and something you must establish early in a child’s public behaviour; c) destroying or spoiling public property, including tearing plants or stomping on them, among other things; d) chucking food here and there (a bowl of peanuts is tempting to use as pellets).
Understandably, you feel judged by some of the other adults for the way your children behaved. I would urge you not to be overly caught up in this, and convey to your children that you need them to be a little less boisterous at times on vacation, not for the impression they make on people, but because it is just more enjoyable for everyone when children are having fun but not being pests. As for the “ringleader” kind of child around, you can’t really paint that child as “bad”, but perhaps tell your children not to slavishly follow him or her. However, do keep in mind that the ringleader is a fascinating figure, and your children are going to go a bit ga-ga over him during a vacation. If the ringleader’s parents aren’t going to get all prickly about it, perhaps you could tell him at the beginning that your children really look up to him and love him, so he needs to lead them into fun, not outright crazy behaviour.
My 15-year-old son refused to come on vacation with us this year. From the time we started planning it, he told us he didn’t want to come. We had to let him stay with his grandparents. He spent his days playing football with friends and was on the computer. My mother gave him chores and errands, which he did and seemed to enjoy. Last year too he was reluctant to go with us and wanted to stay in the hotel room and watch TV, though we had gone to Turkey, a country he is studying in history classes. I don’t want to make a habit of him dropping out of family holidays—what should we do? His father and I both felt quite hurt that he didn’t want to come with us, but we didn’t say this to him.
Adolescent behaviour and choices can be bewildering and hurtful to parents on several counts. One, the child no longer enjoys your company and sees you as a unit, to enjoy holidays together. Two, he cuts himself off from experience, whether of another country or of other people.
A family vacation without the child is something you hadn’t thought would happen, but it’s here, and it would be best to accept it with grace, as you seem to have done. However, it is important that you feel less hurt and shut out.
Part of his refusal to come on vacation with you is genuine adolescent preoccupation with the self, and part of it is also to see how you respond. Adolescents “want to be accounted for” but in a convoluted way—the 10-year-old that was wildly happy to go on holiday with you is now replaced by this guarded young boy who is a “problem” when you want to go on vacation. Continue to communicate that you would have liked him to come along, not because he “should have”, but because you enjoy his company. This continues the emotional connect, at least from your side.
Being too nonchalant and shrugging him off with a “have-it-your-way” is not a good idea either. Acknowledge that you understand that he doesn’t want to come along, and make other arrangements for him in a non-hurt, matter-of-fact way.
When you do go away, stay in touch with him in a non-worried way, communicating that you miss him, but steering clear of “why couldn’t you have come with us” conversations. When you plan your next vacation, ask him if he wants to come with you, and if he says no, plan something which just the two of you adults would enjoy doing. The other option is to try and find another mopey adolescent friend of his and see if he will come along too. Perhaps your son will appreciate the company, and consider coming. The third option, if he is willing, is to send him on a holiday designed for a group his age, which is something quite a few tour companies do within the country or outside it.
Gouri Dange is the author of ABCs of Parenting.
Write to Gouri at email@example.com