School’s out for summer, and with it comes front page news of a country gripped by travel chaos as the UK jets off for its family holidays.
There are flight delays and cancellations as pilots stage protests, not to mention road gridlocks and extensive tailbacks all over the country – not surprising when you hear the RAC predicts 3.8 million extra car journeys will be taken to coincide with the start of the school holidays.
When my husband and I were trying for a baby I had idealised images of family holidays of the future – our children happily playing in the sand, while hubby and I looked on fondly with cold glasses of wine in our hands.
As it turns out though (and as any other parent soon learns) going on holiday with children isn’t quite as perfect as those Facebook pictures might make it look.
We became aware of that initially when we went to Newquay with our firstborn, who was just six months old at the time. After finally getting him to sleep in the travel cot in our hotel room, we simultaneously realised we were trapped.
We didn’t have a babysitter. We spent the evening conversing in hushed tones whilst tucking into room service
With only the three of us there, we couldn’t venture out for a relaxed dinner or enjoy a sunset stroll along the beach. Who would mind the baby? Instead, we spent the evening conversing in hushed tones while tucking into room service and were asleep by nine!
Similarly-idealistic images were promptly shattered when we flew to New York with my family for my mum’s 60th birthday. While everyone else spent the flight sipping champagne and watching the in-flight entertainment, we were wrestling with an overtired toddler who refused to sleep.
The holiday itself was fantastic, but the journey was enough to put us off flying with children for a lifetime.
And, as the boys have got older, the challenges have changed. The five-year-old now entertains himself on long journeys with a mixture of I Spy, snacks and an iPad, and the two-year-old will sleep for some of it.
But once you actually arrive at your cottage/chalet/apartment/hotel, you start to realise the children are expecting non-stop entertainment, with a hefty sprinkling of ice-creams, popcorn, candy-floss and pretty much any other treat under the sun thrown in.
I’m sure I’m not alone in loving my boys so much that I want to give them everything they ask for – especially on holiday
And that’s before you even pass a beachfront and come under pressure to stock up on more buckets and spades, beach balls, sickly-sweet smelling squidgies, and endless other bits of holiday tack.
I’m sure I’m not alone in loving my boys so much I want to give them everything they ask for – especially on holiday. Because it’s the one time of year we want to make special, to ‘treat’ them, to fill their head with precious memories.
But, at the same time, I can’t help feeling like the more they have, the more they want. Consequently, you end up spending a fortune on rubbish and not enjoying the good old-fashioned holidays I remember fondly from my own childhood.
The years we spent at Naish holiday park in Bournemouth; endless sunny days building sandcastle fortresses on the beach; dancing to The Birdie Song at the kids’ disco in the evening.
Then there were the peaceful cottage holidays in Yorkshire where my sister and I marvelled at the honesty box for fresh eggs, and the Blockbuster-worthy video collection we spent our evenings working our way through while wolfing down popcorn.
Perhaps it’s just me, but now that I’m a mum holidays don’t seem quite as simple
I’ll never forget the windy days spent scouring Chesil beach for fossils, the smell of the salty sea air mixed with fresh fish and chips as we jumped through the waves holding hands, always coming home with a collection of precious shells as a memento.
Perhaps it’s just me, but now I’m a mum, holidays don’t seem quite as simple.
Dr Anna Symonds, consultant clinical psychologist, thinks there’s a reason for this: “Children’s expectations have changed, and perhaps ours have too,” she suggests.
“I think children are used to being constantly stimulated now. For example, the fact they sit and watch YouTube and can see the latest toy or download a movie straightaway. Their needs are met very quickly with instant gratification, so when you’re on holiday and it’s cost you a lot of money and you might be thinking ‘let’s have this special day out’, it may not feel so special because kids are used to doing things all the time.
“Whereas when we were little, we’d go to a theme park once every five years, and you certainly wouldn’t go abroad every year. But things have got cheaper now, so as parents we try to give our children the best experiences and capture the special-ness because things don’t seem extraordinary any more.”
No matter how much you love your children, or how organised and well-planned your holiday is, becoming a parent makes you realise they’re bloody hard work too.
So is it impossible for parents nowadays to enjoy an idyllic, relaxing holiday of days gone by? Or does the age in which we live mean the stress of travel chaos, the blight of technology, and the demands of children who want constant stimulation make it impossible?
Dr Symonds says: “It’s also about expectations of parents on holiday. We think ‘let’s go on holiday, it will be great’ but a lot of parents of young children say it’s actually just a change of scenery but not routine.
“But what it actually does do is change the parents’ behaviour – for example, you can say to yourself you’re not going to check your work emails so much for a week, or you’re going to spend less time on Facebook and be more available for your children.
“A lot of us work long hours and don’t get the quality time with them. A holiday does give time for a bit of bonding, where you’re not distracted by technology. You can do things like sit together on the beach for five hours, whereas you wouldn’t sit at home for five hours without going to check on the news, the football score or work messages.”
And she believes that small changes like this will make for a much more enjoyable holiday all round.
It doesn’t have to be about actually going away, either in this country or abroad
“Our emotional regulation of children comes from their tuning in with their parents, so if you have calm happy parents on holiday then the children will be too.”
Dr Symonds also says that it doesn’t have to be about actually going away, either in this country or abroad.
“A lot of families can’t afford to go on holiday every year, so it’s about planning. For example, doing one big thing a week, such as a trip to the cinema or even just a playdate. And rather than telling children they should be having a good time because of the cost, try and focus on talking about how much they enjoyed the experience afterwards.
“It’s about the experience you’re having, your frame of mind and the fact that you’re spending time with your children. That’s what they want from us – they just want our time and attention. It’s about saying this might not be a five-star, all-inclusive, sit by the pool quiet holiday, but what I do get is time with the kid and that’s memories.”
And as for the hours sitting in traffic jams and airports?
“It all comes back to expectations,” explains Dr Symonds. “You know the flight might be tricky, so plan for that and just think it will be worth it. Remember there’s always a bit of a slog to get on holiday, and likewise prepare yourself for the fact that even when you’ve arrived it will be harder when you’ve got children and they’re overtired or you’re fed up making endless sandcastles. But when you get home, you and the children will have some great memories which will last much longer than those of the journey there!’
Costa Del back garden is just as nice as Costa del Sol if you can just put down the phone and walk away from the TV
My fond memories of a lifetime of holidays with my mum, dad and sister certainly support that theory. (As well as making me want to apologise to my parents for not appreciating how hard it was for them at the time).
Because just as Dr Symonds says: “You’re filling them up emotionally and psychologically so they’re full of love and feeling really connected to you as a parent. Costa Del Back Garden is just as nice as Costa del Sol if you can just put down the phone, walk away from the TV and say, ‘Right, I’ll give the kids a couple of hours of my time.'”
So, this weekend, as I head back from a long weekend in Skegness with our two very overtired boys, I’m heartened to think that those fraught moments of toddler tantrums, those endless times that I said ‘no’ to yet another tacky holiday souvenir, don’t make me a bad parent.
And that, actually, my boys will remember the laughs we had when they buried Mum in the sand, or when the seagull raided our picnic. That they’ll look back fondly on that feeling of complete and utter happiness as we all ran into the sea holding hands to cool off when we first arrived.
Call me nostalgic, but moments like that really do make family holidays worth all the hassle.