Your charming children can turn into brawling brats when you're vacationing


March 06, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

"Stupid!" she shouted. "Idiot!" he yelled back.

She glared at him, struggling to hold back her tears. He looked at her in total contempt.

This wasn't a couple on the verge of divorce, just 9-year-old Matt and 7-year-old Reggie in the midst of one of their all-too-familiar brawls.

To my embarrassment, they'd chosen an exceedingly public place for this latest tussle: in a crowd waiting outside a Los Angeles hotel for a tram up the hill to Universal Studios and the new CityWalk there. Reggie didn't even want to get on the tram if she had to sit anywhere near Matt.

"Just like my kids," one woman offered sympathetically. "Sounds like my sister and me," said a man.

You can separate them, threaten them, punish them, use psychology. No matter what you do, siblings are still going to fight; some -- like mine -- maybe more than others. What you hope for when you're traveling is a respite -- at least when you're out in public. Sometimes things don't even lighten up when you're heading someplace the kids really want to go (as we were).

"Kids may fight more on vacation if they are together more than they are at home," explains UCLA child psychologist Jill Waterman, herself the veteran of many sibling battles between her twin 9-year-old sons.

New York psychotherapist Jane Greer adds that just taking kids out of their regular routine and structure may be enough to provoke more tension and fights. Little ones, especially sensitive to changes in schedules, may react by bopping a little brother on the head or snatching a toy.

That's why its important to keep a semblance of routine on vacation. That goes for discipline, too, when the fights start. You don't want to be mean. "But you've got to put some structure in place so the kids don't run haywire," says Ms. Greer. "You'll have more havoc -- and a ruined vacation -- if you fail to put out the brush fires."

Dr. Waterman practices avoidance whenever she can. She keeps games and toys on hand to distract her children and, she hopes, keep fights at bay. "It's real helpful not to have them sit next to each other," she adds.

Try giving the children jobs: getting the luggage off the airport carousel, navigating the route to the hotel. Ask a younger child to stay in one spot and "watch the luggage" (as opposed to tormenting the baby). The busier they are, the less opportunity to insult each other.

I know one California mom who has her son read to his younger sister when the going starts to get rough. "He feels like he's really helping, and then they both usually fall asleep," she says.

Snacks help, too. In our family, fights seem to get all the worse if the children are hungry. Sometimes, they won't even realize that they need food. That's why if we're traveling and I sense a certain edginess creeping into their tone, I'll offer an apple, a granola bar, some crackers -- anything to ward off that grumpiness that inevitably leads to an argument over something monumental like whose joke was funnier.

What you want to avoid at all costs is taking sides, which, of course, is exactly what the kids hope you'll do. If they're ready to physically duke it out -- as mine have been known to do -- separate them. Then, let them resolve the conflict themselves.

For example, says Dr. Waterman, if they're arguing over which program to watch in the hotel room, "tell them the TV is off until they can come up with a plan."

And don't be afraid to take away privileges on vacation. Suburban Chicago mother of three Anne Reams will take away swimming or television for an evening. Another of Ms. Reams' tip: rotating assigned seats in the car for long trips.

Deborah Swiss, meanwhile, is convinced planning for down time is her secret to avoiding fights on the road. "Kids are at their worst when they're over-tired and over-scheduled," says Ms. Swiss, a consultant from Boston and the single mother of two children.

Her tip when all else fails: pre-stamped, pre-addressed postcards she can pull out for the children to write.

As for me, I can't offer you any sure-fire tips because I haven't figured out a successful strategy yet, and I've tried them all. My kids argue over who will sit next to 3-year-old Melanie or who gets which bed in the hotel room. On our last trip, they fought their way down the entire Southern California Coast -- all the way from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

Occasionally they call a cease-fire. Maybe eventually they'll stop. I'll let you know when I find the perfect solution.

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