Unstructured vacations are not always relaxing


August 21, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Before the Wertliebs left for the quiet beach vacation they'd planned on Martha's Vineyard, the computer issue had to be resolved.

"It was a big decision whether or not to take my laptop," confesses Don Wertlieb, a Boston child psychologist and chairman of Tufts University's child studies department. To his wife's consternation, Dr. Wertlieb decided he needed to take it ,, along.

"I look forward to no faxes, but I get some anxiety about being out of touch," he explains. "For folks used to very structured lives, suddenly shifting gears to a lot of unstructured time can be very stressful."

That goes for kids, too. In fact, for kids used to having every minute scheduled by school, camp, piano lessons, play dates, tutoring and scouts, the prospect of several days without 50 cable channels, Super Nintendo and a telephone can be as

daunting as it is for parents who can't go an hour without checking their voice mail.

"You have a panic attack about what you're going to do with the kids," says Jill Hand, a working mother of three from Denver who is a big fan of "let's-not-plan-anything" trips. She remembers hating being dragged from museum to museum when she was a child.

"This way, you have to make a conscious effort to slow down," says Ms. Hand. "It takes a couple of days before the kids can get into it."

"Their skills for using their free time are primitive," agrees Dr. Wertlieb, the father of three. "They just don't know how to do it."

Younger children might have an especially hard time because familiar routine and predictable schedules are important to their equilibrium.

Even worse, some families not used to spending much time together might find the long-anticipated stay at a cabin in the woods or a cottage on a quiet beach isn't nearly as relaxing as they expected.

"It can become very tense," acknowledges Dr. Wertlieb.

If the situation involves a blended family or a divorced parent who doesn't see that much of the kids, it can become more complicated.

Yet ask any '90s parent what they want from the last days off with the kids before school starts and they'll say they don't want to do much -- and preferably in a beautiful spot. These are the vacations they remember best from when they were kids, they explain.

"Hanging out is what we love to do on vacation," agrees Martha Melvoin, who lives in Brentwood, Calif., and has two sons. "I love it, especially as the kids get older." Ms. Melvoin's advice: Wait until the kids are school-aged to take a relaxing vacation. Now, "We can do so many more interesting things together," she says.

"Small children don't enjoy relaxing. They want to be up and doing," notes Chicago child psychologist Victoria Lavigne, an authority on young children. "If you think you're going to spend a week reading, it's not going to happen. The best of all possible worlds is to have a sitter."

With young children, she suggests, it helps to plan activities -- a specific time at the pool, a walk in the woods -- and adhere as much as possible to their regular meal, nap and bedtime schedules.

The older kids might like some sort of agenda too: The beach every morning, for example, and cards after dinner. "Think of it as a different structure, rather than no structure," Dr. Wertlieb suggests.

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