Stepparents should let children help plan vacations with the blended brood


March 19, 1995|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Jan and Brent Scharman wanted that first family vacation after their marriage to play out like "The Brady Bunch on Vacation." But as soon as they got to Sun Valley with his seven children and her three, reality hit.

No one could agree on doing anything at the same time. One daughter was constantly in tears. Jan Scharman was understandably overwhelmed by taking care of 10 youngsters, who ranged from age 9 to 19, rather than just three. There certainly was no "couple time."

"We were so focused on trying to be one big happy family that we made a lot of mistakes," Jan Scharman says now, six years later, from her office at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City. "We were totally ignoring what the children wanted and needed."

In the years since, the Scharmans, both psychologists and board members of the Stepfamilies Association of America, have learned not to force the whole brood to move in lock step from pool to bike ride to shopping to dinner. Before booking a trip, they solicit suggestions from the children rather than doing all the planning themselves.

They've become sensitive to issues like who wants to share a room on vacation. Perhaps most important, they work hard not to compete with their ex-spouses to provide the most fun vacation ever, talking openly about the trips the children have taken with their other families.

"We focus on the children having a good time," Jan Scharman explained. "If they leave with good feelings, they'll want to come again." And those good memories and feelings, she knows, will go a lot further toward making his children and her children one family than any forced togetherness.

That's not to say it's easy. "Just like any family, there are times when it's going to be awful. You've just got to keep your sense of humor and roll with it," says Suzy Yehl Marta, herself a parent and stepparent and founder of Rainbows, an international nonprofit organization that provides support to more than 100,000 children each year whose parents have divorced or died.

Mrs. Marta recalls the trip just after her remarriage when she shared a room with her stepdaughter while her husband bunked with her sons and his, so the children would be more at ease. Even what was considered appropriate dinner wear had to be discussed -- and negotiated.

"They're from different families with different priorities and attitudes. That's why it's important to talk about all of these things ahead of time," says Mrs. Marta. "The disasters I hear about happen because families didn't plan ahead."

For information about stepparenting, call Chicago-based Rainbows at (708) 310-1880 or the Lincoln, Neb.-based nonprofit Stepfamily Association of America at (800) 735-0329.

Sherri Robbins, for one, keeps the dialog going even after the vacation starts. She says her family always takes stock in the middle of a trip -- to make sure everyone is happy and getting what they need.

Mrs. Robbins, who lives in suburban Los Angeles and travels HTC with her husband, two young children and two teen-age stepchildren, says one trick to successful travel is for the adults to separate, to give the children some "alone" time with their biological parent, doing something they really like to do. Seek out places with plenty of activities that will appeal to children who are different ages and have different interests, she adds. "When we go with the kids," she adds, "we plan around them. We don't count on time for ourselves."

Blended families should take comfort that millions now are grappling with the same issues, as more children than ever are part of step-families. The U.S. Census Bureau notes that there are more than 5.2 million step-families with children under 18 -- one in every five American families. Sixteen percent of American children under 18 -- 7.2 million -- are part of a stepfamily.

These days, with families spread across the country and with budgets -- and time -- so tight, vacations become all-important times for these new family groups to blend and bond together as one unit.

"Vacations can be a wonderful opportunity for new shared experiences and rituals," says Jo Ann Fox-Avnet, a Los Angeles psychologist and family therapist who treats many families struggling with divorce and stepfamily issues.

"They're a way to get to know each other in a more relaxed environment," adds Alberto Serrano, director of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center and a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania. Establish new traditions and patterns for the new family, he urges, rather than ,, try to replicate old ones.

Especially when the relationships are new, a vacation can be fraught with difficulties. A child may be jealous of a new spouse or feel disloyal to the parent at home. The couple might not agree on discipline -- or even on how to spend the days: lazing by the pool with the children or racing from activity to activity.

Newer families might consider a shorter trip for starters -- a long weekend, for example. And be sure to give the children time to make the transition from one household to the other, suggests Mrs. Scharman. "Don't expect the kids will want to be together just because they're the same age," says Dr. Fox-Avnet.

But on the other hand, a trip might help encourage a new relationship to bloom. Dr. Fox-Avnet recalls a trip to London with her daughter and soon-to-be stepdaughter when they were young teen-agers. The two explored the city together, shopping, trading clothes. "It was a wonderful opportunity for them to get to know each other," said Dr. Fox-Avnet.

All of the Scharmans, meanwhile, had a blast on a cruise last summer. They want to go again together. And that, says Jan Scharman, is all that matters.

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