The secret to a great family vacation? Ignore your children

Vacations can be an opportunity for children to discover the benefits of doing nothing— and for you to rediscover them

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Doing nothing in Monterey Bay, California

Since my kids were old enough to pack their own suitcases, I’ve had one ironclad rule for family vacations: “I’m not responsible for your feeling entertained.”

What this means is, you’re old enough to be bored if you want, or not bored. You can choose to engage, or not. You’re in charge of your feelings.

When my children were very small, of course, it was a different story. When they’re young, child-raising involves a lot more attention management, and travel involved thinking ahead about how to keep the kids entertained while on the plane in the back seat of the car. But If they’re old enough to follow a checklist, and imagine what they’ll need under different circumstances— for example, while waiting in stations or on long rides, or in hotel rooms after a long day— then they’re old enough to in charge of their own state of mind.

That doesn’t meant that we do nothing on vacation: I like a good zip-line as much as a good museum, and I love the opportunity travel affords to let you discover new things. But not feeling like I have to ward off boredom and Keep People Engaged gives me freedom to not overschedule our days, to do interesting things but not feel like We Must Do Everything.

For kids it’s also a chance to discover that doing “nothing” can be pretty good. In today’s over-stimulated, notifications-heavy world, a diversion is always at arm’s length, and you never have to be bored. But how many games are invented, or discoveries made, when kids have “nothing” to do? How often do we discover that having nothing on our minds feels pretty good?

This in turn is the beginning of a second discovery: that being bored or happy isn’t just about what goes on around us, but what happens inside us. 

A few years ago, I was with my family in the British Museum, looking at the Rosetta Stone. Another family was there (actually there were lots of people around, as the Museum is very popular with tourists), and the parents were explaining why the Stone was significant.

One of their kids was kind of interested, but their teenage son was Having None Of It. 

I recognized that teenage determination to not be impressed even by one of the world’s great archaeological discoveries. At that age, I had a barnacle-like capacity to hold onto the feeing that I was being dragged around against my will.

Looking at it as an adult, though, the scene reminded me of just how much control we have over our emotional lives, and how valuable it is to discover that. You can be bored by anything if you try hard enough. You can also find interesting and engaging things if you try. Learning that you have that choice is one of the most important things you can do, and a vacation is one of the best places to discover it.

It’s also important for kids to learn that they’re capable of making plans that will help them be happier in the future. And if they forget a charger or  bring a dull book?Mistakes are often more compelling teachers than parents.

Finally, as a parent you spend a lot of time feeling responsible for someone else’s happiness. That’s part of the job, but it’s real work, and if you do a lot of it at home, you sholdn’t have to do it on vacation. As a result, not feeling that you need to respond to a child’s declarations that they’re bored, or have a teenager’s performative misery weighing on your conscience, is pretty liberating.

So once your kids are old enough, let them be bored. It’ll be good for them, and great for you.

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