I Used To Go Over The Top For Birthdays, And Now We Just Travel Instead

Featured on Scary Mommy, February 14, 2020


Garbage bins sat stuffed with plastic tumblers, paper plates, disposable cutlery and cardboard. So much cardboard. Each birthday gift my son had unwrapped seemed hermetically sealed inside the stuff. As I hosed down the patio, attacking gooey blue frosting and greasy mozzarella with the strongest nozzle attachment I owned, the opening of presents felt like ages ago. Now the five-year-old was crashed out in the den while I stood outside, shivering and tired.

How We Said Goodbye To Big Birthday Parties And Hello To The Open Road: family on train car

I was exhausted well before the first guests had arrived at my son’s “It’s a Jungle in Here!” extravaganza, a birthday celebration weeks in the making. I had created themed invitations; hired a mobile zoo to cart in reptiles and birds; installed a backyard zip line; designed rainforest signage and attraction “tickets”; collected canteens, flashlights and trail mix for party favors; located a bakery that could craft zebras and elephants onto a cake; ordered food; prepped more food; and purchased color-coordinated goods to sit atop rented tables – all on the heels of my younger son’s birthday weeks earlier.

For my younger son, I had hired a train to circle the neighborhood, then fretted the entire time that I had not thought to obtain a permit from the city. Previous years had seen large trucks arrive with bouncy houses and inflatable slides before a fleet of SUV’s departed with cellophane bags of small bouncy balls and “temporary tattoos” destined for a life spent under sofa cushions.

How We Said Goodbye To Big Birthday Parties And Hello To The Open Road: child at birthday wearing jungle costume and holding parrot surrounded by other children

For the most part, my kids enjoyed the parties, and my husband and I cherished seeing them surrounded by so much love. Still, the boys expressed frustration at not being able to play with many in attendance, as no classmate, friend or family member was excluded. Also, the party themes grew increasingly complex and expensive while not reflecting what our children wanted necessarily. As I scrubbed juice off sticky rattan and pulled balloon remnants from the vegetable garden, I wondered if I could offer my kids something else. I decided to try.

How We Said Goodbye To Big Birthday Parties And Hello To The Open Road: jumpy castle at birthday by pool

When my younger son’s next birthday loomed, I proposed an alternative to a big party: a short getaway that he would help plan. I explained that in traveling for his birthday, my son would not be opening a mountain of gifts — but that he would be seeing new sights, enjoying new experiences and creating memories for his family. To my shock, he exclaimed, “Let’s go somewhere!”

Within a week, my younger son helped design a two-day train trip to Santa Barbara. As I expected, the entire family had great fun at the zoo, the beach and the mission. What I had not anticipated was the time it afforded us to talk and enjoy each other without the distractions of home. I also was surprised that, even with meals and attractions, our weekend away cost the same as a large party. A few weeks later his brother followed suit with two days in San Diego. We have not looked back since.

How We Said Goodbye To Big Birthday Parties And Hello To The Open Road: two kids walking around in woods

Of course, traveling with kids does take planning, but the boys love the preparation process and the excitement it generates when we arrange a vacation in the following way.

We start well in advance and begin by placing a giant state map on the dining room table. We brainstorm places that we have yet to explore as a family. No location is rejected at this stage.

We compute mileage to and from the different sites and decide which trips constitute a reasonable amount of time in the car and which are better suited to a longer break.

How We Said Goodbye To Big Birthday Parties And Hello To The Open Road: two kids walking around in woods

Using the pared down list, we research what experiences each place offers. We identify any activities we have already enjoyed and consider whether they are worth repeating. We discuss, too, which sights and experiences would be new, age-appropriate and fun.

We read up on hotel options. We study costs, amenities, user reviews, and distance to attractions.

Time to pick a destination! While the family may debate a few options, the birthday boy ultimately makes the call. Any disappointment felt by others is tempered by the understanding that “there is always next time” and that most attractions are not going anywhere. Any notes we have collected, we save for the next birthday trip discussion.

How We Said Goodbye To Big Birthday Parties And Hello To The Open Road: kid wandering in desert

When the excursion is a few days away, we check weather forecasts and finalize activities. We also investigate any attractions en route to our destination that may be interesting and help to break up the drive. Then we pack accordingly.

Finally, we pull out of the driveway armed with water, snacks, maps to chart our progress, a camera that the boys can use to capture whatever sparks their interest, and programmed playlists of their making.

How We Said Goodbye To Big Birthday Parties And Hello To The Open Road: kid wandering in desert

Our children benefit enormously from helping to organize a getaway. For one, they feel empowered and respected in being allowed to plan a vacation for the family. Consequently, they have grown more thoughtful as they consider what experiences they want to impart rather than what they hope to receive.

Secondly, they have become increasingly curious. The more that my kids see and do, the more they want to see and do. They research and appreciate places that do not hold obvious appeal, understanding that destinations like Death Valley, Sequoia National Park, and Pinnacles National Park offer an array of unique enjoyments. They also have become more adventurous and have developed new interests. They have trekked to waterfalls, explored caves, slid down giant sand dunes and paddled across lakes.

Best of all, today the boys measure their age not by ill-defined numbers, but by how their abilities and interests have evolved since their last birthday – how much farther they can trek, how much longer they can paddle, how many new activities they are trying. For each of my sons, a birthday is not just about getting older or taller. It is about growing as an individual, as a family member, and as a participant in a vast and fascinating world.

We Took A Vacation With Our Child-Free Friends And It Was The Best Trip Ever

Featured on Scary Mommy, March 13, 2020

I have shared more adventures, big and small, with Pam than any person outside of my family. We met in middle school, remained close in high school and college, and served in each other’s weddings. We have never lived more than twenty miles apart, text constantly, and know virtually everything about each other. Our bond has grown stronger as our families have grown, too.

When Pam asked, “Why don’t we six go to Alaska?” I was not surprised. My family — my husband Jeff and our two boys — hang out with Pam and her husband, Dave, frequently. What surprised me was the inexplicable dread I felt as she spoke.

What Our Family Learned By Traveling With Friends Who Do Not Have Kids: moose in nature

Before long, Pam, Dave, and Jeff had outlined a twelve-day itinerary that included flying to Anchorage, driving to Denali, returning to Anchorage and embarking on a seven-day cruise through the Inside Passage. I had outlined a mental image of my own that included the kids getting car sick en route to Denali, the kids wearing out on scenic hikes, the kids getting seasick on the cruise ship, and the kids suffering meltdowns during long, late dinners. Such difficulties had occurred on previous vacations, but they had never ruined them. Why did I feel so anxious this time?

My fears had everything to do with Pam and Dave. The only casualties of previous turmoil had been my husband and myself, not dear friends who worked hard and were entitled to a trouble-free break. Jeff and I were deserving, too, but I believed that I had a realistic grasp of what a long trip with children would look like. I preferred traveling closer to home with other parents who understood the challenges of a family vacation. I felt nervous knowing that Pam and Dave were spending hard-earned money and precious time off on a trip that could prove slower and more inconvenient than they anticipated.

What Our Family Learned By Traveling With Friends Who Do Not Have Kids: view of mountain

Finally, I fessed up. I detailed for Pam all that could occur – the good, the bad, and the apocalyptic. “We know that!” she laughed. “We know it will be different with kids. That’s the point!”

Months later we pulled away from the jetway, and I crossed my fingers.

What Our Family Learned By Traveling With Friends Who Do Not Have Kids: little boy on boat

So what happened? Thomas, then six years old, wore out on the first hike, plunked down onto the mud, and cried the rest of the trek. He also lost his “all-time favorite” hat in Denali and cried the entire drive back to the hotel. On the cruise, Devin, then four years old, suffered from stomach troubles, screamed in our cramped bathroom for an hour, and cried the rest of the night. Two days later, he suffered from exhaustion and cried throughout much of Dave’s formal birthday dinner, only stopping when he fell asleep in his pasta.

Still, my boys barely remember these episodes. Instead, they still recount in detail the two sea lions atop an iceberg that floated by our stateroom, the shattering sound of a glacier breaking off into the bay, and the grizzlies, caribou, and puffins they spotted. Each time my sons relive their trip, I am reminded of what we gained from vacationing with friends who do not have children.

What Our Family Learned By Traveling With Friends Who Do Not Have Kids: whale tale in water

Friends without children can help parents challenge their own assumptions of what activities are and are not kid-friendly. We would not have watched a beaver at work had Pam and Dave not invited us to consider a hike more challenging than usual. They gently pushed us out of the frenzied cruise buffet and into the ship’s nicest restaurant, where we enjoyed a more intimate ambiance and more time to linger over a freshly prepared meal. Pam and Dave prompted us to take a longer Juneau excursion than we had originally considered. As a result, we were treated to an up-close, breathtaking experience with breaching humpback whales.

What Our Family Learned By Traveling With Friends Who Do Not Have Kids: view of seals on ice

Our children were encouraged to try new things, too. It is easy for Thomas and Devin to fall into family routines, but the presence of “new blood” pumped new life into their sense of adventure. Thomas presented a brave face when we encountered a gigantic moose on foot. Devin gamely agreed to an intense banana boat ride to Ketchikan island, and when the rain drenched him as we hiked through the rain forest, he laughed instead of cried.

What Our Family Learned By Traveling With Friends Who Do Not Have Kids: view of mountain

Friends without children can help ease some of the pressure felt in the incessant job that is parenting, in part because they are not distracted or drained by their own kids. When Thomas started to melt down upon learning that the mini-golf course had unexpectedly closed, Dave quietly called him over to try out his “fancy” camera. A new voice, a new approach, a new toy – Thomas never mentioned golf again. At breakfast, I harped on Thomas to eat over his plate. As he grew increasingly irritable, Pam asked him what he most looked forward to when returning to school, and the rest of our meal went smoothly. Watching Thomas and Devin interact with my friends helped me realize that I spend so much time directing my boys’ behavior that I sometimes forget to simply chat with them.

Traveling with friends also helped our kids consider people and needs beyond their own. They know that Pam and Dave do not share their enthusiasm for trains, but they saw our friends happily board the White Pass Railroad anyway. When we returned to our cabin, we discussed plans for the evening. It was encouraging to hear Thomas ask, “Should we see what Pam and Dave want to do?” He clearly wanted to reciprocate our friends’ kindness.

What Our Family Learned By Traveling With Friends Who Do Not Have Kids: view of mountain kid looking into camera

Finally, traveling with another couple brought a freshness to our conversations. Daily discussions, at home and away from home, so often center on kids. So, while I loved watching my sons admire the mountain scenery, I was equally happy when we put them to bed and sat on the balcony with Pam and Dave. It felt like a vacation within a vacation to breathe in the ocean air, sip champagne, and not expound on the merits of Minecraft or Ryan’s Toy Review.

While I still appreciate the benefits of traveling with other families, I also realize I had underestimated what children can do and enjoy. Before Thomas and Devin were born, Jeff and I journeyed to Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. We put off starting a family because we could not imagine traveling with children. I wonder sometimes what we might have shown our boys by now had I not been so fearful. Still, I remain grateful to my friends for helping me focus on the benefits to be experienced on a family trip instead of the obstacles to be survived. Without their influence we might not have tackled last summer’s four-hour, knee-deep mud hike in Kauai, or booked our upcoming snorkel trip to Central America. Now I scroll through travel sites with a confidence that tells me, “We can do that. All of us.”

How A ‘Help Wanted’ Bulletin Board Changed Our Family

Featured on Scary Mommy, February 20, 2020

“If I do it, can I play Xbox after?”

“Is everyone doing it?”

“Can you just do it since you’re better at it?”

So would begin the litany of questions when I assigned my sons even the most basic weekend chores. Whether charged with watering, dusting, or raking, the boys inevitably would whine, slump their shoulders, and feign sudden, fretful bewilderment. “How do I know which plants need water?” “What’s a Swiffer?” “We have a shed?”

Truthfully, my children were not sparing me much labor by pitching in. I cannot count how many times I would stop what I was doing to liberate an area rug being swallowed by a vacuum or to rescue a vase perched a micrometer from a mantel’s edge. Still, I soldiered on, determined to instill in my kids a strong work ethic and a sense of responsibility. Each weekly outburst, though, stoked simmering doubts that my mission was succeeding.

Then one dreamlike Friday the tables turned.

My seven-year-old announced that he would need to finish his science fair project over the weekend. With a toothy smile, he turned from my husband to me and with complete sincerity asked, “Who wants to help me?” I waited for him to appreciate the irony.

Though that night did not afford our family any lessons on paradoxes, it did produce our new favorite tool for a stress-free weekend: The Help Wanted Bulletin Board. Our family has found this device to be most valuable when used in the following way.

How A Household ‘Help Wanted’ Bulletin Board Changed Our Family
Courtesy of Elizabeth Allison

  1. The Help Wanted Bulletin Board is literally a bulletin board that hangs next to our refrigerator, the most visited spot in the house.
  2. Throughout the week, each member of the family takes a piece of paper, jots down a chore they anticipate may require assistance, and pins it to the board. Each person posts two jobs in total.
  3. The activities must be reasonable in scope. Our family defines reasonable as any task that can be performed by any family member in one hour. Jobs have included cleaning out the toy chests, skimming the pool, practicing math facts, and weeding the backyard.
  4. All requests should be posted by Friday night.
  5. Although everyone peruses the job postings throughout the week, no one commits to any until Saturday morning. At that time, each member of the family signs their name onto two posted job requests. I have found that my boys have a greater sense of control and approach their responsibilities more eagerly when they can select their jobs. To that end, the adults choose last so that the kids have more tasks from which to pick.
  6. All jobs must be completed by early Sunday evening. The job solicitor and the job assistant decide together when they will work to complete the assignment.
  7. When a job is done, the posting is crossed out. I am still amused by how triumphant the boys look when they do this, but I also understand that the “x” is tangible proof of their success and a validation of their work.
  8. Finally, right before bedtime on Sunday night, we gather at the bulletin board and review what our family accomplished. Each job solicitor thanks his or her assistant, and it is impressive how much goodwill is fostered before our children retire for the evening.

Ending the weekend on a calm, harmonious note is but one benefit of this approach to chores. Many others have followed. With the Help Wanted Bulletin Board sitting in plain view every day, my sons understand that the weekend will bring housework. This visual reminder allows the boys to prepare mentally for chores. By eliminating any surprises, the board has reduced much of the whining in our house.

Though household duties are still inevitable, they are no longer seemingly arbitrary. The board lets my children consider how they will contribute in the days ahead. They now have developed a sense of ownership by having a say in what they do, and this autonomy has fostered pride in their work.

Each family member appreciates the support they have received while simultaneously feeling good about helping someone else. In this way, there now exists a feeling of our family operating as a team. We enter the weekend knowing that someone has already offered to help us. What’s more, no one person is shunted off to a corner of the house to work alone, as sometimes would happen before we used the board. Instead, each of us enjoys companionship and conversation while we work. More than once my kids have spontaneously offered up stories about what is happening at school while occupied with sweeping or washing dishes beside me. For me, these unprompted talks are the happiest unintended consequence of the way we handle housework now.

My kids now take time to discern which of their own tasks they can do by themselves and which are best suited to a team effort. Subsequently, they have become more transparent about which responsibilities they truly find difficult and which they just do not want to do.

Finally, the Help Wanted Bulletin Board reinforces the notion that sooner or later everyone needs help, even mom and dad. Often children are told at school or at home that asking for help is not a flaw, but an asset exhibited by strong leaders. The Help Wanted Bulletin Board reinforces this sometimes-challenging idea. Each day it literally shows my boys that even the “oldest and wisest” can seek support and even the smallest and youngest can provide it.