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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.