Children's memories of their family vacations serve as permanent souvenirs


They skipped the ghost stories and old camp songs around the campfire. Instead, the 8-year-old Girl Scouts told tales about their own families as they sat in the deepening twilight.

"Me next!" they begged for another turn. The stories came tumbling out: the way a brother always hid under the table in restaurants when he was a baby, the soggy camping trip, the hike in the woods and the little sister who always gets carsick. They talked about amusement parks in Texas, visiting cousins in Florida and commiserated about being dragged to "boring" museums.

"Every family has a unique story," says Janine Roberts, who directs the family therapy program at the University of Massachusetts and studies the importance of such stories. "And memories are held by the stories we tell."

New York family therapist Evan Imber-Black explains: "Vacations and holidays are tops for creating memories. The whole aspect of time and space outside of daily life makes it stand out. It's like a movie running in your head."

Such "mental movies" are more important than we might think. Don Wertlieb, a child psychologist and chairman of Tufts University's Child Study Department, explains that memories "provide an internal map for who you are and how you want to live your life."

"The kids might lose the souvenirs," Mr. Wertlieb says. "They'll always have the memories."

This doesn't necessarily mean spending a lot of money or even traveling far from home.

For example, an afternoon away from the usual routines can have a lasting impact on the kids. So can a weekend at the beach.

Chicago professor Barbara Shwom treasures the memories of the once-a-year-fishing date she had with her dad, growing up. "I hated fishing," Ms. Shwom says. "But they were the best times."

"Between work and the kids everything goes by so fast," says Deborah Swiss, a Boston-based consultant on work/family issues. "You want to be able to relish the moment. The best times for kids are when mom and dad are calm and relaxed."

Of course, it's not always the good times that kids remember either. One colleague recalls when her family's car was broken into on vacation. My kids will recount every detail of the speeding ticket we got in Wyoming or the time mom lost her cool at the hotel pool.

Blended families need to maintain old memories while forging new ones in different settings with a new group of people.

"Don't go back to the same place as before," suggests family therapist Roberts, who is herself part of a blended family.

"Get people engaged in the discussion," she says. "What do they think will be fun together? It's important that everyone feels their voices have been heard."

So how can parents create happy memories for their kids? Psychologist Wertlieb suggests being deliberate about it. Take the time to put the pictures in an album, make a scrapbook or read vacation journals aloud after you've gotten home, he proposes.

Pick up regional recipes or foods from where you're visiting and have a meal with them a few weeks after the trip, says Ms. Roberts. Have a "story-go-round" at dinner talking about the trip.

Make a storyboard of the trip photos and ask each family member to contribute a few lines to appropriately caption each picture.

"Kids love to hear their parents' memories of when they went on vacations as kids," Mr. Imber-Black adds.

I figure we can all use some more memory-making strategies, so I'm announcing a "Taking the Kids" contest.

Send me your idea for creating the best family memory -- on vacation, seasonal holidays or at home. A panel will judge the entries, and the winner will receive a copy of my new book, "Taking the Kids to the Great Southwest." (Send your memory idea to Taking the Kids, 2859 Central St., Evanston, Ill. 60201.)

Meanwhile, I'm heading out to buy some photo albums for the pictures from last year's trips -- and the ones before that.

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