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Vacation in your own home Hanging out: Away from school and work, parents and children can take the time to enjoy one another's company.

We've got a holiday break planned that's guaranteed to be stress-free as well as cheap. It won't even involve much planning.

That's because, for the first time in years, we're staying home over the school break. And I can't wait.

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After a grueling autumn that included a cross-country move, there's something to be said for a few days off with the kids: sleeping late, sitting around the fire playing Scrabble, watching videos and eating vast quantities of easy-to-prepare chili and spaghetti and anything else that doesn't require too much effort on anyone's part or too big a financial investment.

If it snows, we'll make a snowman. We'll look at Christmas lights in the neighborhood. We'll go to the movies. We'll decorate a gingerbread house. The kids will perform their own version of "The Nutcracker." I may even take one friend's advice and initiate a "pajama day" where we spend the entire day at home together, with the phone turned off. Whether we do it in PJs or jeans, we'll do a lot of nothing, which we rarely have time for, together, as a family

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"Hanging out is especially important for kids as they get older, and there's so little time for that," notes Susan Ginsberg, an educational consultant and editor of the Work & Family Life Newsletter. Ms. Ginsberg adds that it's during such "hanging out" times that older kids offer parents the all-too-rare glimpse into what they're thinking and feeling. I'm hoping for just some of those times around our frenetic household this holiday season.

Different strokes

That's not to say I expect a week when the kids don't fight. And that's not to say we haven't had wonderful holiday vacations other years. We have, complete with memories we'll always treasure. I'm confident all of you who are heading off to the ski slopes, beach resorts or relatives will have a stellar time, too. We'll probably be joining you again next year.

However, there's a lot to be said for staying home, especially the one week a year when almost everyone gets a little extra vacation time.

Maybe you couldn't afford a holiday trip. Maybe you didn't make reservations soon enough. Maybe you're not talking to the in-laws this month and haven't been invited to the holiday gathering. Maybe the stepchildren are coming, and no one could agree on where to go.

Whatever the reason, remember that staying home and family vacation aren't mutually exclusive. There's no better season, in fact, to try a short, at-home vacation.

"I'm impressed with how much the city has to offer. I'm enjoying choosing what shows to go to that we haven't had time to see all year," says Don Wertlieb, chairman of the Child Studies Department at Tufts University. For the first time in awhile, he is planning a holiday week at home in suburban Boston with his wife and three children.

"There's no sports practices, no piano lessons. It's a time to celebrate family," agrees UCLA child psychologist Jill Waterman, who reveled in a quiet family Thanksgiving weekend with her two sons. "It's nice to develop new at-home traditions." She and her sons, for example, always buy a new jigsaw puzzle they start to put together. They spend a lot of time in record stores.

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Jewish families Ms. Waterman knows in Los Angeles traditionally head to Disneyland on Christmas Day to enjoy the park without the crowds.

New Jersey to New York

Across the country, Barbara and Jon Green plan a day in New York City over the holidays with their three kids, complete with a Broadway play and a stroll down Fifth Avenue to see all of the store windows.

"The kids would be just as happy to get on a plane and go someplace, but with a family of five, you can't do that all of the time," explains Barbara Green, who lives in New Jersey and manages her husband's medical office. "For me, it's nice to be able to hang low. We all need the down time."

Chicago pediatrician Diane Holmes couldn't agree more. Though she and her husband always schedule some vacation time around the holidays, they stick pretty close to home, having a caroling party and going downtown to see the big Christmas tree at Marshall Field's. "It's a lot of fun to focus on your own backyard," says Dr. Holmes, the mother of two sons and a daughter.

There's no better time to visit a museum you haven't been to before, for example, since many institutions around the country have holiday displays geared to families.

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Take the kids out to an ethnic restaurant for dinner or splurge on a fancy tea at a nearby hotel. The kids will love the gingerbread houses on display and the choice of cookies and cakes. Make it an annual tradition to see one of the local performances of a holiday production of "The Nutcracker" or "A Christmas Carol." Even better, with older children make it a holiday tradition to spend an evening helping out at a shelter.

Sure it can be tough to stay home, if you're used to spending the holidays with your family. But many young families decide to do that once they've got children, opting to create holiday traditions in their own homes.

"You can't help but miss all of the old traditions," says Dr. Holmes. Her advice: Keep your expectations reasonable and focus on enjoying the little things together.

Remember those little things make for the best holiday memories. And we want to nurture those as much as we can -- to provide stability and roots, to help the kids to grow up knowing who they are and where they belong.

Happy holidays.


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