There is a very fine line between a family vacation with children and hell on earth. Not only is it a lot of work to plan the vacation, but it costs a small fortune and is often not at all relaxing for us moms. Just click on Facebook the week of Spring Break and you will see that kids these days are pretty well-travelled, vacationing in all kinds of exotic locations. It seems that parents are expected to take their kids on an elaborate, out of this world, trip of a lifetime for Spring Break of their senior year of high school.
My kids have had great travel opportunities thanks to amazing grandparents who want to show them the world. But, recently we made a deliberate, conscious decision to expose our kids to a little bit of rugged, hard-core “see the world” family vacations. There would be no hotels with massages and all-inclusive buffets this summer vacation. Instead, we embarked on a five-day trip to the Canadian backcountry on a canoe trip into Quetico Provincial Park. This was hardcore camping; no RV, no campground, no electric sites, no other humans for miles and miles!
The kids planned meals, packed bear canisters, and loaded their sleeping bags, biodegradable toilet paper (and shovel) and some fishing gear into a backpack and off we went. They have all camped before. A lot. They are not strangers to cooking on an open a fire, using a flashlight to walk to the pit toilet, and dealing with a little rain or even snow while out camping.
But these guys had no idea what they were in for!
We dealt with a water filter that clogged the first day, gale force winds that made it nearly impossible to paddle in a straight line, relentless mosquitoes that were the size of a tangerines, gutting and scaling fish, portages miles long (you have to carry all your gear across and then come back and carry your canoe on your head) and fear of bears, moose and whatever disgusting creatures lurk in the depths of those lakes! Scary stuff! Oh and did I mention that while we endured all of these things, the worst of it all, the biggest shock to my kids, the most horrific of conditions…..
But during our family vacation something amazing happened. My kids worked hard. My kids worked all day. My kids worked hard all day, TOGETHER. If they were hungry they had to collect wood, build a fire, cook and clean up. If you are wondering how you motivate a kid to clean up, it’s very simple while back country camping…if you don’t the bears will come and eat you! That’s some motivator. Wish there was a bear or something that came in to eat my kids at home if they left their dishes in the family room in front of the TV for three days!
They also lost their aloof attitude somewhere on that grueling four-hour paddle across the largest lake we have even seen. They stopped caring what everyone else in their social world was doing and what anyone thought of them. Taking them to the middle of nowhere allowed them to be who they are; goofy, spontaneous, silly, loud, carefree. I didn’t even realize how much they had been holding back. They even sang on that long paddle! All three of them sang songs from Pocahontas. It took hours to come up with all of the words and get it somewhat right, but they sang Disney songs! Together!
That does not happen at fancy resorts!!
They caught fish, marveled at nature, and sat still and quiet for long stretches of time. They would ask questions and were clearly thinking more deeply than they ever had. They asked about the things we were doing in that moment, but they also asked about grandparents and what things were like for me growing up. They told me about what they think life will look like for them when they are grown up. Their thoughts and ideas and wonders about the world were nothing short of magical. I am 100% sure we would not have had those conversations if it were not for the sheer amount of nothing time this trip provided. We had nothing to do. A nothing our regular lives never seems to provide. We ate, slept, fished, paddled, hiked and relaxed for days.
There was not a single device, snapchat, message, email or TV show that competed for anyone’s attention. In those five days of grueling physical challenges mixed with hours of nothingness, we completely lost connection with our regular lives and we connected with each other. Really connecting with people is what matters most. That’s the world I want my teenagers to see.
While most of their friends came home tan, relaxed and with cool hair wraps, my teenagers came home filthy, sweaty and covered in mosquito bites.
Joy Hartman is passionate about empowering teens to become strong, confident adults! She works with teens of all ages as a family therapist in Wisconsin and has the unique experience of raising three moody, eye-rolling teenagers of her own. For more fun and support on this crazy roller coaster ride of parenting teenagers, join Joy and hundreds of other parents at: