How to travel with the kids (and live to tell about it)

We used to live in Orlando, and when you live in Orlando, you spend a lot of time at the parks. People think Disney and Universal and SeaWorld are surely the happiest places on earth, and they can be, but they can also be miserable.

I’ve seen a lot of families shuffle out of the parks at closing time, sunburned and exhausted and barely speaking to one another. One time, at the Magic Kingdom, I heard a mom snap at her whiney little girl, “You will have fun!”

So, here’s what I’ve learned about family vacations from all those unhappy people and from being a dad:

Kids don’t care.

Kids don’t care how much you’re spending on vacation or whether you think you’re getting your money’s worth out of the trip, so don’t try to hit 7 parks in 7 days. You’ll regret it.

Kids don’t care about taking the scenic route or touring old homes. They don’t want to sit and wait while baby brother rides the carousel or big sister rides the coaster, and no matter how much you plead or scold, they’re not going to wait patiently while you shop for shoes at the outlet mall

So, don’t expect them to.

Our family vacations got a lot better when we started looping in the kids and talking to them about where we’re going and what they’d like to see once we get there.

We don’t try to see and do everything, because we can’t.

We try to figure out early on what we want to see most of all, then we see as many other things as time and money will allow.

We also stopped kidding ourselves that our kids want to spend as much time with us or each other as we want to spend with them, so we’ll split up. I’ll go off with Thing 1 while my wife takes Thing 2, and we’ll meet up for supper.

And we stopped using the hotel as a place just to stow our stuff and sleep.

I saw a survey a few years ago that said kids enjoy the hotel pool almost as much as they do the theme parks, and I believe it.

Whenever we tell the kids we’re going on a trip, the first thing they ask is whether there’s a pool. Pools with slides and lazy rivers are good, but so are indoor pools, in case it’s crazy hot or raining. Once we’re at the hotel, they can’t wait to jump in, and once they’re in the pool, it’s hard to get them out.

So, we let them swim.

We still make the kids go places and do things they don’t want to do, but we try to remember that we’re dealing with children — they’re 12 and 6 now — and children, no matter how great they are, are going to act like children.

If they’ve had a little fun, if they’re happy, they’ll be more likely to hang in there when we stop at the outlet mall or take the scenic route or do the boring things we like doing on vacation.

That’s the strategy, anyway. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Weekend project: Kitchen chalkboard

We needed a chalkboard in the kitchen, one that wouldn’t look awful, but I’m cheap and didn’t want to pay $99-$149 for a chalkboard from Pottery Barn, so I made one.

I guess I should tell you what it cost, but I have no idea.

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We already had a picture frame we weren’t using, and I had some quarter-inch plywood and a can of chalkboard paint that I’d bought for other projects.

The only hardware I had to buy were 4 small mending plates for holding the chalkboard inside the frame ($3 for a pack of 4) and a French cleat for hanging it ($15).

I trimmed the quarter-inch plywood to fit inside the frame than painted it with the chalkboard paint. I gave it a couple coats. Once the paint had dried overnight, I used the mending plates to hold the chalkboard inside the frame.

I used small screws; too long, and they’ll poke through the front of the frame, and there’s no good way to fix it. Don’t screw the mending plate into the chalkboard. The chalkboard isn’t thick enough. Plus, you don’t need to. It isn’t going anywhere.

Mending plates hold the chalkboard in the picture frame; a French cleat holds the frame to the wall.

Finally, I mounted it with a French cleat. The frame had hooks, and I tried hanging it with picture wire, , but it wasn’t stable enough, so I unscrewed the hooks and installed the cleat.

It comes in 2 parts. One is screwed into the wall (use a level to keep it straight) while the other is screwed onto the back of the frame.

The only trick was making sure the screws weren’t long enough to poke through the front of the frame.

It took probably an hour to make. I’m guessing it would have cost about $50, if I hadn’t used materials I already had cluttering up the garage.

I think it turned out OK. It kind of goes with the rest of the kitchen, and it doesn’t wobble when you write on it, and that’s about the best you can hope for when you’re making up a project as you’re going along.

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Quiz: Should you have kids?

baby bentrup
Image by paparutzi via Flickr

I was talking to a friend the other day who’s thinking of having kids.

She said she didn’t think she wanted kids, but she’s almost 40, and she loves babysitting her nieces, and, well, she’s thinking maybe she wants kids after all.

I told her what it’s like, being a parent, and, I feel bad about this, but I think I might have talked her out of having kids. I didn’t mean to. I just asked her some questions, like these. Select all answers that apply, then add up the points.

Do you like sleep?

  • Absolutely, at least 8 straight hours a night. (-5 points)
  • No, I actually kind of like watching reruns of “Family Ties” at 3 a.m. on a weeknight. (+5 points)

On weekends, you like to (select all that apply):

  • Sleep in. (-20 points)
  • Grab a cup of coffee and read the paper. (-10 points)
  • Work in the yard/garden. (-5 points)
  • Make dinner based on whatever looked good at the Farmer’s Market. (-30 points)
  • Run errands. (0 points.)
  • Do a week’s worth of dishes. (+10 points)
  • Get a kid in his soccer uniform for team pictures at 8:30, grab a muffin, be back at the soccer fields for a game at 10, drive 45 minutes to the older kid’s softball game at 1, swing by Target after the game for a birthday present for a classmate’s birthday, run home so the older kid can change, take her to the classmate’s birthday party, do your weekly grocery shopping, pick up the older kid, grill hot dogs for supper, work in the yard, fall asleep by 9:30. (+15 points)

Your dream vacation is:

  • A two-week backpacking adventure in someplace like Vietnam. (-50 points)
  • A week in a big city, shopping and soaking up culture. (-15 points)
  • A week at Disney World. (0 points)
  • Visiting your parents or in-laws. (+5 points)
  • Visiting any relative willing to provide free babysitting. (+10 points)

When you eat out, you like:

  • Something good, like Ethiopian food. (-50 points)
  • Sushi. (-20 points)
  • Anyplace with big-screen TVs and ESPN. (-5 points)
  • McDonald’s.  (0 points)
  • Someplace that lets you draw on the menus. (+5 points)
True or false: The parents are in charge, so they get to decide where the family eats.
  • True. (-2o points)
  • True, technically, but if they’re smart, they’ll pick something the kids would like. (+5 points)

How many times a day could you listen to this song?

  • Make it stop. (-20 points)
  • It’s OK for kids to use headphones, right? (-10 points)
  • Meh. (0 points)
  • You know, that’s not a bad song. (+5 points)
  • I actually kind of like it. (+10 points)
  • “Go, captain, go  … go, captain, go … go, Captain Feathersword, ahoy!” (+20 points)

Answer key

  • 20 points or more: You’re as ready as you’ll ever be.
  • 0 to 19 points: Get a cat first, see how that works out.
  • 0 points or less: You should not have kids.