Monday 22 January 2018

How to survive the Easter holidays - with kids of all ages

The holidays may be daunting and looming large, but with a little thought and planning they can prove the perfect time to involve everyone in some family fun, writes Emily Hourican

Emily Hourican pictured with her three children, Bee [6] , Malachy [13], Davy [9], and Jamie the monkey, in Deerpark, Stillorgan. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Emily Hourican pictured with her three children, Bee [6] , Malachy [13], Davy [9], and Jamie the monkey, in Deerpark, Stillorgan. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Emily Hourican

I have a confession - I have been secretly dreading the Easter holidays. I love my kids, love spending time with them, love time off, and yet… Two whole weeks? I dreaded for many reasons. Obviously all working parents worry about the loss of routine and childcare, but there were other things too, more complicated, metaphysical things, around what we feel we should be doing as parents and as families.

These are to do with the idea of missing opportunities - missing out on 'making memories', making the most of things, spending quality time - and they can feel very burdensome. And Easter, if you ask me, is the worst for this kind of guilty soul-searching. The summer holidays are so long that we can let the whole two months go by on the promise of 'later'. Christmas has its own logic - visits, meals, presents, plus reliably bad weather, which means no huge pressure to plan fun outdoor activities. Half-term is usually too short to do much, long weekends are expressly for the purpose of relaxing and doing nothing at all. But Easter? At Easter, there are no excuses. Easter is pressure.

Days are long, the weather can often be the best we get all year, there are enough all-out days off (Good Friday-Easter Monday) that really, no excuses are possible. And so, I dread Easter.

This year, there is an added complication. For the first time, I am the mother of a teenager, which means that the ages of my three children span six to 13, and so finding things to do together, as a family, is going to have a few added challenges. Although the three get on wonderfully together, there is no point thinking that a trip to the park to feed the ducks is going to make the 13-year-old's spirits soar. Even the nine-year-old might struggle with that. At the other end of the scale, the littlest one is unlikely to be much fun on an afternoon's shopping expedition. Now, this is not insurmountable, but requires some thought, and is causing me that little extra bit of stress.

And so, I dreaded. And then I decided to do things differently. By which I mean, think about things differently. In an effort to switch mindsets, I spoke to psychologists and parenting experts - about what to do, how to approach the holidays and plan for them, and why to bother. These days, we are all supposed to be good at 're-framing' as the psychologists like to call it - meaning taking something that might strike fear or loathing in us, and turning it about in our minds until it catches a different light.

So watch me re-frame the Easter holidays from 'oh-God-what-now…?' into something glorious.

Stella O'Malley, psychotherapist and author of Cotton Wool Kids, reassures me first about the point of even trying: "It may only be two weeks but the Easter holidays are the perfect opportunity to recalibrate the family's lifestyle. By Easter, many of us are stressed and tired out from busy lifestyles. Teenagers are often stressed by the relentless nature of continuously looming exams and younger children are often tired out by their extra-curricular activities. The Easter holiday gives everyone a chance - if they choose to take it - to relax, stretch out and do less."

The idea of doing less, as well as glorious, is an important one it turns out. "Many of us - adults and children alike - try to 'make memories'," O'Malley explains, rather neatly pinpointing one of my fears. "And there can be an element of forced fun if the parents organise too many days out, meaning everyone can be pent up and slightly furious if they're not having 'great fun' at all times.

"It can be more beneficial if the parents challenge the children to each create a day out for the family."

By which she means that each of my three children could be given a small budget, and the choice of what we do on a particular day.

"Suggestions like camping in the garden can work for the younger ones and checking out a skate park or the cinema might be for the older ones," O'Malley says. "The grand plan is for the children to take charge of their entertainment and not assume that it is up to the parents to provide the fun."

Which sounds like an excellent idea. As indeed does the emphasis on 'small' amount of money. Days out cost. Taking a family of five pretty much anywhere - the zoo, the cinema, out for a burger - adds up, certainly if you keep doing it. So, the thing to do is be strategic. Pick a couple of things you really want to do - a day trip to Belfast to see the Titanic museum, Tayto Park, the National Aquatic Centre - plan them in, and then build some cheap/ free fun in around them, such as afternoons in the park, a walk along the pier or seafront.

For clinical psychologist and broadcaster Eddie Murphy the two-week break is a chance to do things very differently. He suggests taking lessons from the children. "Become a child yourself," he says. "Let them lead the play so that it's not always parental-directed. Engage in their fantasies and don't be always feeling you have to impart knowledge." (This is particularly good advice for me. I am hopelessly didactic, and can barely hear my six-year-old say 'look at that sweet little robin', without wanting to tell her all about breeding patterns and behaviour of birds).

Murphy is also keen on play that is not overly structured, and days that are not overly organised. "You need to get them out, get them into the fresh air," he says, "but it's not about filling diaries. Less is more."

This, of course, is an excellent reminder. It's the little things they remember most - you could fly them to EuroDisney for the World's Greatest Day Out, and they will still turn round and tell you that they chiefly enjoyed the ice cream.

In my experience, swimming works for all ages, as do climbing walls, skating rinks (roller or ice), and - more and more - those Crystal Maze-type 'challenge arenas' where you have to work out puzzles and teasers in order to get yourself out. Board games are brilliant - weirdly, because I have long believed that any parents who claim they play board games with their kids rather than watch telly are a) smug and b) liars. But that was before I re-discovered Cluedo and Trivial Pursuit, and recognised the inherent, instinctive competitiveness of young against old. (I would like to point out that we do not do this instead of TV - God, no - this is as-well-as).

Eating always works - and can nearly always be used as a bribe, which means scheduling walks (I'm recommending short and sharp rather than long, which can become tedious) with the bait of a bun or bag of chips afterwards. There is very little I enjoy more than a brisk trot up the Sugarloaf, and I have worked out that this 'costs' me three hot chocolates. Bingo!

But, this won't always work. So, what to do about the teenager who, obviously, rolls his eyes at nearly every word that comes out of my mouth, who sits in the car with his headphones on so he doesn't have to listen to the embarrassing chat of his family, and who would much rather spend the afternoon hanging around outside a shopping centre with his pals than doing stuff with us?

The thing is, I remember that phase very well - we all do. It's probably one of the most intense and difficult moments we go through; torn between loving our parents and being mortified by them, wanting to be with them but also wanting to be a million miles away. Complicated, right?

I remember very clearly being 13 and wanting desperately to be off with my friends, but being dragged along on family days out entirely against my will. The funny thing was, I always ended up having a wonderful time. Because when I got over myself - which was hard and took a good few hours of sulking, maybe even a row or two - I was able to realise that actually, pedalo boats, or sledging, or ice skating, or whatever really, were actually just as much fun as they used to be, and that when I gave up on hating my family for a few hours, I loved them, and loved being with them.

The other thing is that the littler ones miss the eldest, stroppy teen. And, much as they might deny it, I believe the stroppy teen secretly misses the family fun too. My own 13-year-old may not wish to do things with us - but he certainly doesn't wish us to do things without him. Really, what he'd love would be for us to spend all day at home while he's off with his friends. The secret, of course, is balance. Let them go, sometimes.

"It's normal that he wants to break away a bit," says psychologist Eddie Murphy. "Not everything has to happen with the entire family."

Stella O'Malley is even more upfront. "It is sometimes quite hard on the oldest child if they are told they are ruining everyone else's fun just because they feel like going off with their mates. It is no fun being the sour presence on a family day out - and it is no fun trying to parent this sour presence without yelling at them."

It is, she reminds me, "developmentally appropriate for teenagers to move beyond the family's sphere and move instead towards their pals and so it's not really fair for the pressure of 'all the family going out together' being placed on their shoulders. Let them off as much as possible and then perhaps invite them to join in on one or two activities that they would genuinely enjoy".

That said, a warning: "If all the teenager wants to do is to close the curtains and 'game' all day then perhaps think of ways to woo him or her out of the darkened room? Food, movies or a challenging activity such as kayaking can be attractive for a teenager - the big thing is not to expect them to enjoy activities that they have grown out of."

The point about not needing to move constantly as a cohesive family unit, like some kind of military squad whose survival depends one on another, is a good one. Parents forget this - you spend so long when the kids are tiny, stuck taking them all with you every time you need to pop out to buy milk, or even go to the loo, that you forget it is possible to do things differently. But it is.

Divide and conquer, basically. Take the teenager out for coffee. Go to a bookshop with the middle child and let him or her browse without being distracted. Head off to pet or feed something furry with the youngest. And, when you do all head out minus one child, enjoy the opportunity to be a smaller unit, rather than the usual full-strength version. A wise man once said "happiness is X-1, where X equals the normal number of children in a family".

Just last week, I took the eldest to a gig - we went to see Stormzy in the Olympia - where my son was torn between the sheer excitement of his first gig (and a brilliant one at that), and the absolute, toe-curling embarrassment of being out, at night, in public, with his mum. Excitement won, we both had an amazing time, and the funny thing is - it truly felt like a new step in our relationship. A bit of equal-footing, parity, rather than the usual one-way flow of authority (from me to him) and sass (him to me).

Stella O'Malley puts in a timely reminder: "The most important thing about the Easter holidays is that it is much needed time for children to take the foot off the pedal. Organising a rake of holiday camps and days out can be enjoyable - in a slightly frenetic way - for the kids but it would be more beneficial if they spent a couple of lazy days. Nothing major has to be organised - just a change of pace and some time to relax."

And so, I am converted - Easter is going to be amazing. A time to be outside after the long winter, to be together when we are so often apart or parallel - in the same place but engaged in different things - to be free(ish) from the usual timetables and deadlines. To be ourselves.

Treats for the under sixes

  • At this age, it's pretty easy. Playgrounds still work, but they are also getting old enough for 'bigger things' such as proper walks, adventure playgrounds, a trip to the ski slope at Kilternan (from age four), bowling and skating.
  • Any kind of Easter egg hunt is going to be a success, even if it's four tiny eggs in the back garden. Places like Kilruddery, Airfield, Newbridge House and so on - there are many of these great estates around the country - where there are walks, curiosities, animals and a cafe, work brilliantly for this age group.
  • If you're anywhere near Kerry, the country's longest (apparently) rope bridge has just opened at Kells Bay House and Gardens - the Skywalk, spanning 112ft, at a height of 36ft over the Delligeenagh River.

What about 14 and under?

  • Let them phone a friend. Seriously. The best way to reconcile the changing needs of teens is to incorporate the 'enemy'. If they can bring a pal, they are far more likely to enjoy themselves, to get over their FOMO around what 'everyone else' is doing, and far less likely to sulk or row with you.
  • Take them shopping, for coffee, even lunch. They will love you for treating them like a grown up, and you will reap the rewards of better understanding.
  • If you are banning their phones for an hour or so, it's only fair to put your own away too.
  • Challenge them - physically, with any of the activities mentioned for younger ages - but also mentally. Try one of those Crystal Maze style places, or the Science Gallery.

And for ages six up to 10

After years when days out essentially meant operating crowd control, suddenly, you realise that the age of reason has dawned, and you can make more ambitious plans.

  • Now that you can take them places and they won't run away, whinge or strop, this is your chance to explore the many excellent child-culture resources we have in this country: museums, exhibitions, galleries, castles and ancient gaols.
  • But be sure to pitch it right - military and social history work particularly well, and anything interactive.
  • Then there is the more grown-up activity stuff - like zip-lining (minimum age seven), climbing walls (generally not for under-sixes), go-karting (height restrictions apply, typically 54 inches).

Read more: Five ways to make it work

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