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Even If Your Family Vacation Looks Like National Lampoon’s, It’s Worth Taking


The season is waning for an event that some consider an absolute staple of the summer: the family vacation week. The setting could be a Carolina beach or the shores of Lake Michigan or the Colorado mountains, but the content is much the same. Multiple generations of adventurous family members pile into a house together and call it a vacation. It’s a week of making postcard memories, punctuated by a few you hope to forget by Labor Day.

This week is approached, I suspect, with equal parts hope and anxiety. Lots of different personalities will rub shoulders in close quarters. Each person brings a set of expectations, a few old grievances, and always a longing for the bed that will provide a decent night’s sleep. What could go wrong?

Somehow, against all reason, sweet memories do get made. The sound of cousins laughing at old stories told under starry summer skies, fresh fish grilled over an open fire, midnight card games won and lost—a vacation week of gathered family has its own rewards.

By the middle of the week, though, you have also been reminded of the downside. Aunt Susie is still Aunt Susie. Not much has changed there. And while you’re convinced that little Jimmy’s disposition would improve with a couple of time-outs, you are going to keep that insight to yourself. You pretend you did not see those spats between grown adults who, subject to heat and fatigue, morph into eight-year-olds on low blood sugar.

A week together will produce some sparks. In the south, we tend to gather at the beach. So this whole family event thing gets put on a Bunsen burner and heated to about 95 degrees by a broiling summer sun. I’ve always suspected that the whiskey known as Southern Comfort was invented as a way to survive.

All this begs the question of how the family vacation week continues to live on despite the current trend of reserving holidays and vacations for the immediate family only: us-four-and-no-more. No doubt it’s easier to control the variables when it’s just one’s spouse and children. But I think there are some invisible benefits to the family vacation week that outweigh even the lumpiest of beach cottage beds.

Children who have been immersed in gathered family learn to take people as they come. They are far more prepared to discover what we all eventually must learn: There’s an Aunt Susie in every group of gathered humanity. “Being tolerant” is not the goal, learning forbearance is.

A house full of relatives is an early training ground for discovering how to bear with the flaws and foibles of people you love or work with. You can’t take your marbles and go home. You are home, and you have to deal.

Then there’s all that high-level negotiation that takes place in a family vacation week. The child who can persuade Uncle Robert to loan him his new kayak for the afternoon will likely be able to ask for a raise from his employer 20 years later. It might actually be easier to get the raise than the kayak.

But the real takeaway from even a challenging family vacation week is the most valuable. It’s a deep-in-your-gut sense of belonging to a tribe of people who claim you as one of them. You are not just a little atomized self traipsing through life making choices that suit you. You have a responsibility to others, who likewise have a responsibility to you.

There’s a shared history to hold on to, and it could well be that the cousin you found so annoying when you were ten and sleeping in the bunk under his becomes the cousin you call when you’re diagnosed with prostate cancer at 55. Stranger things have happened.

Yes, there can be some challenges when you pile family together for a week. But the benefits far outweigh the difficult moments. After all, there’s comfort in realizing that the kids won’t remember their meltdown at the zoo or three days of rain. The adults? Well, that might take longer.

Think of it this way: You’re going to capture the truly beautiful parts in a Shutterfly book when you get home, after you send in the deposit for next summer.