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Why You Should Vacation With Your Grandkids

Take them places their parents wouldn't and leave their folks behind

By Martha Winters Gilliland

(Martha Winters Gilliland wrote this piece as part of The OpEd Project, whose mission is to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas we hear in the world.)

In the past 12 years, I have taken one or more of my six grandchildren on 25 trips, mostly adventure trips — river rafting, bicycling, rock climbing, camping, a dinosaur dig — in the U.S. but also internationally.

Today, I am making my list and checkin’ it twice. Santa Claus is coming to town with gifts of grandchildren trips in 2016.

Also, their parents are not allowed on these expeditions.

Sharing What You Know

Today many grandmothers are quite fit, well traveled, retired from highly accomplished careers, financially capable and single. My grandmother shared her knowledge on how to crochet. I am a geologist and engage my grandchildren in discussions about the origin of the volcanoes and canyons on our trips.

I recently asked my granddaughter Chelsea (now 17) what she remembers about our trip to Disney World when she was 4 years old. She said: “You let me have Froot Loops for breakfast and a man brought them to the hotel room as room service.”

My primary memory is Chelsea dressed as Snow White on the plane between Orlando and Boston, reveling in the stewardess calling her by her character's name. I was reminded that I can create magic anytime by shifting my outlook on what is real.

'She Looks Really Old'

Standing on a sandbar along the Green River in Utah wearing shorts, shirts, hats and river sandals, carrying water, sunscreen and ChapStick, Jake, 9, Ethan, 7, cousin Carson, 8, and I are introducing ourselves to the others on the rafting trip. The hot desert sun inside the pink and purple canyon walls invites us to take a dip or try out our water guns. When I indicate I am the boys’ grandmother, Carson says: “I know she looks really old but she is athletic.”

Following three days of camping, maneuvering whitewater and hiking up the mesas, we return to the safety of a hotel room.  Saying our prayers of gratitude, Jake says: “Thank you, Grandmommy. I never would have had the courage without you.”

Hannah,10, shared a memory of our rafting trip with cousin Anika, 8, through Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River: “You helped Anika conquer her fear, jump off the raft and float with us through 'swimmers’ rapids.'"


Advice for the Journey

My experience leads to the following guidelines as you make your list to travel with your grandchildren:

  1. Start planning early. The process of tying down a date for one or more summer trips with different grandchildren is complicated because families lead crazy-busy lives. With my two families, it’s like climbing Mt. Everest to get their attention in the midst of kids' activities and their own work schedules.
  2. On the subject of trust, listen to the parents’ concerns in advance. If they make requests about your behavior, always say yes. My son asked that I don’t use the cell in public because I could lose track of his daughter. No problem. I agreed.
  3. If something unpleasant happens on a trip, tell the parents. The kids will if you don’t and trust will be eroded. Never say to the kids on a trip “don’t tell your parents we did this.”
  4. Do something with the kids that their parents don’t do with them. I take my grandchildren on adventure trips involving camping, kayaking, rafting, hiking and biking. Their parents take them to museums and cultural events. The reverse could be true for you.
  5. Use support systems. I don’t feel comfortable being responsible for both the logistics of a trip and keeping track of the kids in a new city or wilderness area. I often pay for the help of a guide. On an adventure trip, I sign up with an outfitter, and there are many who specialize in family adventures. Support is essential.
  6. Don’t skimp on money and don’t ask your children to pay for any part of the trip. Pick an excursion that is well within your means. I pay for everything or don’t take the trip. I calculate the expected cost, then I add 20 percent.
  7. Write down stories from the trips and take pictures. These become your gift when each reaches 16-years-old.

I started with a trip to Disney World when each grandchild was 4. Outdoor overnight adventures began at 5. I started with a three-day camping and river rafting trip on the Green River in Utah. The outfitter did the camp set-up and the cooking. We played and slept outside under the stars.

Next Up: France

Next year, I plan to take the granddaughters, ages 9 and 11, bicycling in Brittany and Normandy, France. My dream is to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro again with one or more grandchildren.

To be sure, these are gifts to my grandchildren and their parents, but the value to me exceeds the value to them. The kids gain life experience, confidence in themselves, relationships with their cousins and expanded perspectives on life’s possibilities. The adventures motivate me to stay fit, offer me a place to share my knowledge, and provide a place to give and receive love.

Martha Winters Gilliland Martha Winters Gilliland, Ph.D., is a Tucson public voices fellow with The OpEd Project. She is a former professor of  geology and environmental engineering, and retired chancellor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Read More
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