Building in Some Unstructured Time

Before the Wertliebs left for the quiet beach vacation they had planned on Martha’s Vineyard, the computer issue had to be resolved once and for all.

“It was a big decision whether or not to take my laptop,” confessed Don Wertlieb, a Boston child psychologist and chairman of the Tufts University child studies department. To his wife’s consternation, Wertlieb decided he needed it.

“I look forward to no faxes, but I get some anxiety about being out of touch,” he explained. “For folks used to very structured lives, suddenly shifting gears to a lot of unstructured time can be very stressful.”

That goes for kids, too. In fact, for kids used to having every minute scheduled by school and camp, swim practice and piano lessons, play dates, tutoring and Scouts, the prospect of several days without 50 cable channels can be as daunting as it is for parents who can’t go an hour without checking their voice mail.


“You have a panic attack about what you’re going to do with the kids,” joked Jill Hand, a working mother of three from Denver who is a big fan of let’s-not-plan-much-of-anything trips. She remembers her displeasure at being dragged from museum to museum when she was a child.

“This way, you have to make a conscious effort to slow down,” Hand said. “It takes a couple of days before the kids can get into it and figure out what to do.”

“Their skills for using their free time are primitive,” said Wertlieb, himself the father of three. “They just don’t know how to do it.”

Younger children may have an even harder time because familiar routines are so important to their equilibrium.


Even worse, some families not used to spending much time together might find the long-anticipated stay at a cabin in the woods or a cottage on a quiet beach isn’t nearly as relaxing as they expected. “It can become very tense,” Wertlieb said.

“Small children don’t enjoy relaxing. They want to be up and doing,” said Chicago child psychologist Victoria Lavigne. “If you think you’re going to spend a week reading under a beach umbrella, it’s not going to happen. The best of all possible worlds is to have a sitter.”

With young children, she suggests, it helps to plan activities for them--a specific time at the pool, a walk in the woods--and adhere as much as possible to their regular meal, nap and bedtime schedules.

Remember, too, that as much as parents and kids might want to spend time together, they won’t want to spend every minute with the entire family. Grab the opportunity for some one-on-one time with each other, as well as with the kids. Go fishing with one child while the others play on the beach under your spouse’s watchful eye. Head off on an adult hike while they play in the cabin next door and then offer to reciprocate for those parents.


Use the evenings to try some things there never seems time for at home: Monopoly games, a jigsaw puzzle, reading spooky stories aloud.

Jill Hand, meanwhile, has taken the family vacation-without-much-planning idea to new lengths. “We’re just going to get in the car and go,” she said.