If you’ve been following us for awhile, you know the challenge that is our 4-year-old, Huck. If you haven’t, here’s a quick overview: Huck is big on imagination, small on sitting still. He sees everything. He lives to experience. Chaos and misadventure follow Huck — almost as if he was trying to model the most famous Huck of all. He loses his toys. He pinches his hands. He takes risks. He falls off stuff. His guardian angel works big overtime.
If Huck were a vehicle he would have only two settings — on and off. Sometimes the “low fuel” light comes on, so we feed him. Sometimes the “check engine” light comes on, so we make sure he’s not sick. Huck is either going. Or he has collapsed. Case in point:
Huck is someone you spend time with if you want every moment to be filled with movement and wonder. But because he is four, he doesn’t understand his own limitations: like the need to rest. And, like most 4-year-olds, when he gets really tired, more and more “bad” things start happening to him, resulting in a spiral of bad things and, ultimately, the meltdown.
Huck is not someone you take on a vacation. Huck is someone you take on an exhausting adventure.
And, nonetheless, on vacation we went. Over almost 7-year-old Dave’s spring break we took a trip to the central California coast to spend some time with Amy’s 80-year-old grandmother. Thanks to jet-lag, Huck, who typically sleeps until about 6:30 a.m. at home, was up almost every day at about 4:30 a.m., kicking off a marathon of trying to keep the house quiet enough to not wake-up Grandma. We then spent each day doing something marvelous, like exploring the beaches, hiking through redwoods or going to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
Surviving Vacation With a Preschooler in 3 Easy Steps
There are a few ways to survive those kinds of day with a preschooler. Chief among them is “drink tons of coffee.” We did that, too. But coffee isn’t going to ensure that we all have fun during our caffeine buzz. So what are our tips?
1. Have low expectations. My father always told me that my expectations are too high. “Don’t expect anything and you won’t be disappointed,” he said.
I hate that advice. Expectations are what keep life interesting and exciting. The key is making sure the expectations you have are reasonable. If you’re vacationing with a preschooler, your expectations need to be based on what you think they can reasonably handle. You’re dealing with a three or 4-year-old here.
So how can you plan your day around what your kid can handle? Keep in mind that they are absolutely going to be tired to start with, no matter how close to home you are or how far you’ve traveled to get there.
For us that meant planning shorter than normal hikes, structuring our day so that we had some driving/napping time built in, taking it slow, packing snacks, and knowing that the evenings needed to be spent on grandma’s couch watching a cartoon or two, not witnessing sunset on the beach (bummer though, right?)
2. Plan activities everyone can enjoy. My ideal California vacation includes coffee or a run on the beach in the morning, long hikes through redwoods during the day and kicking back over burgers and local microbrews in the evening while watching the sunset.
We could’ve tried to bring our kids along for that ride, but it would’ve been a disaster.
Instead we planned things we knew we would all enjoy. Yes, coffee happened on the beach — but it was while the kids played. Yes, we went on hikes through redwoods, but they were short. Yes, burgers and microbrews went down, but they were at 5 p.m. so the guys could be in bed by 7 p.m.
We also did other stuff not on my list — like wake-up at 0430 and get on the beach by 0645 (to keep the house quiet for Grandma), stop at playgrounds in scenic places and eat cotton candy on the boardwalk. And that was OK. Because it was their adventure, too.
3. Don’t plan a long vacation. Let’s be real: there’s only so much wrangling of your preschooler on “vacation” that you can handle. Me, too. That’s why it’s important to everyone’s survival and enjoyment that you acknowledge your limitations ahead of time and plan a trip that everyone can enjoy because it’s not too long.
How long is too long? I think that depends on how far you’re traveling and your kid. Right now, for us, six days (including travel) was about all we could handle.
Now, for some full disclosure. While we did have a ton of fun on our California vacation, preschooler travel was not all fun and games. And so we bring you: the misadventures of Huck:
May your adventures with preschoolers be wonderful and, frankly, short.