'Tweens can be trying on so many levels, but in regard to travel, your child may be at the age where he or she is thoroughly embarrassed by mom and dad. Something as benign as ordering your second dessert at a hotel restaurant may be cause for major eyeball rolling from your 10-year-old. And forget about taking poolside merengue lessons in your 'tween's presence! Also, 10- to 12-year-olds crave independence, but you may not be fully comfortable letting them out of your sight for too long, if at all, in an unfamiliar destination.
The good news is a family vacation can be a great time to make memories with your 'tween, whose busy school and extracurricular life may not afford much time for you to "hang out" together when at home. Here are a few tips for making the most of your next family trip with your middle school-aged child:
Before You Go
Reserve roomy accommodations. "It may be tempting to book a standard hotel room to save money, but it is much more comfortable for the whole family if you rent a suite in a hotel, or stay at a resort with one- or two-bedroom units," says Debbie Ferm, a Minnesota mom of three. "Everyone rests better, and you don't have to watch iCarly 15 times in a row."
Invite a friend. Even when your children are close in age, sometimes they are interested in different activities. Your 10-year-old may want to hang by the pool all day while your 12-year-old wants to check out the tween-scene program. By allowing your children to bring a friend, you will be sure that they will both get to do what they want. Plus, at this age, you can let your child and their friend go to the game room by themselves while you relax at the spa for an hour. See our article on bringing a friend on vacation here.
Consider a cruise. A cruise ship is contained, so 'tweens can't run into too much trouble if they explore the boat on their own -- and trust me, the cruise staff will let you know if your child is up to shenanigans on the Lido Deck when you're not around. Plus, on many major cruise lines, such as Norwegian, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and even Disney, there are public spaces or programs just for their age group.
Stay at an all-inclusive resort. Like a cruise, the entertainment at a Mexican or Caribbean all-inclusive resort is onsite. With events like poolside bingo, dart tournaments and beach volleyball, the resort's activity staff can keep your 'tweens entertained nearly from morning 'til night. While your child may say he's "too old" for the kids' club (even if they allow children up to age 12) and the "teen disco" may be limited to ages 13 and up, it's likely there's a game room or other spot at the resort where 10- to 12-year-olds congregate.
Pack a soft-sided cooler. Whether you're road tripping or flying to your destination, consider bringing along a collapsible cooler for storing drinks and snacks for your day's adventures. Kids this age do not like to sit through three restaurant meals a day, but they're growing and seem to always be hungry! "When heading from one destination to the next, just throw sandwiches, cold fruit and veggies in the cooler, and let them eat on the road when they're hungry," Ferm says. "It's not glamorous, but they're eating decent food and will be ready to go when you get there."
Alert school teachers ahead of time. The day before you leave for a cousin's wedding in Europe is not the time to be telling your kid's sixth-grade teachers you're pulling him out of school for the rest of the month. "Give teachers a couple weeks' notice, in person, if you can," suggests Bergen. "Too early and they'll forget and likely not have lesson plans done yet. Too late and they might get irritated at the interruption without warning. Ask what you can do to help your child make up the work -- would they prefer they get it in advance or make it up when they get home?"
In the Air
Limit electronics. For little kids, you might need to curtail use of the Nintendo DS, but for 'tweens, it's typically texting that you'll likely have to put a stop to on a long car ride. Just because you're on vacation doesn't mean you have to allow a free-for-all with the smart phones, laptops and iPods. You can declare an electronics-free hour (or two or three) in the car, on the flight or in the hotel room. If you don't allow electronics at the dinner table or out at restaurants then that rule should apply on vacation, too.
Let your 'tweens plan a few vacation activities. Use your time in the air or in the car to plan what activities or sites your children want to do and see while on vacation. Children like to have input when planning and they'll be even more excited about the dolphin encounter if it was their idea. Tweens like to have a sense of responsibility. Plus, those five hours on a plane will go a lot faster when you have something exciting to plan!
On the Ground
Engage them with music and theatre. They might resist, but consider introducing your children to some sort of cultural experience at least once on your vacation, since 'tweens are old enough to sit through performances (unlike a preschooler who will likely wail his way through the ballet). "My kids loved a Vivaldi concert, done in 17th century costume, in Venice, as well as the musical Wicked in London after high tea," recalls Lisa Bergren, Colorado mom and co-creator/editor of The World is Calling. "Culture on location is the coolest!"
Be present. That is, join your children in an activity -- even if all you really want to do is relax in a chaise lounge and read a book. "For the most part, my kids don't want to hang out with mom and dad anymore, they'd rather do their own thing," says Ferm. "But when we do hang out together, I have to remind myself not to just be a spectator, but get involved." Instead of reading, get in the pool and play Marco Polo, suggests Ferm. "Ride Space Mountain instead of holding the coats." (That's how memories are made!)
Let your 'tweens help document the trip. "This is a great age to give kids a decent digital camera with extra memory and let them have at it on location," says Bergren. "Encourage them to capture unique angles and subjects, zoom in on specifics, and expect them to copy you for a while. Then expect to be amazed when your daughter gets better shots than you -- not that that's ever happened to me!"
More from Family Vacation Critic:
Traveling with Tweens & Teens Forum
This article has been updated as of December 27, 2013.