'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 many not afford much time for you to just "hang out" together much when you're at home. Here are a few tips for making the most of your next family trip with your middle school-aged child:
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 children, ages 14, 13 and 11, and owner of Travel Dither. "Everyone rests better, and you don't have to watch iCarly 15 times in a row."
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.
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 just might 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, a Colorado mom who blogs about her family's travels at The World is Calling. "Culture on location is the coolest!"
Be present. That is, join your children in an activity -- even if you 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. But when we do hang out together, I have to remind myself not to just be a spectator, but get involved," says Ferm. "Instead of reading, get in the pool and play Marco Polo. Ride Space Mountain instead of holding the coats." That's how memories are made!
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, it 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 or in the hotel room. In our house, we don't allow electronics at the dinner table or out at restaurants, and that rule applies when we're on vacation, too.
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."
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!"
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?"
Visit our Traveling with Tweens & Teens Forum for more discussions and advice.