Earlier this summer my husband and I took our first big vacation as a family of four. We rented a house on Cape Cod with some dear friends, loaded up our minivan with beach snacks, and hit the road.
It was a wonderful time. Their good-natured children are a bit older than mine, and are patient with my rambunctious three-year-old and sweet with my baby. It was lovely to see them play together. And it was even nicer to drink cocktails after they all went to bed.
But a couple days into the week, adult spirits began to flag. Children, however delightful they are, are exhausting. Especially on vacation. When you’ve shelled out a fair amount of cash to give your children a wonderful experience, and their response is to act like you’re torturing them with fried clams and sunscreen, well, it’s easy to get very tense, very quickly. I winced every time my son whined or pulled a full-on tantrum. I found myself rolling my eyes when the older boys complained of being bored. Irritation set in.
Then, after a few post-bedtime spritzers and some commiserating, we adults stumbled upon a strategy that changed the entire dynamic. We started a daily competition to crown one child the worst behaved of the day. There were only two rules: The children themselves were not in on it, and the behavior had to be organic. We did not stop trying to get them to behave well—rules and consequences remained intact—and we certainly didn’t encourage bad behavior for the sake of the game.
The results were immediate and transformative. The next morning, as one child took what seemed like an hour to apply sunscreen to his arms and legs, all the while complaining, his dad looked and me and said triumphantly, “We’ve got an early leader!”
When my son kicked the other mom as she helped me pry him from the beach, instead of being mortified, I was able to joke that he was making a power move in the competition. That night, he pulled an absolutely stunning bedtime freakout over the location of his favorite bottle. He had every person in the house searching high and low for it as he screamed. And he won the day for our team!
This game tweaked a few important dynamics. It put all the parents on the same page. Sharing a private joke the children were not in on helped remind us that the week was about us, too. The differences in our children and our parenting styles receded in importance, and discussing the day’s “points” actually led to some productive conversations about age-appropriate behavior and sibling relationships.
Most of all though, it encouraged emotional generosity—to each other and also to ourselves. I stopped being embarrassed and worrying about how my kid’s whining was making everyone else feel. There’s terrible pressure for perfection in parenting, and the game deflated all that by assuming that the children would inevitably behave terribly in some way or another at some point each day—not because they’re inherently bad, and not because we were failing as parents, but because they are children, not adults.
On the way home I took a video of my son screaming as we drove away from a McDonald’s with a playground and sent it to our friends with the caption, “Continuing commitment to excellence.” To which they replied, “Bonus round!”