Spring break is here, which means it’s time for some family fun. A getaway to somewhere warm, or perhaps a ski trip are all possibilities. In any event, it’s vacation time. Family vacations can be pure joy, sweet memories are made and you all go home on speaking terms (that’s a win in my book).

Or they can be absolute agony. Whining and crying, followed by a nonstop refrain of ‘I wanna go home now’. It’s not just the kiddos that engage in this behavior. The grown-ups can be just as unhappy, if not more so. And no amount of chocolate or wine is going to take the edge off.

So, what’s a family to do? In particular, what should parents do to set the scene for a relaxed trip? That sounds like a challenging question, but the solution is less complicated than you might  imagine.

Once you know where you’re going, who you’ll be seeing, and what activities you’ll be participating in, it’s actually quite simple to build the foundation for a relaxing vacation. It’s all about setting expectations. The key to successfully doing that is to engage in a conversation well before you leave for your trip.

You might be wondering what’s the best way to start this dialogue. And yes, I said dialogue, because this isn’t a time to hold court and lay down the law. Your goal is to get buy-in from your entire family, so you need to be inclusive in your conversation. That means everyone gets a voice and can share what’s important to them. The idea is to flesh out a shared vision for what your family adventure will look like.

This can work with everyone, even very young children. They may not be able to articulate any idea other then they just want to have to fun, but they will be aware that they have been part of the process, and you will be building on something you can use for years to come. It’s also possible they will have very clear ideas – like I want Mickey Mouse to have lunch with me, or I want to go swimming every day.

It’s just this sort of information that can help you set clear expectations so there are no dashed hopes later on. Explaining now that Mickey is not available for lunch, but that your child will get to say hi to him and snap a selfie, will help prevent a melt down later. Or agreeing that swimming will definitely happen each afternoon but only after you’ve spent time sight seeing, will give your kids something solid to look forward to.

Part of the discussion should also focus on expectations surrounding financial resources. Make it clear now about what you can and cannot commit to. You don’t have to do a deep dive into numbers, but it’s ever so easy for expenses to get out of hand. Especially when you’re in the middle of something fun and you don’t want to kill the mood. Perhaps you decide that each child gets to choose two mementos to bring home, or maybe this year you’re giving them a set allowance to spend however they want. In any event, talking about this early on will go a long way toward making sure no one is taken by surprise when you have to bring out that two letter word – No.

Essentially, you are getting everyone to buy into a promise to create the best memories possible for the whole family. Your vision can include any details you want. Some families include behavior guidelines and nonnegotiable clauses. Like taking turns on who chooses the restaurants, or predetermining how much time can be spent on electronic devices. Or maybe you allow soda to be consumed, but limit the amount. When everyone feels like they’ve been part of the process and been heard, success is so much more likely. It’s a great idea to actually capture the vision in writing. There’s just something about writing things down that helps make stuff stick. Let someone play secretary, then have everyone sign it. And give everyone a copy to pack.

When you hit a rough spot (and that will happen), refer back to the vision. Remind everyone that you all agreed to certain things. By the way, all this applies to parents too, you’ve got to hold your end up of any agreement. Keep your promises and model the behavior you want.

Will it be all perfect? Not on your life. But, and this a big but, it will be so much more relaxed than if you wing it and just hope all goes smoothly. At the very least, you will have enjoyed some quality family time at the outset, so you’ll have at least one truly positive vacation related memory, right? 😉