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How to survive a holiday with friends and their children

The Times
Temper tantrums and picky eaters don't make for happy campers


A holiday with friends - what's not to like? Adults sip wine in the sun, watching on as the children romp together. Toddler tantrums are diluted and there are extra hands to hold the baby. Chores and costs are shared, grown-up company is laid on and the babysitting is on tap.

Well, sometimes. Go away with good friends (and their children) at your peril; there's so much that could go wrong. “Never again” is the clarion call of some who have experienced another family at close quarters. For within the four walls of a holiday house there's nowhere to hide. Those cheeky but endearing children become proverbial pains in the neck. Your friend goes from soulmate to kitchen tyrant. Laid-back dad becomes lazy slob. Or try as you might, you can't disguise your own children's brattish behaviour/faddish eating/slothfulness as a temporary blip when it lasts the whole week.

“Holidays tend to be more stressful than people ever expect,” says Linda Blair, the clinical psychologist and author of Straight Talking. (Little, Brown, £10.99). “In your home environment you're relaxed and can accommodate other people. Somewhere new you concentrate on meeting your own needs and you're much more sensitive to people getting in the way. There are so many potential explosions.” Summer holidays, often the highlight of the year, have much to live up to. Our own expectations, not to mention those of the children, run high.

We'd do well to manage them, advises Blair. “We have an unrealistic idea of how wonderful it's going to be. We let ourselves down by expecting too much. Just tell yourself you'll wait and see how it will be - that's still positive but more realistic.”

Choose your companions with care

Experienced co-holidayers say the most important thing is to choose your companions with care. Early and late risers should never go away together. It's easier if your budgets match and, most importantly, your parenting styles must be similar.

I know because I've been there. Our children are still reeling from last summer's holiday with old friends and their matching children (four each, all under 8) in one house. These children went to bed when told, got dressed when told, hiked for miles without a whimper, didn't snack, ate everything put in front of them, displayed impeccable table manners, watched no television, and were - truly - heard to ask “Mum, can I have a list of jobs?” They were all fully functioning, utterly likeable children.

Eyebrows were raised when our children didn't toe the line. In desperation I found myself cooking weirder and weirder dishes to catch them out. “Lentils with sardines - yum.” Despite being coached heavily not to mention telly, let alone a games console, our children still let slip our slovenly habits and sloppy parenting; “but we never wash our hands before tea”. I even took to dosing my four-year-old publicly with Calpol so that I could blame his bad behaviour on a virus. Relaxing this wasn't. We finished the week suffering a mild crisis of parenting, and our children confused by their abrupt change in lifestyle.

What we should have done, according to Blair, is to have written down the rules with the other couple beforehand. This can avoid the uncomfortable situation in which other parents chastise your children, or you itch to give a warring toddler a piece of your mind. “Sit down and decide your boundaries. If you can't do that, you shouldn't go on holiday together,” she says. “You could allocate one parent to be in charge for the day; all agree to follow their rules for that time. One of you will have a tough time, but the others get a chance to relax. If you don't sort things out there will be confrontations and explosions.”

Our other mistake, according to many, was to go away with close friends as there is too much at stake if you fall out. The best holiday companions are those families you know you like but don't know well enough to drop your guard or manners.

Mums.net, the parenting website, advises: “Far better to go away with more casual friends because then everyone is too polite to say anything about your parenting skills, even when they've sunk a bottle, and you can also disappear for the day without offending anyone.” Blair agrees that you are more likely to remain courteous and polite to people you know less well. “Your best friends may not necessarily be your best parent friends,” she says.

Often the best holiday friends are those you meet once you get away. Consider the experience of Sophie (not her real name), a teacher from Brighton and mother of three boys aged 9, 7 and 5. She and her husband met a family on holiday, kept in touch, went away together and are planning more holidays together. “They are really relaxed, can spend all morning getting up - like us - and there's no three-line whip out on doing things together. My son's a really fussy eater and they are completely cool with that. We go for ages without seeing them but have such a laugh when we do. I can't think of any friends who live near by who we'd want to go away with.”

If setting rules in advance sounds too much of a chore, you can still build an accurate picture beforehand of how your companions work as a family, says Dr Rachel Andrew, a clinical psychologist from Lancashire. “You don't have to ask directly...watch how situations play out at home,” she says. “Are they strict about mealtimes and bedtimes? You can get a lot of information just by watching.”

It makes sense to buy as much room and independence on holiday as you can afford. Most families manage to co-holiday harmoniously if they can retire to the confines of their own space when the going gets tough so, rather than share, try to get tents, mobile homes or villas that are next to each other.

Toddlers and babies, who communicate with whacks and hits, don't always holiday well together and their naps rarely coincide. “Over-fives are more flexible and they love the playmates,” says one mum.

If in doubt, wait until the children are older, advises Nina Grunfeld, an author and mother of four. “It does get easier. By about the time your children are 9 you can move from being just a parent back to a grown-up again. And then you will enjoy the company of other grown-ups. Failing that, holiday with different aged children; teens love looking after babies, for instance. But trust your gut feeling; if you're in any doubt, don't do it.”

“I felt caught in the middle”

Jodie, 36, a working mum from Buckinghamshire, remembers a rainy holiday with her husband, two close friends and their children.

“Between us we had four children under 6 who were all stuck indoors for much of the week. It was awful. Our family values were just very different. My kids understood boundaries - theirs didn't. We suggested eating out with the kids, and they looked at us in horror. Then we understood why. Their kids screamed if they didn't get their way and ended up throwing food; there were chips landing everywhere in this smart French restaurant.

“The parents turned a blind eye to most things, especially if their kids started beating up ours. One morning, my husband snapped. He came into the room to find our daughter held on the floor in a stranglehold while the other dad was reading the paper. He shouted: ‘For Christ's sake, do something about your kids; they're out of control.'

“I tried to make a joke about it later, but I felt caught in the middle, trying to be the diplomat. We managed by subtly going our separate ways for the rest of the holiday. Every now and then I think it would be nice to go on holiday with friends again.

“It's a bit like the pain of childbirth; you forget how just how awful it was.”

Happy holidays: How to keep the peace

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