The holiday as trial by teenager

Planning a family holiday with today's sophisticated teenagers requires skilful diplomacy.
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The Independent Culture
"BUT THERE'S nothing to do there. Why do I have to go? I'm not coming." After months of hearing this refrain from my 14-year-old son, I've given in. He doesn't have to come to France for a week with his parents and younger brother, but can stay at a friend's house in London instead (far more convenient for honing his skateboarding skills). Part of me feels this signals a premature beginning of the end of family life; another part feels that if he's going to miserable, we all will be.

It's a familiar sign of family life in the Nineties. We listen to our children far more than previous generations ever did, and so everything, including arranging the family holiday, is vastly complicated. Suzie Hayman, agony aunt for Woman's Own and author of You Just don't Listen: A Parent's Guide to Talking to Teenagers (new from Vermilion) believes in negotiation.

"You're entitled to lay down ground rules," she says, "but then ask them what they think is right." You may be tempted to insist the family stays together, but "carrying an unhappy teenager under duress on holiday is like having a parcel full of rotten fish - not ignored easily, and difficult to transform into pleasant company".

Invite their ideas on where, what and for how long, advises Ms Hayman. It might be easier to have two short holidays rather than one long one. Let them have a say, empower them, avoid the endless call of: "But we always do what you want ... "

Of course, this presupposes that your teenager will allow the discussion to move on. One friend managed it - just. After months of acrimonious talks punctuated by such remarks as "I don't want to come anywhere with you; not if my little sister's going to be there", it was established that everyone wanted a sea-based holiday, so after about three meetings, she says, "I unilaterally organised Club Med. What we'd like is to flop around and eat well in somewhere like Tuscany, but the kids would hate that."

Part of the problem is that parents often have a firm, probably unrealistic image of an ideal holiday, while teenagers, although quite positive of what they don't want, in fact don't have the experience to know what something new would be like. And they often lack organisational skills.

"If she can arrange something else that's not too expensive, where there's supervision that I approve of, then she doesn't have to come," says a friend with a 16-year-old daughter, "but this hasn't happened yet. So last year she came to Austria with us, which was a complete nightmare. She stayed in bed sulking most of the time. And she didn't organise for a friend to come as well: she'd left it too late and anyway, she said, the house in Austria was too boring to invite anyone to. Later I found out, to my fury, that my husband had bribed her to come because she'd told him that if we'd let her stay in London she'd have been able to work and earn money."

But there may be more to teenagers' protests about not wanting to come on holiday than meets the eye. Gabrielle Rifkind, a group psychotherapist and mother of a teenager, believes that teens often want to be persuaded to come just so that they can sulk and protest.

"They're saying: `I'm different from you and I need to make these statements. I want to be under your wing and I'm not going to let you know.'" And although they can't admit it, there is relief to be found in escaping peer pressure.

Jeannie Milligan, a psychotherapist at the adolescent department of the Tavistock Clinic in North London, agrees. "Taking a teenager's statement at face value is very questionable. They need to fight about it."

"The ideal model is to meet as many people's needs as possible," says Doro Marden of Parent Network. This includes the parents' desires: "Martyrdom is the eighth deadly sin." But if your teenager has a passion, be thankful and work around it. Ms Marden has a 13-year-old daughter who's mad keen on horses, so for the third year running she's going riding with a friend for a week. Then, later in the summer, the whole family, which includes two older teenagers, is going to the Edinburgh festival. There was unanimous approval for this plan.

"They're so sophisticated nowadays," says Ms Marden. "If somewhere is special or expensive enough, they'll come. If I offered them all a skiing holiday, I don't suppose there'd be any non-takers." Cynical but true: California is cool, France is not. A friend's daughter, now at university, can hardly stand her parents even for a weekend, but when they mentioned that Colorado was on the agenda, she made interested noises.

All teenagers really want is to be with other young people, says Ms Rifkind, so often the ideal solution is to find a place where they can form a gang and have the freedom to roam around. "Our most successful holiday ever," says Anne, whose daughter was 13 at the time, "was when we rented a house in France with other cottages around it. There was a riding stables and a swimming pool and table tennis; the parents could get together in the evening and the kids were really happy."

For 10 years, Mike Freeman has turned this ideal scenario into a way of life. Every summer, for 10 days at the beginning of August, Campus - he calls it a civilised Glastonbury - is created in the grounds of a small stately home in East Devon, and teenagers come, mainly (unbelievably) with their parents. It started out as a theatre and music festival with childcare. "As we grew, we evolved a teenage population." His own sons grew with it; they're now 17 and 10. "It's a way of being semi-detached," says one parent, whose children camped while the parents stayed nearby at a guest house.

For teens at Campus, "There's lots of hanging out, sleeping till lunch and staying up all night waiting for dawn," says Diana Wackerbarth, who has taken her three children, now aged 16, 13 and 10, to campus for eight years in a row. "It's freedom within a safe environment. I expect drugs are present but I've never witnessed anything out of order."

As children get older, you do see less of them: another reason why family holidays can be tense, unnatural affairs. You're at work all day, they're at school, and then suddenly you're all in fearfully close proximity for days on end.

Doro Marden looks back at one of her daughter's holiday history: "At 15 we left her alone in the house with a friend; at 16 she went camping with friends in England. At 17 she Interrailed with a couple of friends for six weeks."

But I'm racked with guilt about my son. Have we failed to listen to the subtext of his protests? Did he really want us to make him come? I give him a chance to change his mind and the answer is still brutally clear.

Still, next year I'll try harder and round-table discussions will be the order of the day. Just as long as we don't all end up in a skate park.