Are we there yet?

Study examines how vacations create a stronger sense of family

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:34:54 PM

Between school, hockey, band practice, and swimming lessons for the kids and the demands of work on mom and dad, it can be a challenge for today's families to spend much real time together. Factor in high rates of divorce and separation and parents who may be under severe economic stress, it's no wonder many of today's families feel beleaguered.

At the same time, more and more parents, recognizing the importance of spending time together as a family, are making a conscious effort to make family activities count, especially vacation time.

“Canadian society has this concept of holidays as the opportunity to build family memories and family togetherness,” says Susan Shaw, a sociologist in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Waterloo.

Shaw's research on families and leisure time examines the enormous value parents place on family vacations. Both parents and children enjoy the sense of family togetherness, while children appreciate that their parents have more time for them on vacation than at home. Such time together is particularly important for fathers who typically spend less time with their children than do mothers.

While parents see holidays as an escape from the stresses of daily life, they also value them as educational experiences that can enhance their children's appreciation for different cultures and societies. Whether they go to the Ice Fields in Alberta, a European tour or a campsite near home, parents take pride in enriching their children's experiences of the world.

Parents also use vacations to visit relatives in other cities or countries—again, seeking to reinforce the sense of family and belonging.

But family vacations can involve conflict: parents and kids want to do different things, siblings quarrel, and travelling with the family, especially by car over long distances, presents its own set of challenges.

“For parents, and especially mothers, family vacationing is work: it can be fun and satisfying, but it's not really relaxation in the normal sense because its success is so important to them,” Shaw says. “Parents often come home from a vacation and feel they need another one."

Despite this, Shaw's research shows that parents treasure their memories of the vacations their own parents took them on, and that this inspires them to try to create similarly happy memories for their children.

For most, what makes it all worthwhile is the conviction that a vacation brings the family closer together and the expectation that their children will one day think back fondly on where they went with mom and dad that summer.

Susan Shaw's research on family vacations was funded through SSHRC's Standard Research Grants program.