Managing differing expectations on a family trip

Believe it or not, this was fun.

Believe it or not, this was fun.

Growing up on the north shore of Long Island, in New York, I spent most of my free time on the beach. As often as possible, I’d ride my dirt bike there from my house, park the bike and walk up and down the beach, ogling marine mammals, hunting for shells, wading in the waves, and more. I enjoyed this ritual so much, there were entire days when I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Naturally, then, when I became a father, I wanted to share this experience with my daughters. The only problem: They wanted to create beach experiences of their own.

The first time I learned this lesson was this past winter; on a visit with L to our favorite local beach to see some seal pups, all she wanted to do was walk in the nearby river and toss rocks (at birds and whitecaps) in the surf.

I was reminded of the same lesson again earlier this week, on a trip to the very same beach with R.

My plan was modest at best—in one hour, I was hoping we’d walk along the shoreline, check out some kelp and look for whale blows in the distance. The baby had other designs: All she wanted to do was sit on her bottom and sift through handfuls of sand for shards of beach glass.

At first, the discrepancy between expectations was adorable: R is so wonderfully independent, it was a pleasure to see her exerting free will so demonstratively. But when it became clear that my little girl wasn’t willing to budge ONE BIT, I started wondering about the degree to which I should be driving the day.

The questions came quickly. What’s wrong with this kid? Is she ill? Why the hell doesn’t she want to explore more of this place? Could she *hate* the beach?

Self-doubt crept in next. Is it too hands-on to drag her on a stroll down the beach? Will forcing her to look for whales prompt her to hate whales (or the beach, for that matter) forever? Am I a terrible father if I make her do something she obviously want to do?

I gave myself a few minutes to think over these questions. Then I made up my mind. And I did nothing.

Against all instincts, I let R experience the beach the way she wanted to, scratching at the sand like cat in a litter box. After a few minutes, R looked up at me and invited me to stop staring out at the ocean and join her. So I did.

I’ll be honest, it took me a while to accept that this was the way my kid and I were going to spend our day at the beach. Ultimately, I had no choice but to accept it. And I’m glad I did.

If I’ve learned anything in five years as a father, it’s that family travel often forces us to balance our kids’ expectations and our own. Most of the time, we parents know best. Sometimes, however, it’s important for us to recognize that our kids simply may not want what we want for them, and adjust accordingly.

Next time I take my kids to the beach, I hope they are willing to give me even five minutes to experience the place the way I’d like to. If they do, great. If they don’t, in the scheme of things, that’s great too. So long as we’re there together, so long as my kids recognize what a special spot the beach can be, I’ll be happy with however the day plays out. More than anything, that’s my job as their Dad.

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