We’re not wealthy, and maybe we should be putting more money aside for college, but we also believe in investing in the family vacation account, and I think with great benefit.

Frequency of family dinners has declined for years. Much of the time that parents and children do spend with each other is in pseudo-togetherness, either in the car hurrying from one activity to another or with parents on the sidelines observing and cheering as their children participate in this practice or that competition. The bottom line is that families spend little time truly together.

Most of us are so busy that when we do have a day or a long weekend off, we are unlikely to feel free enough to spend it just hanging out at home together or taking the time for a family day trip. We have chores, both indoors and out, the kinds of things we can’t accomplish during the week, when our time is taken up with long hours at work topped off by busy evenings of meetings, homework and kids’ activities.

That’s a trap into which my family has fallen, especially since I have been working full time this past year. But, even though family vacation time is also on a downhill slope according to national statistics, we do still value our family vacations, perhaps because we need them now more than ever.

Okay, I admit it. Although we are responsible and work very hard, my husband and I are not workaholics. We take all the vacation time we have, and we are fortunate to have a fair amount. Usually that time is split between a longer summer stay with relatives in the mountains of New Hampshire and a shorter trip or two for just the four of us each year.

We have found that the value of those times is not just experienced during the vacations themselves, but perhaps even more so in the shared memories they create, which are often the stuff of conversation, meaning and levity. “Remember the time …?” we eagerly ask each other, when we do have a chance to sit down together around the dinner table.

We’re not wealthy, and maybe we should be putting more money aside for college (although in recent years, spending hardly seems more frivolous than buying into the stock market), but we also believe in investing in the family vacation account, and I think with great benefit.

This spring, we are taking a week-long family vacation to one of the Hawaiian Islands—thanks to accumulated airmiles. (In an ideal world we would stay longer and visit more islands, but every day costs a bundle, and we can really only be away from work and school for so long.)

As much as I love distant travel, I don’t believe a destination need be this far or costly to effectively bring the family together. It could be that lake area a couple hours away for a long weekend. Or a road trip to see a relative. Even regular day trips—especially with the business cell phone turned off—can do the trick.  The point is spending a chunk of time together—whether just hanging out or really doing stuff, with a combination of the two perhaps being best.

I’m not sure that family trips can entirely substitute for regular family time together. But, especially if both spouses work or one is tied to a demanding job that cuts deeply into day-to-day, week-to-week family time, we may be able to take some of those hard-earned dollars and bank them for covering the expense of occasional trips that can give the family a chance to renew its shared experience.

Now I know that family togetherness is not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. It does not automatically translate into family bliss. But it can translate into closeness, understanding, appreciation and a kind of security on which children and their parents can thrive, providing a great deal of what we all need to get through demanding days and weeks of modern living.

Karen Johnson Zurheide is executive director of Positive Tomorrows, a center providing support services for children and youth facing family life challenges.

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