Summer visits with grandparents strengthen family bonds, giving kids and parents a break

Tuesday, June 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

When Candace Crier of Rowlett sends her three young children off for a two-week vacation at her mom's house, she does so with memories of childhood summers spent lolling around her grandparents' farm in Michigan.

"I remember doing things like catching fireflies and swimming in the neighbor's fishing hole," Mrs. Crier says. "That's the kind of experience I want my children to have each year."

Ask her sons - Devon, 10, Drake, 8, and Cameron, 7 - and you'll hear an entirely different vacation scenario.

"When we go to my grandmother's, we mostly go swimming because she has a pool out back. And we do the Play Station a lot," says Devon, who will be making a third summer visit to his grandmother's home in Illinois. "It's fun, but after a couple of days we usually want to come home and hang out with our friends."

For many families, summer vacation is a hodgepodge of activities ranging from theater camps to play dates to swim team practice - an extension of the school year's hectic pace. But a growing number of parents are calling on friends and relatives to offer kids a few weeks away from the normal push and pull of life.

"A lot of parents feel that the only way to get kids out of the grind is to get them out of town," says Rachel Downs, an independent marketing consultant who specializes in travel-related clients. "There is a growing number of parents who send their kids away for a few weeks each summer - either to camps or to out-of-town friends or relatives."

For those who can't afford hundreds of dollars per week per child for a sleep-away basketball or computer camp, a few weeks at Grandma's is an affordable alternative.

The question remains, however: Are the kids having a good time?

"It may not be a particularly exciting experience, but it can be a very positive one," says Mark Gunther, a family counselor in Arlington. "Kids can benefit from just slowing down for a few days or weeks, and the parents left at home with an empty house can find the time very restorative."

Visits with out-of-town relatives also can go a long way toward strengthening family ties.

"If my kids didn't spend time with their cousins every summer, they wouldn't even know them," says Jennifer Latke, a single parent. "We don't get to visit my sister's family during Christmas break, so when we take turns hosting each other's kids for two weeks in the summer it means that they get to have some small experience of what it would be like to grow up together."

For Ms. Latke, it also means that she gets a two-week break from playing Supermom.

"I have time to go shopping after work or take in a movie or go to brunch on a weekend," she says. "While they're off playing with their cousins, I'm here playing with my friends."

However, not all family visits are successful, especially if the hosts and the guests have differing expectations.

"Kids can be pretty disappointed that their grandparents don't want to take them to water parks and shopping malls every day," Mr. Gunther says. "And grandparents can be hurt when the younger ones want to lay around all day and watch TV or play video games. It's important that all these questions about activities and such be discussed before the travel arrangements are made."

Discussions should include agreement on the type, level and frequency of activities as well as information such as house rules, experts say.

"It would likely be an unpleasant surprise for a youngster to go to a relative's home for vacation and find out that they've outlawed television for the summer," Mr. Gunther says.

Mostly, he suggests, parents should try to make an honest assessment of all the personalities involved and try to predict whether the combination will work.

For the Crier kids, a few weeks at Grandma's house is an annual experience that is marked by both positives and negatives.

"My mom was pretty strict with my brothers and I when we were growing up, and she's the same way with my kids," Mrs. Crier says. "She expects them to have nice table manners and to clean up their rooms every day. The kids don't really like that, but they do like the fact that she'll let them have any candy or soft drink under the sun. And, ultimately, they're building memories that they will be able to keep with them long after my mom is gone."

Patricia Lowell is a Dallas free-lance writer.