Discovering the joys of an 'un-vacation'

''Hey, Mom, where are we going for our vacation this summer?'' The question came as a surprise. Soon three pairs of eyes held me captive - eagerly awaiting an answer I didn't have.

As it happens in every family, there are those summers when, for one reason or another, a regular vacation is impossible. We had come to one of those times. But in an effort to avoid disappointment, I promised to reveal the plans for a different kind of vacation within a few days.

I had no idea what we could do, but I was certain - well, almost certain - that an alternative could be found. Why did we take vacations anyway? I decided to take pencil and paper and write down the reasons. The primary one seemed to be getting away from our regular routine and responsibilities. Another was the opportunity to do new things in new places, including eating out. Last, and maybe the most important, was enjoying special times together as a family. These were all important and worthwhile benefits, and after setting them down in black and white, I realized they were ones we could achieve even if we had to stay at or near home. The answer seemed to be a vacation that wasn't a vacation - an ''un-vacation.''

I spent the next hour making plans for our first un-vacation. Then, after getting my husband's blessing and support and working out all the details, we called a family council. The children suspected it had something to do with our ''mystery'' vacation, so they arrived at the appointed hour bubbling with excitement.

The plan we presented was this:

Each child picks a free week during the summer for an un-vacation. I stipulated ''free week,'' because some weeks were already filled with camps, visiting relatives, and so forth. Mark each child's special week on the family calendar in big red letters.

During their free weeks, children are relieved of all regular chores and responsibilities. That includes making beds, feeding the dog, clearing their dishes, and anything else they do as regular duties. They become king (or queen) of the roost for their week. Responsibilites are divided among the other children, who will not object too loudly, because they know their turn is coming.

The ''vacationers'' are allowed to plan the menus for one breakfast, one lunch, and one dinner during their week. They can choose anything that is available, within the budget, and in the combination of their choice. (Have you ever eaten banana pudding and oatmeal cookies for breakfast?)

The vacationing child may choose the place for a meal out with the family. You may have to limit the choice of restaurants to fit your budget, but most children prefer less-expensive places anyway. Let them know they also have a choice of which meal will be eaten out. (Some children have never had breakfast in a restaurant and would consider that special fun.)

They pick a special activity for the family to do together. Those special activities will be as varied as your children's interests. It might be a trip to the zoo; a hike in the woods; attending a ball game, movie, or other special event; visiting a museum, aquarium, or amusement park; going swimming; or riding a ferry. Remind family members that they are expected to participate without grumbling - regardless of the choice.

These were the basic benefits afforded each child for our first un-vacation. When it became necessary to repeat the idea other years, we changed or added new things to keep excitement running high. Here are a few of those alternate ideas:

The vacationing child is allowed to pick a place to go for a morning, afternoon, or full day alone with either parent. In most families, it is a rare occasion when a child receives a parent's undivided attention. He will love it, whether he is a preschooler or a teen-ager. Again the activity will be dictated by the child's interests.

Let vacationers suggest an ''at-home'' activity they especially enjoy. Until we tried this, I didn't realize how often we had put the chidren off when they had asked our help with something they wanted to do. The ''at-home'' activities included baking cookies; learning to knit or sew; woodworking; working on a photograph album of ''their'' pictures; fingerpainting; and making gifts.

The ''vacationer'' might invite a special friend to dinner, to spend the night, or both. If this is not a usual practice in your household, it can be a memorable occasion.

Every family can adapt the un-vacation to its particular needs, choosing these or other appropriate options that best suit them.

Parents will need their special weeks, too - the children will insist on it. Since most of the things listed above would not be meaningful to adults, let the children decide what your benefits will be. These are a few of the ideas ours came up with: dinner out for two; breakfast in bed; relieving mom of all kitchen duties for one day; letting dad choose the TV programs for one evening (or a whole week) without complaint, even if they are all ball games; or permitting mom to sleep in on Saturday morning. Given the chance, they will think of more things than you could possibly squeeze into one week.

That first un-vacation turned out to be such a success that the following year, when we could again take a regular vacation, I had to convince the children that ''a plain old vacation'' would be fun, too.

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