Create a Meaningful Summer

How these five steps can transform your family vacation.

Posted Apr 11, 2017

Suzan Wasik
Source: Suzan Wasik

Summer is right around the corner.  For many children, school is about to be out for nearly three months, leaving parents such as myself scrambling to figure out how to best manage the many weeks of summer break ahead, while balancing work, schedules, budget, and sanity. 

I am not one of those well-organized parents who sign up for summer camps in February – while there is still snow on the ground. Consequently, my kids often find themselves on summer camp waiting lists.

It was late last spring, after realizing that the summer camps my kids were interested in were either cost prohibitive or already filled, that I decided to take another approach and reimagine summer in an entirely new way. What if we created a meaningful epic summer adventure?

As a licensed professional counselor and university professor, I believe that happiness can be realized in the intentional and gritty pursuit of discovering and uncovering meaning in life. It was in that spirit that my family (which included my husband and three children, ages 15, 12, and 9) scrapped our traditional summer camp and vacation plans and reinvented our family vacations – forever.

Steps to Take Before Taking Off

Going on vacation with kids of various ages and stages can have its challenges regardless of destination. But the big questions we examined this time was not how to make everyone happy. Rather, how can we create a meaningful experience for every member of the family given the realistic constraints of logistics, budget, and time?

Here are five key steps that can help transform a family trip into an unforgettable and meaningful family experience.

The Big Picture: Defining The "Why"

Nietzsche once said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Uncovering a “why,” behind a decision or challenge is a powerful first step in creating meaning.

Because meaning can mean different things to different people, it is important to discuss the “why” with family members. Collect everyone’s feedback, opinions, and ideas – regardless of age. Ask them big picture questions such as: Where would be a fun place to visit and why? What do you think we can do this summer to make a difference? If you could make up a summer adventure, what would it look like?

Then, while withholding opinions and judgment, take notes like a curious reporter and look for some common themes.

For our first meaningful epic summer adventure, our family decided on visiting Peru. Our “whys” included: a desire to visit a nearby Spanish speaking country so to get immersed in another language, culture, and perspective, to experience something from our Bucket List, and to find a meaningful way to volunteer and give back while on vacation.

Suzan Wasik
Source: Suzan Wasik

Get Their Buy In

A vital step in the successful planning of a summer adventure is to get each individual family member’s buy in. Know going in that although not everyone will be happy all of the time, everyone’s voice will be part of the creation of the whole. This helps give everyone a sense of ownership in the entire process.

Admittedly, this may be difficult for some Type A’s who are great at making plans, agendas, and schedules in general.  However, the importance of including children in this process cannot be minimized. It is the difference between children feeling dragged along on a trip, or being part of something larger than themselves.

Ask each kid exactly they want to get out of their trip. It could be an experience, a goal, an idea, or a place to stay via Airbnb. Whatever they want or can imagine. (No restrictions here because this is active brainstorming time.) 

Hold an official family meeting where each child presents research, ideas, and websites of what they found to be interesting. Ask why their ideas are appealing to them and try to get them to articulate it out loud the best they can. Collect the ideas and try to adopt at least one (or a version) of their ideas into the next stage of planning.

The Vetting Process

This is where realistic parental decisions need to be made based on such factors as safety, do-ability, and affordability. Your list may include wildly different attractions, accommodations, restaurants, or activities that have been offered by children of variable maturity. Calls, emails, and connections need to be made. Legitimize the most reasonable options, and begin to solidify plans.

Here is an example of the results of our Peruvian vetting process – all of which referred back to our “whys,” and were ideas the children came up with initially: 

  • In the span of three days, we visited Machu Picchu, rode ATVs, mountain biked through the Sacred Valley, and flew down one of the world’s longest zip lines thanks to the connections and reservations that were made through Haku Expeditions – an adventure based tour company owned by American expats in Cusco who also offer accommodations via Airbnb. They handled all the paperwork, permits, and procedures around activities and accommodations that we didn’t even know to ask about, making our time and money much better spent than if we had tried to figure it out on our own. 
  • To brush up on our varying levels of Spanish language, Amigos Spanish School offered several options. In addition to language training, Amigo’s is also Cusco’s first non-profit Spanish School and offers unique programs including the not-to-be-missed “Real Cusco Tour” where you can see first hand what it is like to be a Peruvian elementary school student, brick maker, and small business owner.
  • Most notably, we connected with a non-profit organization called Peruvian Hearts who served as our family’s touchstone throughout our stay. With their guidance, we visited and volunteered at many orphanages, schools, and organizations that empower Peruvian girls and young women through education and leadership training as a way to break the cycle of poverty. Through our Peruvian Hearts contacts, we were able to create profoundly meaningful volunteer opportunities that addressed all of our “whys” and provided  powerful life experiences that transcended the boundaries of our brief summer trip. 
    Suzan Wasik
    Members of Peruvian Hearts provide a surprise welcome upon arrival to Cusco.  
    Source: Suzan Wasik

Embark Upon the Adventure

Budget, plan, and create a somewhat loose agenda with room for down time and flexibility. Unexpected weather, mood swings, and illness can sometimes derail plans, and having built in cushions (and travelers insurance) is a good idea.  

Whenever possible, recognize the family member that came up with the activity, meal, or lodging idea for a job well done. The sense a pride that a 9-year old can have for choosing the favorite restaurant can be priceless. In fact, it may have been a better choice than what you initially had in mind!

Finally, remember to take a lot of pictures – and don’t forget to be in them from time to time! Assign photographers for different events and start a running photo gallery of favorites. This has never been easier with the availability of smart phones and other digital media devices. Plus, seeing the world from the perspective of different aged family members can be enlightening.

Suzan Wasik
Source: Suzan Wasik


Debriefing is perhaps the most important part of establishing meaning of the larger experience. Very few people make time for this as we rush to complete the next thing on our to-do lists. However, a daily recap of favorite (and least favorite) things can be a great way to establish meaningful moments of each day. Upon your return home from the trip, hold another family meeting to showcase a five minute individual presentation from each family member and ask questions such as: “How have you changed as a result of this trip?”

“What were you most surprised by?”

“What would you like to do again?”

“What is your favorite photo and why?”

Suzan Wasik
Source: Suzan Wasik

I am not insinuating that our epic summer adventure was perfect. In fact, there were several hitches, including two trips to a Peruvian hospital to tend to a broken arm and a case of food poisoning. Despite this, with the intention of creating a meaningful experience for every member of our family, I would say the happy mission was accomplished. And I’m so glad that we never made it off the summer camp waiting list. 

Dr. Suzan Zuljani Wasik is a licensed professional counselor and consultant. She is an Assistant Professor of Counseling and the Coordinator of the Career Counseling Program at North Carolina Central University.