It was day two of our long awaited Colorado vacation. We were in mid eight mile hike and two of our three sons (then ages eight and twelve) had a meltdown. The hike was too long, the bugs were incessant, it was hot, their feet hurt, Et cetera, Et cetera. I spent the remainder of the hike trying to keep ahead of them so I could not hear their complaints. (The above photo is the moment when we realized we still had four miles to go.)

I was determined to turn the emotional tide before another day passed. The following morning, we had a long conversation. Out of that lively exchange, we created the Greco family values. But perhaps more importantly, my husband and I realized that we had failed to help our children have realistic expectations for our time away.

It became clear in the course of our extended dialogue over bacon and eggs, the expectations that Christopher and I had created barely overlapped with the boys’ expectations. Anytime expectations fail to coincide–whether we’re on vacation or at home–we know conflict is a heartbeat away. And this is true if you are an adult traveling with other adult friends!

My husband and I wanted our children not to fight, not to have bad attitudes, and to be able to rest and recreate. Our children wanted nothing expected of them (Why do I have to carry the water today?), to be entertained (Why can’t we watch a movie tonight?), and to have our affection and attention on demand. I guess the real surprise is that we made it through the first day together without clashing!

Five years later, we now have planning meetings long before we pack up the car. Here’s some of what we’ve learned.

1. Everyone needs to have input in where we choose to go. I have always wanted to visit the Pacific northwest so three years ago, our vacation centered in Washington and Vancouver. Last year, we visited an area that my husband had always wanted to explore: Arizona and Utah. Though we don’t have the budget to travel to Europe where #3 son continues to request, my husband did take him to Montreal where he got to have a taste of Europe. We also pay attention to our kids’ personalities while we plan. We have one who loves the cities, one who loves nature and prefers to avoid cities, and one who is happy anywhere provided that his brothers are treating him well.

2. Repeat lesson one on the micro level. Once we’ve decided what region we are traveling to, we nail down the specifics with each teenager getting to choose two places they want to see or things they want to do. While we were in Seattle area, one son wanted to visit the Space Needle, one the Tacoma Glass Museum, and one Top Pot Donuts. Allowing them to have some choices in both the panning and execution empowers them to have ownership in the trip.

3. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Though this felt more necessary when the boys were younger, it’s still true. If we’re going to be in the car for seven hours, they need to know that ahead of time. If we are visiting long-time friends from the East Coast who have no children, we need to be realistic in how long we will dwell and give them tools (such as permission to read, games to play, etc.) to help them navigate that stretch. What seem obvious to us may not to them. I believe that children are helped by specificity. “We are going to get up early tomorrow and drive for about eight hours, just a little longer than your normal school day. We will stop for lunch and at X museum along the way. Tonight we will be staying in a motel with a pool.” This might seem pedantic, but trust me, it serves them.

4. Set limits on media. We typically allow them to plug in for half of the drive time but request that they shut things off for the other half. There is always a push back, but in the end, we typically do have some great conversations (or make funny videos of the elder brother who happens to fall asleep and snore loudly).

5. Set limits on bad attitudes. While we never want to silence our children’s voices, we do want them to learn how to communicate thoughtfully. We’ve taught them that rather than saying, “I’m bored,” they can ask for help finding something to do. If they balk at washing the dishes or walking the dog (“But it’s vacation! I’m not supposed to do anything!”) they quickly learn that if they don’t do their chore, they will also have to do their sibling’s.

Though it might seem like over-kill to be so specific and forward thinking when planning your vacation, keep in mind that expectations will play a huge role in how everyone both experiences and enjoys their time together. (And if you need a little help figuring out how to have vision for family vacations, I suggest you visit Lara Krupicka’s site. She’s debuting her Family Bucket list on Nook and Kindle today!)