Grand holidays

Multi-generation family holidays are increasingly common, and a vital way for expatriate children to bond with their grandparents.

Taking your children on holiday with your parents can be rewarding for all concerned, but it is important to make sure that boundaries and responsibilities are clear to everybody from the outset.
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If you're one of the scores of expatriate parents heading back to their home countries to escape the heat and you no longer own property back there, the chances are you'll be staying with your parents, or even going off on holiday with them. You won't be alone in doing this: in fact you'll be forming part of an increasing trend for three-generational holidays - dubbed "greycations". Research by the British holiday park operator Park Resorts suggests that more and more families are choosing to holiday with their parents, partly to allow the children to spend time with their grandparents, but also to save money on the holiday and on that most valuable of commodities: babysitting.

Catherine Cooper, the travel expert and author of Travelling with Children: The Essential Guide (and herself a British expat living in France), confirms this: "As more and more young families are finding their finances squeezed, grandparents are chipping in to pay for the family holiday and also coming along themselves." For some of us, the phenomenon is nothing new. Every summer of my childhood I went away with my parents and grandmother, so it seemed only natural, when I became a mother myself, that I should look to my own parents to accompany us on holiday. I had cherished the indulgent attention and mild rule-breaking that a fortnight with my fun-loving granny involved (we shared a room away from my parents) and wanted my kids to experience the same.

I was lucky enough to have my own grandmother living next door, but the reasons for going away with grandparents are all the more obvious when those grandparents live far away and have precious little time with the youngsters. Lynley Oram, an expatriate whose home country is New Zealand, is full of enthusiasm for intergenerational holidays and raves about an extended visit "home" with her husband and mother-in-law.

"I would heartily recommend it if you get along with your in-laws," she says. "It's a great way for grandparents and grandchildren to get to know each other." The benefits go beyond cementing the relationship between children and grandparents. With an extra pair of hands available to help with chores and look after the children, bringing Granny and Grandpa along can give the parents some welcome respite. If the older generation are early risers, they may even be happy to entertain the little ones during the dreaded dawn shift and allow the weary mum and dad a much-needed lie-in.

Oram does sound a note of warning, though. "As with any holiday involving anyone else, you do need to establish ground rules, and have a good idea of expectations." It's an important reminder that holidaying with grandparents isn't without its challenges. My mother's recollections of the family vacations of my childhood are less misty-eyed than my own. Although she remembers them fondly, she does recall that they were enjoyable and exhausting in equal measure. An unsteady gait, a healthy disregard for personal safety and a penchant for midnight sea-swimming combined to make my beloved but reckless grandmother as much of a handful as her lively grandchildren; at times my mother didn't know which of us she should be keeping an eye on.

A more common complaint is the pressure caused by spending so much time in close proximity, and for expatriates this can be compounded by not having had the opportunity to iron out difficulties during regular, day-to-day contact. Arguments often erupt over the distribution of chores; it doesn't take long before the person wearing the rubber gloves feels put-upon. Equally, issues can arise over boundaries and discipline. Many grandparents can't resist spoiling the children, and parents wishing to stick to their usual routine soon become frustrated. With everyone together under one roof and little in the way of privacy, it's often not long before matters come to a head.

One mother told me of a holiday in Croatia with her husband John, two-year-old son Nicholas, and her parents-in-law, who had travelled from New Zealand to spend the vacation with the family. Rebecca knew that her in-laws took a more authoritarian stance than she and her husband did, but was still surprised by what happened at the end of the stay. "On the last night they asked John and me, in what I can only describe as a formal tone, to come and sit with them at the table. John's stepfather started off a long monologue about how they had noticed how we had been dealing with Nicholas when certain issues came up, and went on to tell us how we should have done it. John's mother was sitting there nodding in agreement and was obviously dying to tell us what bad parents we were.

"It wasn't their place to tell us how to bring up our child. I was very upset and couldn't wait to get out of there in the morning. It has damaged my relationship with them." For Cooper, forward planning is the key to ensuring a happy holiday. She recommends discussing the thorny issues in advance to establish everyone's expectations. That way you should avoid swapping one type of heat for another.

Above all, try to ensure that your children enjoy the holiday. After all, if their memories are fond enough, one day they might invite you along to spend the holidays with their own children.