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All of this is based on sound evidence, gleaned from much expert study, but the fact is — and this may be the true beauty of vacations — the family vacation often throws the experts for a giddy loop too. Over the years, Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, his wife, and their three children have traveled the globe: Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East. Now their youngest is 18, but Rosenfeld remembers, as if it were yesterday, an experience at the Louvre, when their youngest son was about 8.

“He didn’t want to leave,” says Rosenfeld, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and co-author of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap. “He couldn’t believe what he was seeing,” Rosenfeld chuckles. “I never would have predicted that.”

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Here’s another surprise: Not long ago, Rosenfeld drove cross-country with his oldest son, now 21. Four days in a car, just the two of them. At a cursory glance, not the first choice in vacations.

“Was every moment of it a delight?” asks Rosenfeld. “No. We got to know each other an awful lot better, some for the better, some for the worse, but overall for the better. It was an amazing trip.”

These are the moments that make life matter.

Yes, say Agate and Rosenfeld, but it’s important not to drape vacations completely in sun-splashed days and carefree, merry-go-round nights. You’ll do that when you remember them later. The honest truth is that families on vacation experience difficulties too. Experts have noted this in anecdotal research taken from folks like, well, us. Raise your hand if you’ve never experienced some sort of collapse, crying jag, or atavistic urge to clench your throat on a carefree getaway. I possess no doctorate, but I’ll wager there’s not one hand in the air.

But, says Rosenfeld, “trouble on a vacation is not necessarily a bad sign. It’s just a sign of a typical family and a bad moment and maybe an opportunity for growth, particularly when your kids are trying to separate from you.”

And the chance for real dialogue can be greater when away from the stresses and distractions of home.

“Nothing has to be accomplished,” says Rosenfeld. “There’s no cell phone ringing all the time or email to check. You’re there together and nothing has to be done, and every so often there will be a lull and you’ll have real conversations that often don’t occur in our hurried lives.”
Given today’s perpetually plugged-in world, Agate sees today’s family vacation in a different light.

“Taking a vacation is more important now than ever,” says Agate. “Our everyday lives are more distracted than they’ve ever been. Families need to get away from their distracted lives and focus on each other, on strengthening their relationships and recharging their bonds.”
It can happen. We all know it. And I don’t have to close my eyes to remember.

Our sons are older now; one is leaving for college this fall. But I still see them skinny-ribbed in the sunshine, diligently picking up horseshoe crab bits. We never assembled an entire crab. Life can be disappointing that way. But we walked together across the sand, the waves making their soothing sounds, the butterfly press of our sons’ hands in ours.

Sometimes life’s pieces fit together in ways you don’t expect.