Be realistic with your expectations
You may have been dreaming about day hiking into that box canyon and scaling the rim for years now, always wondering what you might see from the top. But if you have 4 and 9 year old children along, this is very unlikely to happen… at least not in the way you had imagined! There are always rare exceptions, but keep in mind that children of all ages have both physical and mental limitations to any activity. It’s hardly realistic to expect a 4 year old to have the physical stamina to hike for 45 minutes, spend 2 hours scrambling up a canyon wall, be excited about looking around up top (for more than 2 minutes), and then reverse the entire process. NOT GONNA HAPPEN. Most unprepared adults would be hard pressed to accomplish this adventure and come out with a smiley disposition.
To give everyone a satisfactory experience, instead, try hiking into the box canyon and engaging your kids natural desire to explore and learn. Whip out the binoculars and see who can find the most birds flying along the canyon wall. Do a little (well supervised) boulder hopping at the base of the canyon. See which one of you can find the most animal tracks, or the most interesting bugs, or butterflies (take pics on your smartphone, you can use these later to spark some more conversation). Give them a hypothetical question by asking them how they would climb to the top? Kids of all ages love to explore and problem solve, especially if it doesn’t involve a pencil and paper, or the potential for a failing grade. Oh yes, and bring a no cook lunch or snacks along. You won’t go wrong if you take a few minutes to recharge their batteries with food and drink. You could darn near kill the better part of a day here and come away with some great memories. This approach applies to ALL ACTIVITIES. You’ll be less likely to come away with a sour taste in your mouth if you begin with realistic expectations.
Engage your children
No matter what the task is, there is some aspect of it that a child over the age of 3 can help with. I know, I know. It’s often easier to do everything yourself than it is to try and explain it to someone else… who may not do it the way you asked anyway. The only problem with that type of thinking (and I’m guilty of doing it all the time), is that it’s very easy to become resentful of those around you. “Why go ___________(insert your favorite activity here), I have to do everything myself anyway and don’t get to enjoy myself!” I know that you’re fully capable of preparing dinner by yourself, you’ve probably done it thousands of times. Instead, try having the kids get out the plates and utensils, pouring drinks, root around the dry goods bag to find the tortilla shells, and if age appropriate, slice up some of the veggies for the tacos. Heck people, this is camping, not gourmet dining! It doesn’t matter if the diced tomatoes end up a uniform size. Your children are fully capable of any of the aforementioned tasks, leaving you to work the stove, smile appreciatively, and wonder why you didn’t think of this setup sooner. Kids really do want to please their parents. If you keep the tasks small enough when you ask for their help (and remember… realistic expectations), they will likely go out of their way to accomplish them. They may even surprise you by asking “what else” can they do to help?
Downtime… for everyone
I’m not talking about graham crackers, warm milk, and everyone face down on the furry rug downtime; but if all that you and your children are doing is go, Go, GO, no one is going to have a good time camping. Any fond memories you’ve made are going to be overshadowed by the shear exhaustion that you feel when you get home. Ever had that “I need a vacation from my vacation” feeling? Yep. Plan in some downtime. Lazy time after lunch (after everyone helped clean up), when you and the kids can do their own thing. Play quietly in the tent or camper, take a short nap, or read a story. Hang out around the campfire, talk about the day, how you’ll make smores later, who found the coolest rock, or why crazy old uncle Mike tied that ridiculously large dead fish to his kayak for no apparent reason! It doesn’t really matter what you’re talking about or doing, or NOT doing, as long as it isn’t a regimented, full concentration, I may die if I don’t pay attention sort of task. Your children have far shorter attention spans than you or I do (OK, just you!), and if you give them a break every so often, you’re more likely to get along better, and to be able to have a more enjoyable experience.
Downtime + engagement + realistic expectations = MORE FUN!
Let’s face it, this is, after all, the point of going out camping in the first place. To have fun, make memories, and simply enjoy nature and each others company. You’ve seen these families in the movies, always so organized, so on point, so happy, and they can do no wrong when they go camping. You can’t buy these experiences, nor are any of us likely to join a movie “family” in the near future, but if we subscribe to a few basic ideas, maybe we can come a bit closer to an ideal? Come to think of it, making those memories with your own children is likely far more satisfying. Skip that movie family… make your own special memories.