Summer vacation! My kids were ecstatic. But I, sensing imminent anarchy, was less enthusiastic. I'd read articles featuring families on cruises, families at dude ranches, families at theme parks, families at resorts. However, I knew none of those options would be available to me this year. So what could I do to keep five kids ages nine and under happy—and my sanity intact—without leaving town or spending a wad of cash?
As usual, when I get desperate enough, I pray. Now I wouldn't say the idea that came to me was necessarily divinely inspired, but all I'd been able to arrive at on my own was locking myself in my room with a good book. So, when the tailgate scheme popped into my head, it really seemed to be an answer to prayer.
The whole plan evolved from remembering the fun our family had tailgating at sporting events. I called it the "Mystery Tailgate Adventure," but in reality it was a mini-family vacation in our own city. Its twist was to take ordinary outings and cloak them in fantasy. The trick was to do this while spending as little money as possible. With those factors in mind, I planned a week of surprise tailgate picnics, each at a different local destination.
On the first Monday of summer vacation, I loaded the participants in the car and, despite numerous pleas, refused to tell them where we were going. All but one of my kids were excited by the secrecy. Andrew, my seven-year-old, short-circuited from suspense and started hammering on the nearest object in the back seat, his twin brother, Russell, who, of course, retaliated in kind. My cheerful, "Isn't this going to be fun?" tone changed as I shot those well-worn but futile parental questions in the direction of the back seat: "Do you want me to turn this car around right now and go home? Do you want me ever to do anything nice for you again? Do you want to ruin everyone else's good time? Are you still in seat belts?"
Luckily, just as the intensity level of hammering was reaching fever pitch, we arrived at the doughnut shop. This had the effect my remarks had not: instant cessation of hostilities.
"Is this it? Is this it?" clamored Andrew.
"Be quiet! Do you want to ruin it? She'll tell us!" hissed Danny, the nine-year-old, who had known parents to return home suddenly and angrily for what seemed to be inexplicable reasons.
"Part one of the surprise!" I said, persevering through gritted teeth, wondering if this was going to work. "You get to come in and pick out which doughnut you'd like to take with us for the tailgate."