For most of the year, we are more than happy to be a “one and done” family. Although both my husband and I come from big families, our nine-year-old son is more than enough: just one child to read bedtime stories to, soothe and worry about, ferry to football on Sundays and keep in shoes that wear out before he even has a chance to grow out of them.
But in the run-up to school holidays, jealousy starts to build. I will hear other parents say how much they can’t wait for the end of term, while I’m battling a rising sense of panic. As the parent of an only child, school holidays mean a mountain of organisation that starts months, even a year, in advance.
It is the only time when we ponder whether we should have had more kids, because at least then he would have a built-in playmate when we go away: someone to hold hands with as he goes through the door of a new holiday club; someone to be bored with on days when none of his friends are free to play. As I write this, I still have two weeks in August to account for, and they are a constant, low-level worry in the back of my mind. It might sound slightly obsessive, but I’m far from alone.
“More or less every moment of the summer is accounted for – I hate the idea of him being alone on a screen while we both work,” says Alice Mason, whose son, Max, is 12. “I book week-long chunks of clubs that will be fun and engaging – for my son that has been drama and art in the past, and this year it will be film-making, making electronic music and cricket. That is three weeks accounted for.
“We are lucky enough to have cousins nearby and I usually organise a few days of either shared childcare or joint activities. My husband takes him to visit his family for a few days without me, and then I often take him away on a beach trip with another friend who has a solo kid. But I tend not to rely on other families because it’s too unpredictable if they pull out.”
I’ve made that mistake in the past: planning days of half terms around playdates that don’t materialise, only to have to comfort a child who has gone from bored and lonely to lonely and disappointed. Because it’s not just that being your child’s only playmate can be exhausting; it’s that kids need other kids. All our decisions around how to structure our family’s summer are based around that very fact.
When it comes to travel, a resort that features a kids’ club may be an easy (if sometimes costly) solution but, like many only children, our son finds them intimidating – and often they seem to be deserted anyway, which completely defeats the purpose.
We have been lucky to have spent a few summers in a row holidaying with friends or family who have children roughly the same age. This set-up is the one-and-done family’s holy grail, and Telegraph columnist Bryony Gordon, mother of nine-year-old Edie, takes action to ensure such trips take place.
“We have another family we go away with every school holiday,” she says. “I find the house in Cornwall or abroad and pay for it, then invite them. The money can get complicated – and sometimes I ask, ‘Are you getting fed up with going on holiday with us?’ – but you need to find that family. That’s the key.”
And like us, she’s made an interesting discovery. “Those trips have a joint function. I find that when we go away with another family and they’ve got three kids, Edie always asks: ‘Why don’t I have a sister or a brother?’ And then after you’ve spent three weeks watching the siblings tear each other’s hair out, she says: ‘I’m glad I don’t.’”
Absent another family to holiday with, family-friendly all-inclusive holidays are the safest bet: our son made a friend for the week in a kids’ pool within 10 minutes of arrival when we booked one of those. But if that type of holiday is not your dream (it wasn’t really ours), the next safest bet is to seek out villas, apartments or farm stays with a shared pool or barbecue area and the optimal density of families to hopefully guarantee enough other children.
Several years running we found just the ticket: a beautiful agriturismo with just a dozen villas, a lovely restaurant on site and a pool, all set in a pretty, undiscovered corner of Tuscany… until it got discovered, and now you can only book two years in advance. As I said, it’s all about planning.
Of course, there is also time to fill back home. We are those needy people who ask the class WhatsApp group which clubs other kids are booked into and, stalker-style, book ours into the same one. There have also been several weeks when he has had to go to clubs on his own, and in our experience, you get what you pay for: a higher ratio of staff to kids means yours is more likely to be looked after when they’re feeling shy or left out and also means staff are likely to be more experienced at gently corralling them into having fun.
For our son, two weeks of clubs is about as much as he can handle, so then it’s a question of working out what to do among ourselves. Every year I scour lists of free events and book a handful far in advance with a spare child’s ticket in case one of his friends is free to come along.
I keep a list on my phone of even the most obvious things to do, for those days when my mind goes blank and no other kids are around: I list every local park and playground, library, museums and galleries, swimming pools, National Trust walks, right down to things we can do at home, from baking, or just curling up on the sofa with a movie.
But the simplest ideas can be the ones that kids really prefer. When our son was very little, we would sometimes sit on the platform of a nearby railway station and watch the trains come and go. A friend used to take her small son on the bus to another town so they could ride the trams there. Both our boys loved these tiny adventures. And to be honest, so did we.