How to survive holidaying with friends... and their kids

Kate Mulvey
And you thought you were going on holiday... - Corbis RM Stills

Going away with your best friend, or beloved sister, may sound like the perfect holiday; relaxation combined with the opportunity to gaze fondly on, as her little ones play happily in the sun.

The reality can be somewhat different: carrying toddlers on your back in 90-degree heat, being dive-bombed in the swimming pool as you try to breaststroke happily along; and the tedium of listening to their mother tell yet another story of how little Jonny can speak fluent Mandarin. 

As a PANK (that stands for "professional aunt no kids"), I have spent the last 13 years holidaying with other people’s children.

Mucking about with my best friend’s children in a rented countryside cottage - playing shops till I dropped, telling stories and making Nutella sandwiches - nearly pushed me over the edge

I may have learnt to swap leisurely sunbathing for screaming infants, but I have also made priceless memories and found a way to channel my inner nurturer. Oh, and it solves the "no one to go on holiday with" dilemma.

But it’s not always easy.

There was the now notorious time, nine years ago, I went to Spain with my younger sister and her two boys, George, then aged six, and Oskar, three. One evening I proudly presented them with a dish of spaghetti in a rich ragu sauce. The boys refused to eat it, preferring to fling tomatoey strands at each other and on the table; anywhere but in their mouths. Top tip: small children are not partial to fancy food. If you don’t want to mop up a horrid gooey mess, sausages and mashed potato are a better bet.

A year later, on a rainy staycation in Lewes, watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with my three nephews and niece, aged four to 11, everyone cuddled on the sofas, bags of popcorn and jelly snakes strewn over the floor, was pure Auntie bliss.

Time to join in the proverbial fun... Credit: Darwin Wiggett/First Light

Top tip: Your role is not to nag or to teach them best behaviour, but to bring a layer of creativity and fun into their lives. That said, I recall that mucking about with my best friend’s children in a rented countryside cottage - playing shops till I dropped, telling stories and making Nutella sandwiches - nearly pushed me over the edge.

So before you pack your jewelled flip-flops and DVD of Ice Age 3, here are a few things you need to consider about being your friends' holiday plus-one.

Find out what your role is beforehand

If you are child-free, you may have no idea what it means to look after a gaggle of hyperactive kids on the beach. They will be running in all directions, and you will be so terrified of losing one that you end up chaining them all to the sun lounger. It pays to check out where you are on the responsibility curve. Offer to make dinner/read bedtime stories, or do the bath time shift instead.

Be flexible

Sleep can be a big issue on Planet Family. It took my nephew Oskar, then four, relentlessly waking me up with a cup of imaginary tea at 6am, for me to realise why "sleep deprivation" is categorised as a form of torture. Since then, I have got used to overexcited six-year-olds crawling into my bed at dawn, breakfasting at 8am and being on swimming pool duty before I have even had a coffee. Ditto, eating dinner at 6pm and lights out at 9.30pm. Children can’t adapt, but as a PANK, you can.

The only "quiet time" you will have Credit:  Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury

Survive the flight 

From a screaming three year-old on the Gatwick Express to little Charlotte sticking chewing gum in her ear, it doesn’t take long to realise that travelling with children is a lesson in Buddha-level calm. Factor in whining, squabbling and a three-hour flight to Malaga, and you may feel like booking into a four-star hotel on your own. Instead, choose one of the expensive seats at the front of the plane ("scared of flying and need to be near the exit" is my excuse) then recline and have a snooze.

Share chores

If you are self-catering, divvy up the household tasks equally. They may not be your kids, but lending a hand to clean up spilt drinks and crisps down the back of the sofas is just good manners. Whatever you do, avoid the communal supermarket sweep. Adults quibbling over the two-for-one cheese packs and tetchy children running riot is enough to turn anyone off holidays with kids for life.

Don't get drunk or swear 

Don’t be the one who, after a few days of stultifying heat and no sleep, ends up overdoing the Chardonnay and having a blazing row with your friend/sister’s husband. It will be hard to get back to relaxed relations after you have accused him of being a control freak who ignores his wife. Oh, and the kids will repeat everything you said the next day. The same applies to the over use of flowery language. I hadn’t realised how much I swore until I went on holiday with my sister, and ended up depositing a small fortune into the "No Swearing" box.

Carve out relaxation time

The pressure to do everything en masse can frazzle PANK nerves. It takes time to adapt to the level of noise and chaos that comes with being in a family. Feel free to take time off and enjoy a day of solitude, idling away hours in the nearby café. As a show of solidarity, have a tasty dinner ready for them when they get back and some chilled beers on ice.

Don't be a backseat parent

Their children, their rules. Whatever you think about their parenting style, restrain yourself from offering helpful tips. You may see it as constructive, they will see it as undermining their way of doing things - and a suggestion that they are bad parents. On the other hand, breaking up a sand-throwing fight, or chiding toddlers when they thwack you on the head with a plastic farm animal, is just good sense.

Be a fun auntie

There is nothing more life-enhancing than being with excited children, set free from confines of school/homework/choir practice. This is a time to unleash your inner child and be silly. I buy them ice cream and surreptitiously slip them sweets when Mum isn’t watching. My nephews still remember my wacky bedtime stories, the camp we made at the far end of the villa garden, and the artistic results of my experimental painting sessions hang proudly on their living room wall. Pure PANK heaven. 

Another chance to unleash your inner child

Eating out

Forget sophisticated restaurants with white table cloths, quinoa salad and adult chatter. You are more likely to find yourself at the kiddie eateries mopping up bits of food and trying to talk over the horrendous din. If, like me, you really can’t tolerate a diet of fish fingers and chips, eat a bowl of brown rice and avocado beforehand and just order a large glass of cheap wine and a side salad.

Be prepared to babysit

Offer to babysit. It is a chance to bond with the kids on your terms. I always have goodies on hand and let them go to bed that little bit later. The children love the excitement of no-Mummy time, and the adults are restored to calm, rational beings, making your holiday experience just that little bit smoother. Hopefully.