You love the idea of a family vacation with your kids, and maybe their kids too. If they aren’t similarly minded, why not sweeten the deal by footing the bill?

As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t get him to drink. Or in this case, you can take your adult kids to the Bahamas, but you can’t make them engage in a civil conversation over dinner.

“Money represents power, and when you mix family dynamics with money dynamics, there can be some weird things going on,” says Clinton Gudmunson, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University. 

Part of the problem is that parents and kids tend to have different expectations of how family vacation time will be spent together (or not). And while your children may appreciate your largesse, it can also become a major source of tension.

“Research and anecdotal evidence suggests when you get back with your parents, especially in a context where they might control the settings or the purse strings, people tend to revert back to old patterns of behavior,” Gudmunson says.

But this doesn’t mean that you have to limit family trips to those that your kids can afford. It’s fine if you’re subsidizing your kids’ or grandkids’ experience, as long as you settle the question of who pays—and what that means—before you pack your bags.

Planning together

Start by thinking through the kind of vacation you’d most like to have with your kids, and then broach the idea of going as a group. If it doesn’t work for your kids, suggest a compromise.

“Don’t lead with “‘Here’s where we’re going to take you,’” recommends Susan Zimmerman, a chartered financial consultant and licensed marriage and family therapist in Apple Valley, Minn.

“The fantasy most of us have is that we’re all sitting at the table and talking and sharing.”
Linda M. Herman, psychotherapist

If you’re splitting the bill for the trip, it’s a good idea to define ahead of time who will pay for meals, attraction tickets, the rental car and other expenses you’ll incur on the trip itself. “Negotiating the finances while you’ve on vacation detracts from the quality of the leisure time,” Gudmunson says. 

If you’re underwriting the whole shebang, it’s a smart idea to accept if your adult child offers to pay for, say, a nice dinner or a shore excursion. If she doesn’t have much spare cash, let her pay anyway.

Letting them pick up the tab occasionally is symbolically important because it lets them express an adult autonomy, which they might be craving after several days of being back in a “kid” role.

Expectations vs reality

You’re on vacation with your kids. Are they getting on your nerves? Of course.

But try to resist the inclination to fall back into the habit of parenting them, such as playing referee if sibling rivalry resurfaces, for instance. 

“Don’t be overly controlling just because you’re the one with the power and you’re holding the pocketbook,” says Zimmerman. 

Challenging dynamics often come out around family meals, experts say.

“When you mix family dynamics with money dynamics, there can be some weird things going on.”
Clinton Gudmunson, associate professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University

“The fantasy most of us have is that we’re all sitting at the table and talking and sharing,” says Linda M. Herman, a Seattle-based psychotherapist and author of the book Parents to the End

Instead, it’s not uncommon to find yourself fighting with your kids at said table—or, possibly, sitting there alone.

For smoother sailing, plan ahead

“Spell out up-front in terms of family togetherness and structurally, what your days are going to look like,” says Jessica Halliday Hardie, an associate professor of sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. 

If the trip also includes grandkids, decide ahead of time how much childcare you’d like to provide, and communicate that clearly. “There are a lot of expectations among young adults that once they have children, that their parents will help with childcare,” Hardie says.

On the flip side, Zimmerman says, that might mean butting out if your son lets his toddlers play with the iPad to distract them on a long car ride, or biting your tongue if he gives into pleas for late-night junk food. 

And no, you’re not going to do everything together. That’s for the better. Just make it clear exactly what you do want to do as a group, and when. Your script can be as simple as: “I see this trip as family time, and these are the things I’d love for us to all do together.”

Says Zimmerman: “Most issues can be resolved with expectation management.”