What’s Really, Really Important in a Family Vacation?


Using the Choice Ladder to Plan a Vacation
By Sarah Elliston


“I want to go to Paris.”  “But going to France takes two days.”
“What about Stonehenge?”
“I want to go to Oxford.  It’s famous!”  “Yes, and we have relatives at Cambridge and it is also famous.”
“We have to visit relatives in Norfolk.”  “Sailing on the Norfolk Broads is a uniquely European experience; you don’t want to miss it”
“And we have to see Thomas and Linda; they came to our wedding.”
“We could do France in one day.”
“But we need to see Aunt Cynthia; she was with us when we met.”
“What about Stratford on Avon?  We have to see a play.”

What started as a gentle, tea-time planning discussion in January of a three-week trip to Great Britain in June, was devolving into an argument.  My husband, our son Bill, age 12, and I were finding ourselves trying to convince each other of the importance of our personal “must see.”

Vacations are supposed to be fun but planning for this one wasn’t and we needed a plan.  We were going to ride bicycles around England for three weeks, staying in bed and breakfasts, visiting relatives and showing our son to them and the country to him.

Riding bikes, taking trains, sailing on the Norfolk Broads, visiting relatives was how my husband and his best friend spent the summer after high school graduation.  This trip was supposed to be similar, except it was only three weeks, and our son had ideas of his own.  My husband’s father was British and there were lots of Ellistons all over London and Norfolk, and even the Isle of Man. I loved the relatives I had met and looked forward to seeing them but I taught French and wanted to spend at least a day in the country.

What to do? 

I learned a choosing tool that I used in my management position and taught to others. Dr. Sidney B. Simon, professor emeritus of Values Clarification, created it.  We call it a Choice Ladder and its purpose is for everyone to be able to examine and identify the importance of any issue.  It can help individuals focus on how they spend their time, how they recreate, and what they want in a relationship.  It can also help people make a plan.  The choices are endless.

We needed to identify what we really, really wanted to do. I suggested the ladder and my husband and son were skeptical but decided, “What do we have to lose?”  We made a list of all the things that we wanted to do on one piece of paper and then each took 10 strips of paper and sat looking at the list, thinking about the items.  We each wrote what we thought was an important item on a strip and placed it in front of us as a step on a ladder with the top step as the most important. We each then wrote the next most important item on a strip and placed it under the top one and so on.

The silence was eloquent.  Great thinking was required for decisions. I was challenged in the making of my own choices and renewed in my belief in power of the process.  The only rules are that you can’t have two items on one ladder step, and you can keep moving the items around until you think you have it the way you want.

We worked on our individual ladders for 15 or 20 minutes.  Then, we shared about our top slips, our top choices.  We each said what they were and why, without trying to convince each other to change. We found that we weren’t so far apart. Great thinkers tell us that without connections, without relationships, our lives are half lived. We need intimacy and we need each other. I rediscovered that as we talked.

Interestingly, we each had people in our top three ladder steps.  The Aunt who lived on the Isle of Man, the cousins who were Bill’s age who lived in London, the family in Norfolk who were going to take us sailing.  The opportunity to sail on the Norfolk Broads sounded so exciting. The Broads are canals connecting shallow lakes, similar to Holland, and we loved to sail.

I was startled when I realized that France was at the bottom of my ladder.  It ended up there because being with family was more important.  Taking time for France would mean less time for the people we could see.  Bill acknowledged that maybe the universities would not be that different and he was interested in the Uncle at Cambridge, a famous scientist.

We all wanted to see Stonehenge but not as much as we wanted to be with relatives and friends. A Shakespearean play at Stratford on Avon was on a middle ladder but again, not as high as sailing on the Broads.  In looking at how we prioritized our choices we saw that we really did have similar values for this trip.

And we were able to plan our train rides so we could ride bikes from one bed and breakfast to another and then take a ferry to the Isle of Man.  That ride was memorable because Bill spent it teaching me the English money system and everybody on the ferry quizzed me.  We stayed with the relatives at Cambridge for a few nights and enjoyed home cooked meals.  We visited with the family in Norfolk and sailed on the Broads for four days, living on the boat.  After Stonehenge, we biked to Avebury and to our delight, discovered a cafeteria with six different salad choices, not the usual fare.

The trip was a highlight of my life and the connections Bill made with cousins are still strong.  We had fun, learned much and never quarreled about where we were going next.  The ladder is a powerful tool.

Sarah H. Elliston is the author of “Lessons from a Difficult Person – How to Deal With People Like Us”. She is a faculty member of the William Glasser Institute and is a workshop leader and trainer who is certified in Values Realization, Parent Effectiveness Training and Reality Therapy. For more about Reality Therapy and to read Sarah’s blog, visit www.SarahElliston.com.

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About the Author:

Sarah H. Elliston is the author of “Lessons from a Difficult Person – How to Deal With People Like Us”. She is a faculty member of the William Glasser Institute and is a workshop leader and trainer who is certified in Values Realization, Parent Effectiveness Training and Reality Therapy.

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