Be realistic with your expectations
You may have been dreaming about day trekking in that box canyon and scaling the rim for decades, always wondering what you could see from the top. But if you have 4 and 9 year old kids along, this is very unlikely to happen… at least not in the way you had envisioned! There are always rare exceptions, but bear in mind that kids of all ages have both physical and mental limitations to any activity. It’s hardly realistic to expect a 4 year old to have the physical stamina to hike for 45 minutes, spend two hours scrambling up a canyon wall, be excited about looking up high (for over two minutes), then reverse the entire procedure. Most unprepared adults would be hard pressed to achieve this adventure and develop a smiley disposition.
To give everyone a satisfactory experience, rather, consider hiking to the box canyon and engaging your children natural desire to explore and learn. Whip out the binoculars and see who can find the most birds flying across the canyon wall. Do a little (well supervised) boulder hopping at the base of the canyon. See which one of you can find the most animal tracks, or even the most interesting bugs, or butterflies (take pics on your smartphone, you can use these later to spark some more conversation). Give them a hypothetical question by asking them how they would climb to the top? Kids of all ages love to explore and problem solve, especially if it doesn’t involve a pencil and paper, or the capacity for a failing grade. Oh, and deliver a no cook lunch or snacks along. This approach applies to ALL ACTIVITIES. You will be less likely to come away with a sour taste in your mouth if you start with realistic expectations.
Engage your children
No matter what the job is, there’s some aspect of it that a child over age 3 can assist with. I know, I know. It’s often easier to do everything yourself than it is to try and explain it to someone else… who might not get it done how you asked anyway. The only problem with that sort of thinking (and I’m guilty of doing it all the time), is that it’s very easy to become resentful of those around you. “Why go ___________(insert your favorite activity here), I have to do everything myself anyway and do not get to enjoy myself!” I understand that you’re fully capable of preparing dinner by yourself, you’ve probably done it thousands of times. Instead, try having the children get out the plates and utensils, pouring drinks, root around the dry goods bag to find the tortilla shells, and if age appropriate, slice up some of the veggies for the tacos. Heck people, this is swimming, not gourmet dining! It doesn’t matter if the diced tomatoes end up a uniform size. Your children are fully capable of any of the aforementioned tasks, leaving you to work the stove, smile appreciatively, and wonder why you did not think of this setup sooner. Kids really do want to please their parents. If you maintain the tasks small enough once you request their help (and remember… realistic expectations), they will probably go out of the way to accomplish them.
Downtime… for everyone
I am not talking about graham crackers, hot milk, and everyone face down on the furry rug downtime; but if all that you and your kids are doing is go, Go, GO, nobody is going to have a good time camping. Any fond memories you have made are going to be overshadowed by the shear fatigue that you feel when you get home. Ever had that “I need a vacation from my vacation” feeling? Yep. Strategy in some downtime. Lazy time after lunch (after everybody helped clean up), when you and the children can do their own thing. Play quietly in the tent or camper, take a short nap, or read a story. Hang out around the campfire, talk about the day, how you will make smores afterwards, who found the coolest rock, or why crazy old uncle Mike tied that ridiculously large dead fish to his kayak for no apparent reason! It doesn’t really matter what you’re talking about or doing, or NOT doing, so long as it is not a regimented, full concentration, I may die if I do not pay attention type of task. Your children have far shorter attention spans than you or I do (OK, just you!)
Downtime + participation + realistic expectations = MORE FUN!
Let’s face it, this is, after all, the point of going out camping in the first place. To have fun, make memories, and just enjoy nature and each others company. You have seen these households in the movies, always so organized, so on point, so joyful, and they can do no wrong when they go camping. You can’t purchase these experiences, nor are any of us likely to combine a movie “family” in the not too distant future, but if we subscribe to a few basic ideas, perhaps we can come a bit closer to a perfect? Come to think of it, making those memories with your own children is likely far more satisfying. Skip that film family… make your own special memories.