Yes, that sassy little nugget in the middle is me. Not much has changed since age 4.

Family vacations bring together the best and the worst memories and experiences from childhood. Annual summer vacations are where I first developed an obsession with lake houses, a love for the outdoors, a penchant for fishing and hiking, and my camping savvy. Don’t get me wrong, my family has had their fair share of terrible vacation experiences. Funny stories in retrospect, but at the time they were anything but funny. Like the time we stayed at a motel that looked like it came straight from Hitchcock’s set for Psycho. Or the time that I cut my finger on a soda can (trying to get a licorice straw that I bit too small out of my can of sprite) and promptly began to play with germy lake mud, resulting in a raging staph infection, on a houseboat, in the middle of nowhere. Or the time that the woods around our cabin were infested with swarms of bugs. These terribly funny experiences rest in my mind right next to some of the best memories of my childhood from family vacations. Memories that feel like pictures in your mind. Jumping off a dock. That one giant trout that got away. Melty soft serve ice cream cones after a sweltering round of mini-golf. Little vignettes that have wriggled their way into my memory and refuse to leave.

During the packed days and nearly constant togetherness of family vacations, realities of daily life back at home fade away and family dynamics are magnified, creating a vacation vacuum of sorts. Isolated from “real life,” tensions rear their ugly head, but at the same time it brings your strengths and values as a family to the forefront.  This is both visible from the inside-out and the outside-in, as I experienced this summer.

I nannied this summer for three-weeks for a family I had never met before. A couple with three young kids wanted some extra help taking care of their kids while they vacationed in Montana. The family, rather wealthy, could afford to fly me to Montana and pay me to play with their kids. It was quite the deal for me! It was a free vacation with cute kids and a seemingly normal family. I love nature, I love kids, I’m a pro at dealing with the dynamics of family vacations, what could go wrong?

The answer is, a lot. I loved the kids, but realized that being a nanny on vacation means that you deal with all the stress and angst that inevitably goes hand in hand with family vacations without all the perks of quality time and making memories with the fam. I was an extremely awkward outside observer to so many ridiculous family fights, arguments, and the occasional group meltdown. It was so uncomfortably enlightening to see an entirely different family dynamic unfold in front of me. It provided me an entirely different lens from which I could appreciate my own family and my own experiences on family vacations.

After a few weeks with this family, I became so much more appreciative of my parents who worked so hard to make family life a central focus: being completely present in family life, making vacations memorable and fun. Recognizing the importance of little things that made me who I am. Dad taking off work early so he could coach my basketball teams and shutting off his computer at night to come shoot hoops in the cul-de-sac. Mom kindly putting up with the messes I made when I was in one of my arts and crafts frenzies, respecting my creative process, which unfailingly involved glitter.

I saw in the attitudes and behaviors of the kids I took care of this summer that so much of who you are and who you grow up to be comes from your family and the environment you grow up in. I saw their parents close-mindedness and the family’s sense of moneyed entitlement bleeding over into how their kids interacted and viewed the world. I saw a little boy, desperate for his Dad’s attention, a father who was virtually chained to his laptop and a work life that overran his family life. Children come into this world a blank slate ready to become a unique individual, but that only happens within the context of family and home. This summer made me realize that in order to be part of a family grounded in love and respect you have be emotionally, mentally and physically present. It takes hard work and patience to create a positive family dynamic, especially within the “vacation vacuum”. By experiencing another family’s tensions and negativity, I realized what it is that makes my family work and what I want to show the world about who I am and where I come from.

Family is the context in which I which I was able to build the confidence to be authentically me. To be unabashedly weird, embrace my quirks, to know myself and be unafraid to show others the real me. Rather than the boring watered down, filtered out me, which somehow seems so much easier to present to others. Authenticity breeds happiness and fulfillment. I’m still working on this one.

I always try to be open to new opportunities and experiences, whether it be a new food, a hobby, sports, friends, adventures, music. Closed minded parents make it ok for their kids to miss out on potentially life changing opportunities. Closed-mindedness is contagious, especially in families. Stop the spread by trying something new each week and bring a friend. My new experience this week: creating my own blog!

A good sense of humor makes you stronger person, facing challenges and mishaps with a dose of humor will make most things you encounter easier to handle. This doesn’t mean brushing off every experience with a laugh. Realistically, not everything that happens to you will end up a funny story. But being able to take a step back and realize the humor in the things that life throws your way is a strength. A strength that years of laughter around the dinner table with the family has trained me to do.

These are things that I value deeply because of my family, and these are things that I am still working on in my own life. I feel that I can only be a successful teacher and positive influence in others lives if I convey the importance of authenticity, open-mindedness, and laughter through my own attitude and behavior. It’s a constant effort, but my family and friends make it just a little easier to be both who I am and who I want to be.