What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Ancient Mayan religious rites being performed in a Catholic cathedral… a unique blend of religions that tells stories about a part of the world with a conflicting history.
As the mother of four children and an avid traveler can I rant for a minute about how annoyed I am by the term “family friendly” as it relates to travel?
On the surface, you’d think it was a good thing, wouldn’t you? “Family friendly” should mean welcoming to children, accommodating of the needs of young families and perhaps priced in a way that is considerate to the family budget. By that definition, I’m all in favor of “family friendly.”
The problem is that “family friendly” actually has layers of meaning that are not nearly so lovely. In fact, if someplace is advertising itself, or comes recommended as being “family friendly” it almost guarantees that I won’t be interested in visiting, even though I have four kids.
In my experience, “family friendly” has come to mean, “adult-unfriendly.” It often means you can expect very low standards of civilized behavior, children behaving in socially inappropriate ways, and everyone else expected to smile and take it, no matter what the little darlings dish out. I once had to bodily remove someone else’s child from the middle of my dining table in a “family friendly” restaurant, with my own four children seated, wide-eyed, around it. That’s just not cool.
The other thing “family friendly” has come to mean is dumbed down and pre-chewed. Any real cultural interactions will be so carefully cartoonized and staged that the children are sure to have “fun” but are equally sure not to come away with any real or significant experience or learning. As a mom, and a teacher and a former child who traveled a great deal, I find this highly offensive. The assumption is that kids aren’t intelligent, or interested, or up to the task of digging into the real world or real experiences. Is that true? I know hundreds of intelligent, engaged, interested children who would beg to differ.
Labeling something “family friendly” screams, out of control kids, parents who can’t be bothered to actually train their kids to interact with the real world in a meaningful way, crappy kids menus instead of decent, nutritious food, and plastic counterfeit experiences in place of real world interactions. And we wonder why kids are so often bored, badly behaved, fat, and uninterested with crappy attitudes and temper tantrums on the side? We’re selling them so far short, why would they be otherwise?
Do I appreciate family pricing, changing tables for babies and a little extra grace when my little ones are struggling at the end of a long day, of course. We all do. But that’s not what “family friendly” is really about, and I’d rather not waste my kids childhoods on drivel, thank you. Is it more work to help kids learn to develop culturally and socially appropriate behavior so that they can hack it in the real world and non-family-friendly experiences? You bet it is, but what are we doing as parents, if not preparing our kids (as soon as possible) to navigate the real world? Why would we relegate them to an artificially contrived version of the world, painted in bright colours and cartoon figures and populated with touch screens and chicken nuggets? Because it’s easier for me as the Mom? Hmmm.
Here’s something I’ve learned: the world is infinitely “family friendly.” There are families everywhere, in every culture and children around the world are lovingly, gently, grafted into their parents’, family’s and community’s lives as naturally as can be, as they demonstrate their ability. Around the world our kids have been welcomed with open arms into the very finest “family friendly” establishments, run by real families, without one ounce of contrived child-life nonsense whitewashed on top. If you’re diving in and traveling with your kids, I encourage you to bravely reach beyond the “family friendly” marketing and take your kids out into the real world, to have real experiences, instead of settling for a sanitized, watered down version.
It seems almost impossible to believe that I’ve been traveling with kids for nearly twenty years. From newborn babies to teens with one foot out the door. From local weekend getaways, to two week trips, to packing kids along on corporate “work” trips, to long-term slow travel over a number of years.
Last week I shared 5 tips for traveling with kids; this week I’d like to share five more:
1. Slow Down
Please, for the love of your children, slow down. Toddlers do not like to be dragged through three museums in one day and sleep in a different hotel bed every night. They get cranky. (Heck, I get cranky!) If all you have is two weeks, then see two cities in Europe, not six and four countries. Plan a really fun train ride between them.
Don’t take off on a one year “round the world” with a plan for 20 countries and five continents. Just don’t. Be where you are. Spend enough time to really see. Look through your children’s eyes. Find parks to be as much a cultural experience as museum halls. Spend many days, to weeks, to months even in one place. Give your kids time to adjust, to absorb, to enjoy. Kids can’t turn that on at the flip of a switch. They enjoy when they are safe and secure feeling, when their world is ordered well, when they are well rested, when they sense that you’re settled in your soul, when all of their needs are met and they’re not being pushed too much. It’s hard to attend to all of that when you’re rushing.
2. Apply Strategy
My Dad is famous for saying, when we come up against a brick wall, “Well, we’ll just have to apply strategy to the situation.” When traveling with kids, applying strategy means outsmarting the system and working around the margins.
When our kids were tiny this meant road tripping the 12 hours to Canada overnight instead of during the day when it was harder on them. We never booked a flight that would interfere with nap time (the other fliers would not have appreciated our presence).
Even now with teens who are incredibly travel savvy we order our days with our family routines in mind: Meal times remain consistent, we rarely push for an early morning start, mornings are for work and school, afternoons are for touring and adventures. Ezra really needs to be in bed by 8:30 or by day three he’s less capable of being cool under pressure. Hannah needs a little daily personal space (little wonder!) Gabe needs time to get his feet under him in the morning. Elisha needs plenty of fair warning to be prepared and ready to roll. Ezra appreciates having tomorrow’s plan laid out (in detail) the night before so that he knows what to expect.
Know your kids, know style and respect your family patterns. Apply strategy to the situation.
3. Ziploc Bags
Pack them. Someone is going to vomit. Someone else is going to pee their pants. There will be a banana peel when there is no trash can in site. It’s going to rain frogs on the day you have to walk and you’ll be able to put the things you need to stay dry in them.
These are non-optional. Ziploc bags. Trust me.
4. Pack a Secret Weapon
What’s a secret weapon? A bag of tricks you deploy just moments before you kid completely loses it. It’s a boredom buster, a “five more minutes” burner, a sanity saver, and a gift to your fellow travelers (in silence!) Pack a little stash of quiet diversions to get you through a pinch and keep the kids happy. It doesn’t have to be big, it shouldn’t be expensive, and each item should be chosen with your child’s particular bent in mind.
What’s been in mine over the years:
Among other things
5. Try Again
If at first you don’t succeed, if you have the family vacation from hell, if the last road trip was an epic failure, try, try again. Assess the damage. Take stock. Go at it from a different angle. Try again.
There’s a learning curve to family travel and there’s no “recipe” for guaranteed success. You have to work with the circus you’ve got and make the best of the good, the bad and the ugly. Perhaps one type of travel won’t be a good fit for you, but another will. Maybe you can’t camp with your crew without it turning into a horror story, fine, no problem, so rent a holiday home instead. Keep trying. Find what works. Go with that.
Bonus: Do it your way
We do it our way. You should do it your way. You’ll find what works for your family and that’s a good thing. Don’t let anyone else tell you different. It’s all well and good to read “Tips for Traveling With Kids” but if they don’t work for you, that’s not a failure on your part, or ours, just a difference. Do what works. Cut yourself (and others) some slack. Make it fun.
I’ve flown alone with three kids under six, pregnant with a fourth. I’ve backpacked with a tribe. I’ve done all night bus trips with a toddler and a nursling, solo. I’ve road tripped with 11 kids under 15, tag team with a girlfriend. We’ve bicycled, RV’d, flown, road tripped, camped, walked, bused, trained, ferried… you name it. We’ve traveled alone, just our “little” family, we’ve traveled with grandparents, with friends, with a group of seven other large families to Washington DC for a week, with strangers, and on just about everything but a cruise ship or a packaged tour (we’ll add those this year!)
Over the past 17 years of (fairly intensive) travel, we’ve found our groove, weathered more than a couple of storm and discovered a few “tricks” that might help some other family as they test the waters and travel with their kids
1. Start Early
The earlier you make a habit of traveling, even locally for day trips, the easier it will be for your child to take off on bigger adventures with an intrepid spirit. If your babies get comfortable on the move, your toddlers and teens will take it in stride.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you take what study after study is indicating regarding the detrimental effects of screen time on young children and unplug your kids. The ensuing development of the ability to self entertain, be creative and enjoy the simpler things will pay off in spades when you’re in Cambodia with a stick and a ball as the extent of the “entertainment” for your child. The other big benefit of making screen time a treat instead of the norm is that it works beautifully as a “Hail Mary” diversion when everything is going to hell in a hand basket at a particularly bad moment (on a plane, for example!)
Hannah acted like a complete fool once in a doctor’s office when she was about three. She was all over that room like a wild monkey: refused to sit, wanted to lick every germ covered toy, screamed like a little monster and I was completely freaked out. I could NOT control that kid to save my life. My mentor mom just giggled when I told her the story, completely at a loss as to what I could have done differently.
“Well,” she said, “Had you practiced for the doctor’s office? You can’t expect her to magically know what to do in that situation if you haven’t practiced at home.”
It was a “DUH!” moment. Obviously. So simple. Why didn’t I think of that.
A good 2/3 of what frustrates us as parents traveling with kids can be easily avoided by adhering to the 7 P’s (proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance) and practicing with our kids at home.
Things to practice:
I’m sure you can think of other things… practice them in a stress free, fun environment instead of expecting them to magically know when you’re all under the gun.
4. Pack Less
Seriously. Pack. Less. Rent baby gear when you get there. Buy stuff at resale shops and donate it later. Anything you need for kids you can find anywhere that kids live… which is everywhere. Excess gear and the necessity of hauling it around is the biggest joy-sucker I know of in family travel.
If you have a pack rat, that’s okay, let him carry his own gear. It’s a self teaching moment!
5, Adjust Expectations
You’ve been reading blogs. You have this glossy magazine spread idea of what family travel is going to be like. Perpetual vacation. Everyone smiling. Endless relaxing family time. Non-stop adventure and joyful bonding moments. Deep philosophical conversations about the finer points of art, architecture and religion as you sweep through Europe on a cloud with an epic soundtrack of orchestral music playing in the background. Erm. No. Get a grip.
Traveling with kids is hard work. It’s very worth it, but it’s work. Accept that. You might get to see the L’Ouvre, but you won’t be spending 8 hours in blissful silence with your head bowed at the feet of the masters. You’ll be trying to find a place to have your picnic, scoping out where the toilets are, reminding Jr. fifty times not to stamp his feet so loud that the whole danged Egyptian room echos, and repeating, ad nauseum, the admonition not to touch the Monets, no matter how enraptured he is with the colours and style. You’ll need to take nap time and bed time and dietary patterns into consideration. You won’t be out at Parisian restaurants until the wee hours too often, and you’ll be considerably more focused on locating the city parks than you ever have been in your life.
These aren’t bad things, they’re just different things and the parent who enjoys the journey most is the one who learns to let go of *her* expectations and go with the flow. This takes practice. Be gentle with yourself.
Our family has a long history of making memories instead of collecting things. We love to give gifts, don’t get me wrong, but most of them are little homemade things, or gifts of self in some capacity. Perhaps most precious are the gifts of time and of memories.
We didn’t get a honeymoon. I had back surgery instead. Long story.
So, we started taking annual honeymoons:
Year One: a road trip to Florida and a three day cruise to the Bahamas.
Year Five: a motorcycle trip through the maritime provinces of Canada.
Year Ten: Hawaii
Year Fifteen: A rainy tent in England, one month into a year long cycle trip around Europe.
Year Twenty: This coming spring (where did the time go?) We’re thinking Paris, just to be cliche.
One year we gave our kids camel rides on the Sahara for Christmas. Ezra got an elephant ride in Thailand for his tenth birthday. Hannah got a visit to Angkor Wat for her sixteenth; we went skiing in New Zealand for her seventeenth.
This coming year I turn 40. To honor that milestone I’m taking a walk with an old friend. We share a birth year, and it’s been her dream to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Something about forty, the nice round hilltop of mid-life, that makes a good place to stop and take a breath, lift our heads and take a look around: at the past, and the path before us into the future. It will be a monumental journey. No husbands. No kids. Just her and me, our boots and our backpacks.
Many tangible gifts have passed through my hands over the years, many of them treasures for a while. The ones that have passed through my heart are the ones I still hold dearest, the ones that I can unpack in the quiet of a dark moment and that bring light to my life in the way no purchased item ever has. Perhaps it makes me an oddity, but I’d always rather make a memory than spend equal money on a “thing.”
How do you mark milestones? Have you used journeys to celebrate and measure out life? Tell me about that.
“Wow, it must be nice to be able to afford to travel so much…”
I understand why people say that. I get that the question behind it stems from the number crunching going on that includes a mortgage payment, car payment, clothing, food, insurance, and luxury items that pad their existence. I know they’re thinking about how that week long trip to Disney with their kids cost them in the neighbourhood of $5000 last year and they’re doing the math on how that could possibly be sustainable, times four weeks to a month, times 12 months to a year, times six years.
Of course that math is faulty. There’s a big difference between lifestyle travel and vacation. But there’s something else:
Long term travel is about a priority shift more than it is budgeting.
Long ago we realized that we could afford a “normal life” with a house, two cars, music lessons for the kids and the usual trappings. Or, we could afford to travel slowly for as long as we liked, but we could not afford to do both. Either in time, or money. Of the two, time is the more precious currency to us.
And so, we chose to travel.
Which means that we chose to give up the lovely three bedroom house, with an office and purpose built school room on 2 acres, surrounded by state forest. We sold most of our “things.” We sold our cars. I traded my lovely down comforter for a sleeping bag, my kitchen with all the appliances for two gas burners in Thailand, my fancy wash-and-dry-in-one-go machine for a bucket or a river.
We’ve chosen to invest both currencies: time and money in collecting memories and dreams instead of knickknacks and a closet full of shoes. That’s why we started traveling and that’s what keeps us traveling. We’ve traded comfort for a long string of, “Remember when….”
My Dad is famous for saying that life is like a coin, you can spend it any way you want, but you can only spend it once. We’re spending it on collecting memories and relationships, not tangible things. Does that make us minimalists? Absolutely not! We’re maximalists to the max! We’re just filling up the inside instead!
“You really have to want to do this, don’t you, Dear?”
Ann’s words have echoed in my mind as her sweet, octogenarian face has pleasantly haunted my afternoon walks. We wandered slowly through the natural bridge outside of Waitomo, NZ, with her and her husband, Ross. I quietly got the kids’ attention and encouraged them to walk more slowly behind him, and not press forward as he did his aged best to step over tree roots and up the rocky stairs to the high meadow where we laughed together about the crazy idea of standing in the presence of 3 million year old oysters. Tony gave him a leg up over the fences. He laughed, good-naturedly, when the boys leapt out from behind blackberry bushes with a roar, as he had undoubtedly done forty years before I took my first breath.
Ann was hand washing for the two of them in a little tub out the back of her camper van, using water that Ross was bringing, one bucket at a time from the bridge. He’d lower the bucket the twenty or so feet to the surface with a long rope and then haul it up, mostly full, hand over hand before delivering it to his white haired wife. By the time she was done rinsing he was there to help her wring out his trousers, one on each end, twisting hard, and hang the clothes from a line he’s strung under the awning.
She commiserated with me over hand washing for six, producing meals for an army on two burners in a three foot square space, and the difficulties of adventuring with children. She’d raised a tribe too, in her day, and they’d camped the length and breadth of their island home. Perhaps she’s a premonition of myself.
You have to really want to do this.
I’ve been thinking about that statement, and the layers of meaning it embodies.
Truth be told, living this way is a lot of work. Staying home is far and away easier. But the best things in life are always the things that require the most from us, that we have to work our rear-ends off to achieve. The things we are proudest of mean so much to us because they’ve cost us the most.
Marriage is like that.
Raising kids is like that.
Traveling is like that.
All three together is the perfect storm of all that and two bags of chips.
There was so much encouragement in Ann’s face as we talked and washed and shared “mama” stories. The older I get the more I appreciate the stories of old women. I think because I’m just beginning to understand the many-layered thing that a woman’s life is, stretched thin over the better part of a century. Perhaps it’s because I can see myself in their eyes more clearly than I could at twenty, or thirty.
You have to really want to do this.
So many people give up. They give up on the thing they really, really want to do. There are so many reasons: It gets too hard. It costs too much. It hurts too badly. It isn’t what we signed up for. Someone else fails us. We fail ourselves. It’s inconvenient. It’s easier to stay home, in some capacity. We feel that we don’t deserve it, aren’t “worth” it. It’s a fight.
I’ve been thinking lots about the things I really want to do. The big things and the small things. The hard things and the harder things. The things that seem mundane, like staying married until I’m in my eighties, raising kids who are productive citizens and learning to write. The things that seem like pipe dreams too: seeing Antarctica, changing the world, and successfully handing my parents’ legacy to my grandkids. I really, really want to do these things.
For tonight, the things I really want to do included cooking 3 kilos of meat, enough potatoes, cheesy cauliflower & salad for an army, making a double batch of ginger cookies in a 16″ square camper oven and two gas burners, and making my husband laugh until he was squirming to get away from me, which is an accomplishment. I want to sit and sip my tea, munch my still warm ginger treat and thank the gods that be for friends who love me enough to mail me the exact type of tea that keeps me from killing the children who I want so desperately to strangle sometimes when we all are living in 126 square feet. And I’m willing to live in 126 square feet of rolling space because I really, really want, quite desperately, to make their childhood epic and not to miss a moment of it.
What do you really want to do?
As a fan of great museums, England, and historical stuff in general, I’m excited about a brand new museum that has just opened this week.
Located in the historic dockyard of Portsmouth on England’s picturesque south coast, the Mary Rose Museum houses the sixteenth-century hulk of the HMS Mary Rose, the pride of Henry VIII’s navy. Built in 1511, the massive warship sank off the coast of England in 1545 while fighting the French fleet. After ages under the waves, her remains were resurrected from the sea by marine archaeologists and installed in the new museum. A museum that, incidentally, is situated in the very dockyard in which the ship herself was constructed.
But it’s the collection of objects from within the ship—thousands of sixteenth-century items being called the largest trove of Tudor-era artifacts ever assembled—that are the real stars of the museum. By a stroke of fate, the silt of the sea floor created a virtually airtight tomb for the small objects within the vessel. The resulting collection of relics is so well preserved that it has been dubbed “the English Pompeii” for its quality and poignancy.
The artifacts on display within the hull include miraculously preserved musical instruments, rosaries, board games, silverware, weapons, book covers, medical equipment, furniture, coins, and even the remains of several of the Mary Rose’s sailors. Facial reconstructions of the recovered skulls put a human dimension to the 500 men who perished with the ship, as do the everyday items they used. Combs with Tudor-era lice still trapped in them are also in the exhibit, as are the remains of the ship’s dog.
Taken together they are sure to tell a story of lives lived and lost within a sixteenth-century ship’s creaking timbers.
I can wait to see this for myself.
Strangest things we’ve seen lately:
Back home, before 2011 when we hit the road to become The Nomadic Family, we used to not move without seat belts. I would allow the kids to unbuckle only when the car came to a complete stop in the driveway, and not a second earlier. Today, after hitchhiking on the back of banana pickup trucks throughout Central and South America, our motorcycle accident in Cambodia, and most recently, after sitting on the roof of a jungle expedition truck in Gopeng, Malaysia; we no longer regard transportation safety a parental concern. (God help us!) Strangest thing I’ve seen lately, is all five of us on the back of motorcycles on the curvy mountain roads surrounding Da Lat, Vietnam, with not a care in the world. I’ve spent my entire motherhood telling the kids how motorcycles were death traps, and here we are, with the Bull Riders of DaLat, on motorcycles. Strange, and liberating, indeed.
This week I have a question. It’s one that’s been rolling around in several communities I participate in, and it’s one that tends to bring about heated debate. It’s also one that is very hard to separate from one’s own experience, as a child and as a parent as well. I’m open to all answers and to lively debate, so don’t be afraid to dive on into the fray.
Without further ado, here is the question:
Is travel wasted on the very young?
Before you answer, let’s define a few terms:
So what do you think? Is travel wasted on the very young?
I’m working on a longer piece about this, that I’ll post on my blog in a few weeks, but I’ll dive in here and start the debate by throwing the short version of my position into the ring:
I do not believe travel is wasted on the very young. Just because a developing person cannot remember something does not mean that it does not have value and is not life changing for them. To suggest that we shouldn’t bother with things children cannot remember is to suggest that reading aloud to them, hugging them, playing with them, talking to them and doing little crafty projects with them is a “waste” as well, and we all know how much those activities matter over the long haul. I would argue that travel is a great benefit to the very young because it introduces much diversity to their developing brains at a point when it is easily assimilated. It’s not “wasted” it’s just very hard to measure the benefit to the developing individual.
As always, I have more to say… but this week I really want to know what you think about this, and why you think it. Tell me your stories, educate me! Let’s debate!