Thursday, June 26, 2008

Traveling with Kids

We just got back from the longest vacation that I have ever taken. Everywhere we went, be it camping on the beach, crashing in a hostel, or checking out various roadside attractions, people around us seemed to be united in one common diagnosis: we were brave to do whatever it was we were doing with a 2 and 3 year old.

Brave? Really? I thought it was fun to do these things with our kids. Even though they're very young, I think that what we were doing was enriching to them, for whatever that was worth.

Bringing Toys

When we went on our first big road trip with our girls at about this age, it was six months ago. It was a shorter trip and I think that we over prepared. We packed little backpacks for both of them filled with little toys, drawing boards, coloring books, stuffed animals, etc. Our idea was that by going through all of these things neatly packed into the bag as theirs, they would busy themselves and the time in the car would pass easily for them. Instead, it was a constant game of dropping and fetching that drove my wife crazy. There was a lot of discontent and crying when a favorite knick-knack would be lost in the bowels of the backpack.

This time, we cut toys down to a minimum. We bought generic travel magnadoodle things for each girl and invited them to bring along one favorite stuffed animal. There were also about half a dozen children's books. This time around things were easier to keep track of and the drawings got more and more creative as the magnadoodle things ended up being the best toy we could have thought of.

Special Gear

Since we were doing a lot of camping, we packed them each a small flashlight. This not only helped with the potential fear involved in camping, but it also made them feel that they held an important and self-directed role around the campground.

We packed two big sleeping bags for the girls and two small ones. We ended up camping in some remote and cold places and having them zipped in a small bag and snuggled into a larger bag with their sister was very helpful. They also enjoyed that we bought a rechargeable lantern with a little night light.

Little Responsibilities

Our kids like to feel like they're helping. We learned early on that it was best to buy two small or medium sized road atlases that they could each hold. We pointed out the grand view of our route and they liked to pretend to show each other exactly where we were, where different friends of their were, and where their aunts, uncles, and grandparents live. Using a pen, they drew all over the maps to show us where to go.

There were also lots of times that we let them decide what we were going to do: go for a hike, play with a ball, go for a drive, a swim, whatever.

Proper Expectations

Early on, we thought surprises would be the way to go. For example, on a day when we were going to go to the beach, we didn't tell them before hand. We dressed them in their swimming suits and told them that we were going to go for a swim. When we ended up at the beach, they were very disappointed that we weren't at the community pool back home. It took a good while before we could properly pump them up about the beach--usually one of their favorite things. With that in mind, we were sure to tell them the day before we went to Disneyland and talk about all the things we could do there. Kids seem to frame their world in their expectations and anticipation is half the fun--at least.


As we prepared for our trip, everyone and their dog had one suggestion. It can be summed up by what a coworker said to me: "You've got to get a DVD player for your car, if you don't have one." I just don't know why I would take my kids on a 6,000 mile road trip if I just wanted to plop them down in front of a TV. I would do that at home and buy a more convincing TV with all the money we would have saved by not driving around the country. I wanted them to experience things. I wanted them to see the world around us: the redwoods in California, the arches in Utah, the desert in New Mexico, the Rockies in Colorado, etc. I even wanted them to experience how boring it can be for miles and miles while we try and make it to our next stop before sundown.

There's something that I think a lot of people forget: the gift of being bored. Boredom is something that is almost alien to me since having kids as every moment can potentially be filled with work, study, or dealing with the kids simultaneously. But boredom is the mother of invention. When they got bored, they started looking around more, drawing more, asking about letters and numbers more often and little stops at curio shops end up being big fun.

Our Mantra

It's about being a family together. Being in the car, in a remote campground, or at a busy theme park with your family is what the trip is all about. The night before we left, we had a tiny family conference where we said that we were going to have a "good trip." Our oldest daughter held her hand up in sort of the sign-language sign for "I Love You," (which seemed to pick up from "Yellow Submarine" or something) and said "Good Trip!" This became our mantra for the trip.

We agreed that if someone was grumpy, upset, angry, or dissatisfied in any way, you only had to lift your hand in the special sign and say "Good Trip!" and things got to start over free of penalty. You didn't need to warm up, you didn't need to hold a grudge, you didn't need to swallow your pride, it was just "Good Trip" and you're better.

This worked well for parents as well as kids. When I was upset and disappointed about something, my wife would remind me with a "Good Trip" and I was able to shift my frame of reference. And when we were having fun, one of the kids might just up and say it to remind us of what a special moment we were in.


Traveling with kids is fun. It's good for them, you, and it's good for your collective identity as family. There are going to be some fits and some problems and it's always more expensive than you think it will be, but it's worth it. It's one of those things that's not about time or money but transcends those things to become so much more than what you've spent on it.


Nicki said...

We did a lot of traveling with my Dad growing up, every summer. And now I travel a lot with my own kids and we all love it and get so much out of it. I think the notion that it is brave stems from a new society that spends most of its time apart and only really equates togetherness with fits, crankiness, picky eaters and constant arguments. Its sad that families are separated so much these days and a family vacation is seen as an act of bravery!

Anonymous said...

I really like the "Good Trip" idea, very positive. Traveling with kids can definitely be stressful but it looks like your family prepared pretty well for the vacation. The website has some really great tips and tricks for planning family road trips. They also have free printouts of classic games and coloring sheets that are great for the kids. Try it out on your next road trip and see how you like it!

EddieDuckling said...

I really loved the idea of the maps and letting the draw the route. I think the key to traveling with kids is to keep them involved.
I remember being involved with the maps from an early age when on road trips with my parents and it was great. These days I am great with maps too. Added bonus - specially for girls who often don't get that much of a chance to develop spacial awareness - but of course for boys too.