“Are We There Yet?”--
The Challenge of Travelling with Children
By Ellen Gillette
In the 2004 movie Shrek 2
, Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey set off for the land of Far, Far Away to meet Fiona’s parents. Not “far” into the journey (haha), Donkey takes up a mantra with which all travelling parents are well acquainted, often to the degree that they begin frantically rummaging through purses and glove compartments in the quest for pharmaceutical relief:
“Are we there yet?”
In the movie, when all other threats fail to shut him up, Shrek takes a psychological approach, jumping in on Donkey’s words every time he opens his mouth. Finally, in the midst of the cacophonous result, Fiona yells above them, “Yes! We are…” Every parent and grandparent watching (for, quite possibly, the fifteenth time in as many days), experiences a physical sensation of inner peace. When travelling with children, one spells “relief” A-R-R-I-V-A-L.
Challenging though they can be (Who am I kidding? They’re always challenging. Always.), family trips are an important part of growing up, whether it’s over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house you go for Thanksgiving or Christmas with the whole clan, or a family vacation to new, exciting, and historically overpriced places. Grown-ups may not remember, in later years, daily conversations around the dinner table (those of us who were fortunate enough to have them in this hectic era of soccer practice, dance lessons, scouting, etc.) but chances are, we remember the time we climbed to the top of Mount Mitchell or hit all the tourist traps in south Florida.
Travelling with children can be extremely stressful, however, and not just because of the extra luggage. Alcohol helps, but must be used in moderation, especially while driving. Alcoholics Anonymous, on the other hand, has a helpful anagram for dealing with negative reactions, such as may be experienced when travelling with children, which they call HALT. When one is responding badly to a situation, ask one’s self, “Am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired?” Very often one or more of those circumstances are the root cause of the problem, and when travelling with children, one will probably answer “All of the above.”
Anagrams can be fun, practical, and effective and so can travel with kids. For the sake of our discussion on the subject, the anagram will be BiDPaSS, not at all as succinct and catchy, but what the hell. The letters stand for challenges commonly faced when forced to take, I mean…given the privilege…of travelling with children. (Note: For our purposes, “children” will represent those humans from birth through, say, age 12. Travelling with teenagers would rate an entirely separate volume involving expensive electronics equipments and several prescriptions.)
(Disclaimer: There are other challenges on which this humble volume will ignore, the greatest of which is cost. Multiply one trip to Europe by six, and...well, you can do the math. Even a road trip will increase in financial outlay the more mouths you have to feed, the more new swimsuits are required. And food! If one has fussy eaters, it's hardly worth the trouble. Stay home. Have everyone come to you instead, and save yourself the stress. Just a suggestion.)
B is for Boredom
Children are exquisite creations, full of life and exuberance, full of wonder and imagination. They were when I was growing up, and when my own children were growing up. I fear that in the present day of video games, portable DVD players, and cell phones, children are in danger of losing their ability to entertain themselves for more than a few minutes at a time. Even with these expensive babysitters, batteries die, movies end before a destination is reached, and coverage is sketchy. Even with Verizon. A little pre-planning for such moments can go a long way to combating the crippling effects of boredom.
Why is boredom such a potential challenge? Boredom, by itself, would be endurable. A child with nothing to do might, presumably, do nothing. Not so—a bored child soon becomes a whining child, and whining is the leading cause of what I call Abbreviated Vacation Syndrome. With AVS, reservations are changed, pamphlets thrown out, relatives disappointed, all because parents are incapable of spending another minute listening to whining. The real remedy, of course, is to discipline them correctly so that they deal with things in a more appropriate manner or at the very least, to coach them on the proper use of the whine.
My sister was with her children at a soccer game when one of the girls GOT BORED (yes, it can happen on short excursions too). She quickly shifted into whine mode, interpreting her own emptiness in the area of creativity and interest in the world around her as emptiness in her stomach, a common tactic. She needed food, needed drink, please? “Can I have a dollar? Now? I’m huuuuunnnnnnngggggggggrrrrrrrrrryyyyyyyy.”
A carefully coiffured soccer mom, oozing with all the outward accoutrements of wealth and social status, turned around and chastised my niece quietly, but with an air of authority. “Honey, don’t ever whine for food. That’s such a waste. If you’re going to whine, whine for something important, like diamonds, a new car, a trip to Rome…” It was apparent that she had learned this from experience.
To avoid boredom (and with it, the w word) plan ahead. Bring books to read, games to play (avoiding anything with tiny pieces that will, I guarantee, get lost), and age-appropriate toys. Even when travelling by airplane, one carry-on can be designated as the Anti-Boredom Kit. In a vehicle, sing songs or—if the countryside cooperates—count cows, as my sister and I used to do on trips to our grandparents’. A little healthy competition, mind stimulation…cows, cars, signs. The focal point is not as important as the fact that it burns up miles and minutes.
The key to combating Boredom is to keep in mind that every second a child is distracted from whining is a second that may lessen the need later in the day for police intervention.
D is for Discipline
In an ideal world, parents would lovingly train their offspring to be polite and obedient, respectful of authority and to those with whom they share the planet, cultivating a love for the environment and motivating self-awareness and –improvement. The land where this actually takes place on a large scale is not found in any guidebooks, because space travel is, at present, cost-prohibitive.
We are stuck on Planet Earth, where a depressing number of mommies and daddies knew only enough to join egg and sperm, but remain clueless as to what comes next in the way of child development. Frankly, if you have not invested the time and energy required for proper child discipline do us all a favor and leave the kids at home the next trip. We won’t like them any more than you do.
Any airline traveler knows the sinking feeling one gets when standing in line to board accompanied by the sign of a screaming toddler, who’s just, by the way, getting warmed up. Babies, you expect to cry. You may not go out of your way to sit next to someone with an infant, but you see a tiny bundle of pink or blue and your heart goes out to the parent. No one travels with a newborn baby unless it’s absolutely necessary—mommy’s privates haven’t fully healed, for one thing, and sitting that long is a pain, literally, in the ass. No self-respecting daddy would travel alone with an infant—this is a sure sign of unbelievable tragic inspiring true sympathy and patience in those around him.
Rug rats, on the other hand, need to stay at home if they are also of the bratty variety. If one is not sure as to the level of brattiness in one’s own children, ask a trusted friend if he or she would enjoy taking one’s children on a trip. Confined in small spaces together for long periods of time. If the friend pales visibly, develops an eye twitch, faints, runs wildly in the opposite direction, or begins to laugh maniacally, one might wish to re-think plans.
Tired children, regardless of how well-behaved they are under better circumstances, tend to get whiny, or loud, or whiny and loud, causing fellow-travelers to consider arrest for assault a viable option. Copious amounts of Benadryl. A thimbleful of bourbon. One must be creative, but if a child has been disciplined correctly at home, travelling with him or her will be more delight and less devastation.
P is for Potty Breaks
The mother of a friend of mine always waited until everyone was settled in the car to declare, “Speak now, or forever hold your pee.” She was of the mindset that you do your business prior to departure and that’s that.
Children, unfortunately, have delicate digestion and evacuation systems, triggered to release at amazingly close intervals and in direct relation to the speed with which one must arrive somewhere else. If you are running, say, two hours behind schedule, a child’s need to defecate and/or urinate (“poop” and “pee” always sufficed at our house, but some people prefer the proper terminology) will increase exponentially.
Unless one is completely bereft of hygiene training, using bathrooms can be tricky when travelling. Not every convenient store manager, sadly, cares whether or not the smell of stopped-up toilets will cause your little one to refuse to enter—or worse, to throw up, thus adding another 15 minutes off your already-stressful schedule. Taking a five-year-old into a Mexican gas station in the middle of nowhere is not for the faint of heart, to say nothing of instructing a prim nine-year-old how to squat over a drain in the floor of a public toilet in Calcutta without getting other people’s excrement on the hem of their dress. (World travel can be challenging on so many levels, but I believe it to be worthwhile. And memorable!)
Boys, God bless them, are better equipped, anatomically speaking, to evacuate on the go. An empty soda container will do in a pinch, although one must be careful to dispose of the filled, and surprisingly warm, liquid as soon as possible to insure that an unsuspecting (and thirsty) member of the family doesn’t make a huge mistake. No one wants to arrive at Aunt Edna’s smelling of the pee that Johnny efficiently and neatly filled a bottle with but which Suzie drank and subsequently projectile spit onto everyone in the car.
Girls are at a disadvantage. Parents who adhere to the “conquer-the-road” travel philosophy will not willingly find a gleaming bathroom smelling of Lysol© and Clorox© when there are plenty of bushes close to the road. As a child, I squatted between opened front and rear doors watching pee meander through the shoulder’s asphalt, hearing the whizzing cars race past as I tried to whiz and jump back into the car before anyone saw me.
On one trip, and this was as an adult with my husband, we were stuck on an interstate when a truck spilled its haul of logs onto the road. Backed up and motionless for miles, one young lady couldn’t take it any longer and ran off to the woods to get some relief. She didn’t go very far into the woods (one wouldn’t want to, obviously) but her estimation of exactly how far she needed to be and at what angle, to avoid showing up on someone’s “America’s Funniest Video” entry was somewhat amiss. No doubt she could not see her own vehicle from her designated dumping area, but countless car occupants just to her south were effectively distracted from their own boredom and whining by the sight of her extremely white derriere shining through the foliage.
The real answer to the Potty Break problem is simple—no food or liquids after midnight before a trip. They won’t starve, and Aunt Edna’s spinach casserole will possibly be received with genuine gratitude at the end of a long day.
S is for Sibling Rivalry
We had four children, all perfect and loving, who never raised a fist or raised their voices to each other. If you believe that, as they say, there’s a bridge up in Brooklyn I’ve got for sale, cheap. All children will fight occasionally, but fighting on a trip can be agonizingly similar to Chinese water torture. “He won’t leave me alone.” “She touched me.”
Back in the days when seatbelts weren’t mandatory, my sister and I would take turns sprawling across the back seat, the other hunched over at the door. The worst thing we would do was get right up in the other’s face and let out a blast of breath, but we had plenty of ways of annoying the fire out of each other and incurring our parents’ wrath.
One time during my own sprawl, my sister (older, and always more well-behaved) was silently reading a Nancy Drew book and I put one arm straight up in the air. That an arm, hovering just within her peripheral vision, would prove to be so disruptive to the otherwise calm of the vehicle was like gold to a child of my age and temperament. As long as it didn’t get too tired to stand there, a vigilant testimony to my power, my arm completely shattered her concentration.
Another time, I grabbed the book she was reading (she read a lot) and glanced at the last page, threatening to tell her the ending. She was so upset at this possibility that I deferred, but spent the next hour singing the last line of the book softly. “And she did, too. Lalalalala. And she did, too.” Based on these and numerous other incidents of similar aggravation-quality, it’s a miracle I survived childhood.
Parents traveling with children just have to be aware of what is taking place, the power struggles, the silent pinches to get the baby to scream, the farting contests, and, in the incomparable wisdom of Deputy Barney Fife, “nip it in the bud.” One may have to be willing to sit between siblings to put an end to their shenanigans, pull out the beds in your three-tier train car and strap them down, or ask the flight attendant to threaten them with a quick flight ground ward without a parachute, but parents are the key in such situations.
The Other S is for Safety
When we were about to embark on a thirty-hour flight from Orlando to Madras, India with four children ranging in ages from two to eight…oh I know, what you’re thinking. Were they insane? To which I would answer, quite possibly, but it was, overall, a good trip, and an invaluable year all but the oldest has largely forgotten. Yes, year. Travel to a foreign country takes on an entirely different aspect when your plan is not simply to visit (hitting the high spots and talking yourself into thinking you’ve attained even an iota of understanding of another people or culture) but to live among and alongside the people for an extended period of time.
But I digress. Back to the airport. Our youngest daughter, third in line to the throne, was a bit of a free spirit. As an outfielder playing tee-ball, she would turn her back to the game and look around for wildflowers to gather and stick behind her ears. If she was missing from the playroom where her brothers and sisters were engaged in general frivolity, I might find her in the yard chasing butterflies. She was the only one we really worried about, safety wise.
When one has a “wanderer” feel free, and guilt-free, to purchase a child’s harness and leash (hers was rainbow striped), or even borrow the dog’s. The main thing is that said child is within sight and bodily attached, not that in a crowd a predator couldn’t slice it quickly and escape (sorry, I’ve seen, perhaps, too many episodes of Criminal Minds
A co-worker of ours in India was taking a train trip when something (I prefer to think of it as divine providence) interrupted his sleep as the train was slowing down, but not stopping, at a particular village. He glanced around for a mental update on his family, as responsible fathers are wont to do; noticing that one of his two blonde-haired and adorable daughters was not on her berth in the open car. Assuming she’d gotten up to use the facilities, his eyes followed her probably path and settled on the horrifying vision of a stranger holding her by the arm in front of an opened side door, about to jump out with her when the train slowed down a bit more.
An altercation ensued, as you can well imagine. One thing about the mostly wonderful people of India, perhaps because so many of them have so little, they do not take lightly to anyone trying to steal from them, or from those around them. If the potential kidnapper didn’t require medical attention when the crowd (and father) was through with him, I’d be surprised.
Bottom line—keep your children within view and earshot, even if it means refraining from that important text to Aunt Edna letting her know you’re an hour away or being accused of being overprotective. Remember, if anyone is going to do bodily harm to your child while travelling, it should be you.
I say all this—and I’ve always wanted to use this overused, journalistic bit of puffery—with tongue firmly planted in cheek. (Doesn’t that sound exquisitely obnoxious?) But truthfully, travelling with kids is worth the challenges. It does require parents to think ahead, plan for contingencies and emergencies, have back-ups (and possibly, therapy sessions scheduled in advance) but family trips are memories that will be mentally revisited for the rest of all your lives.
On a twenty hour school bus trip to Mexico City, on a set schedule with forty or fifty others headed for two months of Doing Good after their earthquake, example, our youngest child was sick. So sick, in fact, that he went through every single clothing item I had packed. Arriving in Mexico City, reeking of child-vomit and stumbling with exhaustion, we discovered that there was no light bulb in our room.
Note to self: always bring along a flashlight. And plenty of Wet Ones.
Tag der Veröffentlichung: 29.11.2009
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