“I have found that there ain’t no surer way to find out if you like people than to travel with them.” Mark Twain.
Last week I got my first “back to school” notice. We hadn’t even celebrated Independence Day! Yet, the truth dawned — the last weeks of summer are upon us. How will we use them? For our family, and many others, we want to travel. To adventure together.
While I always have idyllic pictures of all the fun we will have together, the reality also includes some challenge. Various personalities confined to a small space have a tendency, at some point, to clash. As one friend puts it, “The price of intimacy is conflict.” And, nothing is more intimate than a ten-hour car ride. So, how can parents set the tone and make the most of the adventure?
Give children a role. Too often, parents see vacations — and much of all we do for our children — as a one-way endeavor. We give. They receive. In vacations as well as the rest of life, we do better to create a team approach. Sure, parents take the lead — but children can contribute.
Because prepping for the trip can be stressful, teach kiddos how to pack their own bags. I make a list of all that is needed for the destination — clothes, toiletries, games. Then, kids as young as six (able to read) can use it to pack their own bag. Obviously, the younger the child — the more parents supervise. No one wants to get to the beach with last year’s treasured but ill-fitting bathing suit. But, it’s amazing how a few experiences have children packing like a champ.
Also include children in the planning — where to go, what to do, how to pace the drive and pass the time. When given a voice, children often offer key strategies to make the trip more pleasant. Even more, as they are included — children invest in the trip. Instead of sitting back judging how parents are doing, they have a stake in the success.
Incentivize good behavior. I can honestly say that for us, the journey truly is as much a part of the fun as the destination. We enjoy being together. I think part of that is that we taught our kids skills for traveling well — and we rewarded their use of those skills. Instead of using video to distract, we taught them how to engage in the journey. We taught them how to read a map to track our progress. Watching for road signs to the next checkpoint passes time quickly. We created Bingo cards of sites we knew we would see which kept them watching out the windows. We borrowed books on tape and listened together. Some of our greatest memories of trips include the great books we enjoyed along the way. We took drive-through food to rest stops for meals instead of eating in the restaurant. The kids could run, throw a Frisbee, and get a break from car seats before the next stretch of ride.
We also unabashedly bribed. One of the best tricks was to fill a large jar with quarters. Each time a child complained, fought with someone else instead of politely discussing, or otherwise created turmoil — a quarter was removed. The children knew they would split whatever was left in the jar when we arrived as spending money for the trip. So, they policed each other to behave well.
Stay engaged. Children often misbehave when they are seeking to connect with parents and parents focus elsewhere. We do have to cook dinner. Pay bills. Clean the house. But, increasingly, parents are as addicted to their phones as teens — both for work and pleasure — and focus on kids gets sacrificed to focus on phone. Vacation offers a time to reconnect. So, take a break from the phone. Focus on the kids. Whether in the car or at the destination, intentionally engage. Everyone will enjoy the time more.
Travel with our children can show us just how much we like them. As parents set the tone, even in the challenges, the adventure awaits.