My friend Anja takes the most amazing and thoughtful trips every year, and today, she shares 3 things she’s learned while vacationing with her daughter, Matilda. I hope this inspires you as you plan your summer.
Once a year for the last few years, I have been lucky enough to be able to get away for a week with my daughter for vacation and quality time. I realize that in the Danish-Parenting-French-Maternity-Leave sense, a measly one week’s vacation a year is an actual embarrassment, but the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of parents cannot squeeze this luxury into their lives at all, and even those who are cash strapped but able to hunt down a good deal are rich in the time and energy it takes to make miracles happen on a budget…
As anyone who has traveled with kids knows, a vacation can quickly and easily turn into more of a ‘trip’, and so I try to approach planning with a level of mindfulness of our privilege.
My trips with my daughter have been some of the best days of my entire life, and though they are always entirely too short, there is something redemptive about these vacations. At home in Brooklyn, we leave the house for school by 7:45 every morning, we commute, and when I pick her up from her after school program we get home at about 7 pm, squeezing in approximately 1-1.5 hours of time together before she goes to sleep. The joke of modern parenting is how little time you actually spend ‘parenting’ in the classic sense – the word contorts and transforms for me for about five days out of every week into some sort of executive butler/escort/air traffic controller. So, one week of (relatively) uninterrupted parenting time makes me feel like a champion.
In our travels, there are three things that I always think of that keep the vacation successful and help us navigate around any road blocks:
Do You. One of the common losses to lament as a new parent is loss of freedom, which for so many can be easily defined by lack of ability to travel freely. I did a fair amount of globe trotting in my 20s pre-pregnancy, enough to develop a specific style of travel that suits me best – and coincidentally, doesn’t generally jive with kids. That style is: wandering. My favorite trips of my life have been spent aimlessly wandering through towns and cities on foot, memorizing sights, discovering holes in the wall that otherwise would have gone overlooked.
When I had Matilda and started asking friends about where and how they vacation with their kids, the common suggestion was to visit a resort, which there is ample space, swimming pools, and supervision to let children run free. Family-friendly resorts take a huge burden off of the parents by coordinating all of the key logistics in one central location. You know where the food is, there is often entertainment, and they’re generally fenced in to some extent, so there’s really only so much escaping that can be done by small, curious children.
Resigned to this new version of travelling named ‘parenthood’, I tried one of these resorts recently, with not one but two swimming pools, beach access, two restaurants, and daily activities in the common area. What did I find? This is not for me. And there’s nothing wrong with that! A huge part of the personal gain of traveling for me is the element of discovery, and I have found in these environments that element tends to be stripped. Because this is where I find my peace and renewal, it is important to me that my child learn to be a decent travel companion on these journeys, and so I am forging forward with travel plans that leave us somewhat lost in foreign places, the only constant being each other’s company.
However, I have one child, and I am a full-time single parent. The moral of this tip is not that there is any one superior way to travel, and there is no high-mindedness behind my experience. My advice, always, is to look at your own family unit outside the framework of what we are often told is ‘right’. What’s ‘right’ for your family is specific to you, and if you are happy on a local bus on a back country road on an island in the Aegean instead of a sparkling swimming pool with ten waterslides, that does not make you a bad parent. Do you.
Take Your Kids To Places Where Speaking English Is Not A Given
Again, heavy privilege filter on this. Many families cannot afford to travel at all, much less leave the country, and this only becomes more difficult the more children you have. On our vacation this month, we managed to squeeze in three days in Marbella, Spain, which is a vacation magnet for almost all of Europe. Because of this, it was easy to find someone to speak English if we looked hard enough, but it certainly is not a given. Not being a Spanish speaker, I was armed only with access to the internet to navigate translation. There are two reasons why I am grateful for my daughter to have this experience, and also why I find this important for young kids. First, I am, for better or for worse, raising an American kid. She is only four years old and by benefit of possessing a passport, she has an automatic visa to travel to half of the world on a whim, whereas in many other countries, grown adults wait for weeks or sometimes months to go through a visa approval process to visit most other countries. No matter how self-aware you may be, Americans often have a tendency to appear wherever they want in the world and expect that all of the elements of that environment will somehow adjust to meet their comfort – language included. Teaching my daughter that in another country and on someone else’s land we have an obligation to adhere to customs, not ours, is important to me. In Spain, insisting that she says hola, por favor, and gracias in the very was, hopefully, part of the foundation of learning how to be a respectful global citizen in the long term. The other reason I am so grateful for her to have this experience is: throughout our travel in Europe this month, Matilda met many children her age who, like her, only spoke their native language, and the wonder and beauty was that no language barrier stopped her from playing with other people her size. She saw children and just went to them, and they figured things out by yelling and laughing and running, they shared, they explored, and they had an amazing time. They communicated and nurtured each others existence without being able to use words, which is something we seem to progressively lose our ability to do in adulthood, and for these few hours spread across Western Europe with rench, Spanish, Russian and German children, it was beautiful.
Feed The Meter. This is a phrase I learned from Dr Harvey Karp’s book, The Happiest Toddler on the Block, and I have since incorporated it into not just my daughter’s life, but my own, as well. “>Kids get very different things out of a vacation than adults do. As adults, we are often looking to escape the hustle of our jobs, the monotony of coming home to the same house every day, the obligation of cooking our own meals and doing our laundry. Kids hands down do not feel this way, This is not to say they do not love to travel, but at age 4 or 8 or 12, kids are generally really dependent on their routines, and that can make vacationing extremely challenging. For me, a break from hiding nutritious vegetables in my daughter’s macaroni and cheese on a Tuesday night is a relief, for her it’s just an opportunity to miss her favorite food: macaroni and cheese with vegetables snuck in. To keep everyone from losing the plot without their routines, I try to Feed The Meter.
For us, this means being present and paying attention to what we’re doing to make sure we’re not driving ourselves over the edge. Are we rushing? Why? Are we hungry/thirsty/curious/lonely/frustrated or any combination of these things that could potentially derail a good day? Then let’s stop. Let’s stop to get a snack, let’s stop for a big bottle of water with us everywhere, let’s stop to explore this thing that my child is fascinated by, let’s stop the clock and just be. This doesn’t mean we throw the rules out the window, and it doesn’t mean your kids are in charge of this vacation. All it means is your child, and you, are answering your needs before they become dire. It’s a slower way to live, but tending to ourselves along the way is what makes for happier days in general.
I like the "feed the meter" philosophy. I am a single mom of two small ones – and although they visit with their dad every other weekend and some vacations the heavy lifting falls on me. Often times because of financial or time restraints, I can only choose one vacation where we travel out of NYC and I have been adhering to their preferences which is of the resort type places – not my jam, but they love it. I have accepted this choice and really go with it because its the memory of being together that will sustain us as we navigate this period in time and I remind myself how fortunate I am to even get to do this.