Photo: My inflexible traveler pouting as we explore the streets of Puebla, Mexico
I have a German friend who brought up his son from ages 10 to 18 in Costa Rica while he worked for German development cooperation. He’s more than just a world traveler but a true adventurer—he has spent the last five plus years living in some remote provinces of Afghanistan, nearly getting blown up on one occasion. Despite raising his son during his formative years in Latin America, the son did not come visit his father while we were both living and working in Armenia. When I inquired why not, my friend mentioned casually that his son, who was my age, didn’t like to travel and was quite content in their small town outside Kiel. How on earth was that possible, I wondered? How could he have parents that were great adventurers and been raised for many years abroad, yet not like to travel? It didn’t make sense. But now I think I get it. Sometimes kids defy logic and just aren’t at all like their parents.
My older daughter is not the easiest traveler as she is a creature of habit. She’s a homebody we discovered this past year when she entered kindergarten, and enjoys the structure of routine and familiarity. Her approach to travel can be summed up by this exchange between us, while we were on a bus from Mexico City to Puebla. After answering a barrage of questions about what would happen each day on our trip, I had explained that when we arrived, we would take a taxi from the bus terminal to our hotel.
“How will we find the taxi? How will we know where to go? What number is the taxi?” The questions didn’t stop.
“I don’t know Jas, but we’ll figure it out when we get there.”
This did not appease her.
“Well, what number is it?”
“When you travel, you have to be go with the flow,” I explained. “We’ll get there and figure it out.”
“It means you have to relax, not stress and take things as they come.”
She thought about this for a sec and I was hopeful she grasped this basic travel wisdom I was trying to pass on to her. My hopes were quickly squashed.
“I don’t like go with the flow. It means you can get lost, you don’t know where you’re going and all sorts of stuff can happen.”
“And if that happens, that’s OK. It’s all part of the adventure.” But she was unconvinced and I clearly lost that battle.
As parents that are very relaxed and carefree in our approach to travel, having an inflexible traveler is new terrain for us. I have spent some time after our last trip thinking about the best strategies to make our whole family happy while traveling. Here are seven tips that may help your family if you too have a kid who is just not into travel.
- Plan. Make sure the child always knows the plan ahead of time. Go over it several times. An inflexible traveler is one who likes to know what is happening at all times. Granted, I know this is sometimes hard, especially if you don’t like to schedule much and just explore, as my husband I prefer. I tend to be really laissez-faire about travel planning once in the country—I never schedule tours and don’t have a plan from day to day. I tend to be so laid back about travel planning, I have even arrived in countries before not even knowing what to do or see, like when I went on a last minute trip to Syria, and relied on my local friends to tell me. I ended up seeing everything there was to see, but that sort of last minute approach definitely doesn’t work with children anymore, particularly ones who like plans. This will require some adjustment on our part as parents to become better planners when it comes to travel.
- Prep. A lot. Show pictures and involve her ahead of time. Give your child options of things to do and let him choose something that makes him excited. Our kids’ selection on this recent trip to the Mayan Riviera was swimming with the dolphins. It’s not something my husband or I would have picked to do, but they were happy about it and so we did it. It ended up being the number one thing they told their friends about when we came home.
- Indulge. Having certain perks when you are out and about all day—like ice cream—it gives the kids something to look forward to. Granted, we don’t want to over-indulge either and give in to every sweet they pine for but lightening up a little on special treats does seem to make them happy and more pliable. When the plans change, as they inevitably will when you travel, have simple responses that you repeat every time. “Sometimes plans change.” As this will not really placate your inflexible traveler, sure enough an indulgence will. Our daughter was very upset when we told her we were going to see some archaeological ruins. “That is not what you said! You said we were going to stay at the beach and pool everyday,” which was exactly what I had told her beforehand. If I had prepped better, I might have already known which day we were doing the ruins, but I didn’t. An ice cream solved most of the upset and she ended up enjoying the ruins, especially when we gave her the iPhone to take pictures of what she was seeing.
- Be extra flexible. Be prepared to take detours, many detours (we watched pigeons twice in the same plaza one afternoon).
Be ready for some plans to potentially derail due to inflexibility. Also realize that it will not be possible to do many of the things you would love to pack into a day. Compromises for both of you are OK and make the trip better on everyone.
5. Stick to certain routines. Although it’s nice to have a break from the routine when you travel, maintaining certain routines help our inflexible traveler. One example is sticking to the bedtime routine, even if the exact time is later than usual. If we veer from routine, we noticed she has trouble falling asleep. On a road trip, we once made the mistake of letting the kids watch TV before bed (this is not allowed at home) when we arrived late somewhere and needed a few minutes to unpack and get situated. Since then, they associate hotels with TV before bed and it has taken some time to sever the connection. Although it is tempting for us, and it works out fine for our younger daughter who can easily nod off to sleep after, our older daughter feels more comfortable with the familiarity of the wash up, brush teeth, read books, sing bedtime lullaby, lights out routine.
6. Smile and ignore. When your inflexible traveler says things like “this day is horrible,” “this is boring,” “I want to go home,” know it’s only a phase and don’t take it too seriously. It will pass. Our inflexible traveler muttered things like this several times. Other days she exclaimed stuff like, “I love Mexico! I don’t want to go home!” Not taking her proclamations too seriously in the tough moments definitely helped.
7. Patience. This one may be obvious but I often have to remind myself of the obvious things. Our daughter’s inflexibility as a traveler tends to make her more anxious about things. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that she is not just trying to make our life difficult intentionally. The inflexibility is often rooted in anxiety and insecurity about her surroundings. She takes a long time to wind down at night the first few days of any trip, often awake many hours past bedtime. While usually we are deep into our “Go the Fuck to Sleep” mantras at that point in our heads, I have to be mindful to put myself in her shoes for a moment. Because she is anxious, her mind is having trouble settling down. She requires a little extra attention and soothing, even at age six, when she seems so big to me most of the time. Taking a step back and adjusting my expectations always helps.
Having a child who does not approach travel in the same way as the parents doesn’t mean you have to completely change your jet setting ways. It just requires some adjustments from the parents and a willingness to find a common ground that will make the whole family happy while traveling.