We’ve been busily travelling for a month now, so I feel it is time for an honest post about what it’s like to travel overseas with three young children.
Travelling with kids is like a distilled dose of parenting. Consumed straight up, neat, in a shot glass. The highs are higher, the experiences more intense, the lows are lower, and the frustrations are more frustrating.
There are several reasons for this. Firstly, there’s just a lot of stuff to sort out. While you’re in the middle of enjoying an ancient Buddhist monastery, someone will urgently need to go to the toilet. You sit down to lunch, and invariably someone doesn’t like what they’ve ordered. Someone has a sore finger or a bumped head or a question about mythology that must be answered RIGHT NOW. Someone doesn’t like their seat and no one will swap with them, or they’ve suddenly dropped their chocolate biscuit and there are none left; someone’s shoe hurts, and at exactly the same time someone else needs the toilet urgently AGAIN. Yep, it’s pretty time consuming and exhausting.
Secondly, there’s this universal truth – wherever you are, there you are. Sibling issues do not disappear just because you’ve paid thousands of dollars to travel to the other side of the world and experience something amazing. Sadly, my parenting skills or patience levels didn’t miraculously improve either. Picasso is still stubborn and annoys Bookworm. Bookworm still overreacts. Little Miss still gets tired before everyone else and takes out her grumpiness on her brothers. And of course, all this is exacerbated by the fact that you are in each other’s company 24 HOURS A DAY. No breaks. You eat, sleep, travel and play together constantly. This means you witness all the stupid fights that they usually have outside of your hearing. It also means bickering over small things takes on epic proportions. I kid you not, one of the most intense arguments occurred over the microbeads in hand sanitizer. I had no idea it was possible to even argue over hand sanitizer. This then of course led to a mammoth parenting fail on my behalf and I yelled at Bookworm beside the Statue of Lenin. (Bookworm has told me this has now negatively coloured his view of communism – if he ends up becoming a raging right-wing fanatic, I do apologise, everyone 🙂 ).
Finally, travelling successfully with the same five people day in and day out takes two things – selflessness and the ability to practice delayed gratification. Yeah – two things kids are REALLY AWESOME at doing. They don’t seem to understand that at the airport our priority is finding the right tickets and getting on the right plane. Why? Because their priority is making sure they have a turn wheeling the new suitcase RIGHT NOW. They have to work really, really hard at putting each other first, with countless reminders from us, and most of the time it feels like an uphill battle.
So, with all of this – why would anyone travel with kids??
I’ve thought about it a lot, and my answer is this – travel makes the most sense when you do it with children. Doors open when you travel with kids – particularly in Asia. Everyone has a smile or a present for them. Everyone wants to chat to them or take their picture. It gives you a unique perspective you wouldn’t get as a single person, or as a couple. And if travel is about expanding horizons, then that is magnified a hundred fold in children. You see their world view growing and changing right before your eyes. Kids don’t have the same prejudices and hangups we do. They encounter something they don’t understand, or something new challenges the way they think or what they know – and the process to acceptance and understanding is very quick. It’s fascinating to watch. Travelling with kids also opens up the most amazing conversations with them about all kinds of things – politics, religion, poverty, government, family, obligation, deformity, sex, drugs, disease – you name it, we’ve discussed it in the past 4 weeks. It also forces you to really work through some of your relationship issues quick smart. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself as a parent in the past 4 weeks, which has been somewhat confronting, but very useful.
So, if you are brave and foolish enough to travel overseas with children, I’ll share some things that the past month has taught me:
Lower your expectations and let go of unrealistic ones
As an only child, I really struggle with the sibling bickering thing. I just don’t get it. I can’t stand listening to it. It makes me feel like I’ve failed as a parent, which I know is ridiculous, but I can’t help thinking it anyway. Travelling has brought me face-to-face with some of my unrealistic ideals and forced me to just embrace the moment as it is. They WILL argue, whether you’re in your own home or on the Eiffel Tower. Just be prepared to try and ignore it as much as possible and not rise and fall with their emotions (this is a real struggle for me).
Spend a bit more for hotels with good breakfasts and a pool/outdoor area if possible
The times we scrimped on hotels and had a crappy breakfast, we had a crappy morning. Kids are happier if they are not hungry. Also, it depends on the season you’re travelling in, but kids need to burn off energy, and pleasantly strolling through unknown streets doesn’t count. They need parks, pools and play areas.
Understand they won’t necessarily like the same things you do
We’ve been pretty lucky with this one, because the boys particularly have really enjoyed the museums and touristy sites we’ve gone to. Little Miss not so much, but I keep reminding myself she’s only six. However one of the most delicious memories I have is being in Lake Como with Soul Sister and reading in bed for hours on a cold, rainy day. When faced with similar weather in Hue, spending the day like that would have been wonderful. Unfortunately, and while the kids were pretty good most of the day, everyone was climbing the walls by bedtime.
Split them up on occasion
When the personalities start to grate, it’s a good time to split up. We have found it works more naturally for Little Miss and Bookworm to come with me, and Picasso with Souljourneyboy.
Appreciate the good moments when you have them
In some moments, I did despair. But then there were these moments too – Little Miss writing on a beautiful card she bought at the night markets for her brothers about how much she loved them. Picasso offering Bookworm money when he lost his wallet. Bookworm giving up his window seat in the plane for his little sister. Its important to appreciate them when they happen, and remember that these shared experiences are good for them to soften some of the sharper edges of their personalities as well.
Find the technology balance that works for you
I’m sure there are parents out there who could entertain their kids on a four-hour bus trip with a set of teeth and an egg carton. I am not one of those parents. With that in mind, we decided to buy the kids an iPad mini each for Christmas before we left. We are really happy with the balance we’ve found – the iPads do not come anywhere with us when we are sight seeing or out to eat or playing. They are for the hotel room and long trips only. They have honestly been a godsend – they’re not just used for games, but we also downloaded a couple of movies and TV shows, as well as books, and apps that tell you all about the country you’re in. With all the travel we did in Vietnam – traversing a country 1650km long – they were invaluable. Also, when you have five people living in one room, they’re a good way of each person having some space.
And my final, most important piece of advice? Travel as a single person (I’ll forever regret I did not do this). Then travel as a couple. Then, make sure you travel with your kids (and bring some valium along for the ride 🙂 )