MANHATTAN, Kan. – Nearly every parent has probably heard a child recite the famous four words of a family vacation – “Are we there yet?”
Children might have a stronger focus on the destination—perhaps Grandma’s house, an amusement park or the zoo—than the actual trip to get there, but Bradford Wiles, early childhood development specialist for K-State Research and Extension, said the journey itself holds potential for great family bonding time and memory development.
Traveling as a family, whether it’s by car, train or airplane, does present some unique challenges, but Wiles said focusing on making the journey memorable and planning ahead can lead to fun summer travel for families.
Make a schedule, but be flexible
The excitement of getting the trip started can wear off quickly, Wiles said, so it’s up to parents and even older children in the family to prepare for the travel, including noting the stops and the needs of all the children depending on their ages.
While on the journey, parents should try to mimic the schedules they’ve adopted at home in the best way possible. This is especially true for young children under 7 years old.
“We want children at home to have a consistent schedule,” Wiles said. “We know that’s a hallmark of positive child development, so they know what to expect. We recommend, to the extent that you can, trying to replicate the same sorts of patterns while you’re traveling.”
For example, if a child eats breakfast at home at 9:30 a.m., parents should get the child something to eat at that time on vacation. If the child normally takes a nap around 10:30 a.m., parents should do what they can to make sure that child stays awake until naptime.
“With the 7- to 15-year-olds, family dynamics can be a lot more difficult to deal with,” Wiles said. “Children can often pick fights with each other out of boredom.”
Offering alternatives, such as providing them with games, singing songs and just being engaged with one another helps, he said. An example of being engaged is playing the popular “I spy” license plate game, where parents and children look for and call out license plates from different states.
“Paying attention to the road around you helps the drive go by more smoothly, but it also provides the chance to talk about each of those states, learn more about geography and co-create knowledge with each other,” Wiles said.
But, the many games families can play on the road cannot beat a 15- to 20-minute stop, either at a rest area or gas station, he said. Breaking up the longer trip into shorter blocks can help reengage children in a positive manner.
“What happens over time is the longer you’re in the car, and you don’t want to be in the car, the more irritable you get, the more irritable your kids get, and when your kids get irritable with one another, it’s no fun for anyone,” Wiles said.
This is where flexibility comes into play. Adults sometimes can get too caught up in the schedule, he said, which is why parents should keep flexibility in mind.
“We need to be much more flexible, because children can’t be,” Wiles said. “They don’t have the emotion regulation. They don’t have the inhibitory control to be able to delay gratification. This means that they are just not able to understand their feelings of restlessness and irritability.”
Adults might struggle at times on the journey, because they aren’t operating on their same schedules, either. While traveling can be the hardest time to keep it cool, he said, it is also the most important time.
Parents should remember that children have developing minds and are trying to figure out things. They might ask “Why?” several times along the way and demand answers.
“Here we are, tired, hungry and feeling the responsibility of being parents,” Wiles said. “We feel it most when we’re traveling. To make it a memorable occasion, try not to lose your cool and remember that the point is to have fun. It is hard work, but these are the memories you and your kids will have that are priceless.”
Differences in air travel
Traveling by airplane can be much different than driving, as parents will be at the mercy of strict airline schedules. There probably isn’t as much room for flexibility, Wiles said, but parents should plan for possible delays.
For babies and toddlers, parents might consider bringing extra formula or food, several different small toys and a blanket for them to play on while waiting.
Just like any business traveler, he said, parents need to have their carryon items organized and easy to separate rapidly. Know that items such as formula, breast milk and baby food are subjected to additional screening and could take parents a bit longer to get through security.
Also when going through security, keep in mind that most children won’t understand the process.
“Young children don’t understand security, and honestly as adults, maybe we don’t want them to understand that quite yet,” Wiles said. “We don’t want them to get scared or feel there’s a threat, but explaining security in a positive fashion, such as, ‘These people make sure we are safe,’ can go a long way.”
He still encourages parents to talk about what to expect, particularly for first-time air passengers. This includes going through security and feeling the pushback on takeoff, as examples. An easy way might be to show children what flying looks like in a children’s book or to share personal flying experiences.
“A parent is the model, and children look to the parent’s reaction,” Wiles said. “The more you can inform about what’s going on, the more you can make it a teaching moment, and the more you can engage them.”
Also, get children involved in the entire process of flying rather than isolating them, he said. Point out what the flight attendants are doing, and focus their attention to their surroundings on the airplane.
Parents might also think about addressing the passengers around the family and let them know that they plan to do their best to keep a child quiet and content.
“It seems to break the ice with people,” Wiles said. “We’ve all been that person thinking, ‘Why can’t that child be quiet?’ There’s very little you can do when your child wants to scream and yell. You can try to distract, provide food, but it may not help. Parents should just tell people around them that they will try their hardest.”
Lastly, Wiles suggests parents set ground rules for the trip and discuss those rules with their child or children prior to traveling. More technology is available now to keep children preoccupied, and it can be both useful and lead to some disadvantages, too. Parents might consider limiting technology use as they would at home.
“A lot of the research out there talks about the memories of car rides and trips, and rarely does anyone talk about the high score they got on their video game,” he said. “What they talk about are the things they saw, the conversations they had or the songs they sang with their families.”
When staying at hotels, children should understand the potential they might get locked out of the room and should be informed on what to do if they’re locked out, including knowing where the lobby and front desk are located.
At amusement parks and other tourist sites, make sure children know to stay close to their parents. Older children who are allowed to venture on their own should know to keep track of time and the expected leave time and meeting place.
“One of the hardest things for kids when they get to a big amusement park is that unless you’re there for a week, you may not be able to ride all the rides and see all the sites,” Wiles said. “Prepare them for that and prioritize in advance what you want to do.”