“There’s more than one way to do life”

When I try to distill down to a single sentence the entirety of why we think travel is so good for our children, it’s this: travel teaches our children that there’s more than one way to do life. We want our children to be citizens of the world, rather than just their own country.

This means that they learn many different ways to be flexible – not only in their daily routines but in the things they eat, places they go, people they see and even where they go to sleep at night. Time spent traveling, mixed with lengthy time at a solid, dependable home base, teaches them to adapt, be challenged and grow.

Not all cars drive on the same side of the road. We all have accents, even if we can’t hear our own ones until we have left our country for a while. Even discovering that McDonald’s tastes and looks slightly different in every country of the world have helped teach them. (Happy Meal toys are of a much higher quality in the United States than New Zealand. Same movie promotion, completely different toys.) There’s no one ‘right’ way, there are only the ways that we currently know about and are familiar with.

We hope these experiences help nurture our children to be open to change, to other perspectives, to respect other people and their cultures and then bring this back into to their lives at home.

Brainwashing Expectations

Long before a woman has given birth, she has more than likely lost track of all the horror stories she had heard, read or seen about almost everything that can go wrong during labor. She doesn’t even need to go out looking for them — disaster stories will naturally spread far and wide and attach themselves to other similar stories, growing in detail and length over time. The times that things go really well are almost not believed by others and a woman can be discouraged from sharing them because it could be seen to make others feel bad or give them unrealistic expectations.

The half-joking comment that I should enjoy every minute of sleep while I was pregnant from those further on in the parenting journey grated on my nerves. So, I made a conscious effort to be full of confidence about the entire birthing and parenting process, and to not let all the negative comments about how difficult it all was become my worldview. When our first child was an easy going baby who slept and fed well, the half-joking comment people regularly told me was to just wait until our second was born, then it would be a whole different story. These comments niggled away at me too. I refused to follow the adage of expecting the worst and hoping for the best. I began to believe that when your first steps into parenting are with the mindset and expectation of no sleep and difficulties around every corner, then that is what you will end up with. The reverse worked too. I was stubbornly determined that our second baby would also be a great sleeper. It happened.

This inner confidence that we would figure it out and make it all work somehow, seeing the best in a situation and being thankful along the way spilled over to our traveling too. We expected our kids would travel well, sleep well and behave well on planes. And, for almost every flight, that is what happened. A few things helped prepare our kids for this.

The first really helpful exercise in having kids that will travel well is to talk about the entire travel process many, many times as rehearsals for the big day. We would go through, step-by-step what would happen — even when you might think they were too young to understand. I often wondered, at what age do they understand some of it? Some understanding is more helpful than none.

We would go through the drive to the airport (an hour long for us, more in traffic), getting out the suitcases, briefly seeing the Grandparents who would take our car back to their house for safe-keeping,waiting in line to check, dropping off the luggage and car seats (it turns out kids are quite attached to their car seats and seeing them out of their familiar surroundings and disappearing off on a conveyor belt can be upsetting), taking the elevator upstairs, filling in departure cards, waiting in line for customs, having their photo taken and passports checked, waiting in line and then going through security one, and then finally into the shopping area where we could use the bathrooms, grab a snack if needed and head to our departure lounge, wait for our boarding call, wait for everyone else to get on board then line up and board the plane before finally finding our seats before take-off.

Next, comes the onboard details. We take our seats, put on our belts, watch a safety video, look out the window as the plane takes off, then, if it is past bedtime you go. to. sleep. Our rule is you can watch as many kids TV shows as you like, or play games on your screen and listen to music once you have had a sleep and as long as you do not wake anyone else up. (Side note: Please remove your headphones while talking to your siblings, you won’t realize you’re yelling and annoying the people around you.) Once we are all awake, then we will have food together.

The entire process is explained in reverse for once the plane lands. We tack on the car rental collection process, and where we will be driving to next.

There is a whole lot in there for children to process and it won’t all make sense even to older children for the first time around. They will have a lot of questions about it all and it is so much easier and less exhausting mentally to have answered the bulk of their questions prior to the day. I feel that it is also honoring them as humans by understanding what is going and feeling confident in a new situation which has first been explained, rather than feeling confused, uncertain and unsure what is expected of us.

We would finish the rundown by asking them the most important things to remember out of everything. After a while they could repeat them word-for-word without thinking: Wait in line patiently and stick together. And what do we do on a plane? We go to sleep.

This brainwashing process works. After having three children pass this course, after an exhausting sleepless overnight flight to Los Angeles, we realized that our youngest, who was two at the time, had missed out on the repetitious explanations prior to flying. He had not learned it by osmosis. We made sure that before our next long-haul flight that he was back on track with his rote-learned ‘go to sleep’ answer. It worked: he was asleep before the plane took off.

When the time comes to finally travel, we would often remind the children what is coming up next in the process, bringing back those memories of the plan to the forefront.

The more we counteract negative-angled comments about life – and travel – with kids, the better. Absorbing others’ complaints about the ‘awful’ side of traveling is exhausting in and of itself. It affects our moods and partially ruins the experience. When people say, “Oh wow, you’re traveling with four kids?!” it’s best to reply, in full hearing of our children that they’re wonderful travelers. It’s a boost of confidence for them and ourselves. They are wonderful travelers. Traveling with kids is wonderful.

Postscript: I  write this as one person sharing my story, and want to honor that your journey may be a very different one to mine. Children are hard work, and for many, getting their young children to sleep is the hardest part of all. 

Traveling light, living light

My father taught us that we were only ever allowed take a maximum of half our official luggage allowance on the outward-bound flight so that we would have room to bring plenty of things home if we wanted. This rule was applied no matter how long the trip. Sometimes, all five of us got our gear into one suitcase. We never questioned this rule and always made it work. I’m fairly sure my sister’s one suitcase for living a year in Canada was literally half-full with her favorite soft toys coming along for the ride, she chose to reduce her clothing options instead.

As a child, I figured that this meant we would be buying plenty of souvenirs and saw that as a good thing. While this is true, as an adult I’ve realized that my father was also teaching us about minimalism, long before it was a trendy lifestyle. You really don’t need all that much when you travel. You just don’t. If you ever were to forget something you desperately need, more than likely you’ll be able to pick it up from a local drug store, supermarket or department store. Traveling light has taught me to live lighter. If I don’t need any of those toiletries with me for a month of travel, why do I even have them at all? Besides, carting extra luggage gets tiring, quickly.

Backpacking through South America for a month with the bare minimum of necessities left me feeling simple joy from the knowledge I was carrying everything I needed on my back. On returning home I felt uncomfortable seeing many things I discovered there was no real need for. Our children have expressed this same sentiment: while they are initially excited to see some of their old toys after a break from them, my son once said he would be quite happy to give away all the toys since he didn’t play with them anymore. Belongings look and feel different after a break away from them.

We still start off our travels with a lot less than half our baggage allowance, taking over suitcases nestled inside other suitcases to be used for the journey home. By doing this, we can take advantage of the cheaper cost of goods abroad which are often three to four times the price back home in New Zealand. Our luggage returning home with us is not full of the typical souvenirs but of tapware, tools from Home Depot, Weber BBQ, a doll’s house, Costco diapers and dryer sheets, towels from Target runs and more. Everyday corners and parts of our home are slowly being transformed thanks to our travels.

Before we travel to the United States for a month or more, I do an audit of what we have and need and then go shopping online for our children’s entire wardrobes for the upcoming year. The orders are shipped to a temporary UPS box and collected on the day we arrive. For the rest of the year, we make do with what we have bought and hold off buying any clothing or shoes unless absolutely necessary. Our children often only have one change of clothing in the suitcase when we travel, the rest is waiting for them at our destination. Bonus: less dragging tired children around the stores when they’d rather be at the beach.

As a new mother, I was full of confidence for traveling on an upcoming long-haul with our oldest son but after a few flights wondered what practical tips were out there that I could make use of. Mommy bloggers’ long lists of essential items to bring in-flight for kids left me feeling intimidated, exhausted and second-guessing my intuition. Was I going about this all the wrong way? On the next flight, I took far too much on board by following well-meaning advice to get your toddler to “open a new little toy each hour!”, bringing all his favorite books and providing him 100 different snack options. I was embarrassed by how much food was wasted at the end of that flight. I regretted having to lug all that extra weight around on top of a carrying a solid baby.

After dozens of flights with our children, here is my refined list of in-flight essentials for traveling with children:

  1. Diapers* and a change of clothing (if they’re not potty-trained)
  2. Wipes (no matter the age)
  3. Food, lunchboxes and drink bottles

* I fatefully checked these once on an hour-long flight thinking there would be no need. Lesson learned for life. 

On most flights these days, food is an additional cost. For example, a ticket costs $50 more on a nine-hour flight from New Zealand to Hawaii to have two meals served. One of those meals is served at 11 pm at night when our kids are already fast asleep. Multiply that meal cost up for a family of six flying both directions, and that’s $600 worth of food. I’d rather use that cash for a few really fancy restaurant meals instead of plane food which might not even be eaten.

Instead, we ensure the kids are well fed at their usual time before boarding the flight. We don’t eat any late-night meals and pack any other required meal in their lunchboxes.  We get them started eating these when the first special meals are brought out to passengers around us on the plane or when the smell of food being heated up comes wafting down our way. For fluids, we take empty drink bottles to fill with water once we’re through security. It is so much more relaxing not to have to worry about lightweight airplane cups being tipped over trays and onto blankets and feet below. I usually bring a couple of little extra snacks to bring out if needed – typically granola bars (without chocolate, less mess left on faces and fingers), plain potato chips (no orange-colored fingertips to clean) or apples (oranges are too juicy and sticky). Avoiding candy or sugary treats saves drama: no-one needs to deal with a sugar high or the inevitable crash in such a confined place. The less wastage left over, the better.

While pre-planning food might sound a little daunting amongst all the other last-minute trip errands, it is worth it. Rather than wondering what meal to prepare, I turn the task into the more mundane job of packing their lunchboxes just like I would on a typical school day. My husband and I have lunchboxes now too.

Instead of having limited in-flight options, you will know that your kids will like what you’re offering them – great if your kids are fussy eaters and one less thing to worry about if they have allergies or intolerances. They’ll be fed when they need their meals too, instead of waiting for an airline’s schedule.

Airline meal trays have food containers, condiments and utensils arranged optimally to maximize the small available space. They’re not particularly child-friendly. It’s easy to drop things on the floor, struggle with peeling juice, yogurt or ice cream foil seals off, or pull too hard when opening sealed plastic cutlery only to have things flying off in all directions. Lunchboxes are a familiar sight and so much simpler for your kids.

Do ensure you dump all leftovers when the crew walks down the aisles collecting trash before landing so you’re not stung with a fine for accidentally importing undeclared food. These are rather hefty coming into New Zealand: $400 for a piece of fruit.

I’ve largely abandoned bringing any toys or activities for the kids on flights now and prefer to go without. A little Matchbox car or book can occasionally be useful to pull out when kids are getting scratchy waiting around at an airport gate. The airline we most often fly on, Air New Zealand, always has a fantastic activity pack for kids with colored pencils, games, stickers, and a badge inside. Once they’re three or older, the appeal of the almost unrestricted use of their own TV, gaming, and music on the screen in front of them is what they use to pass the time. Having a period of no screen time at home before long-haul flights has helped make the in-flight entertainment even more appealing.

“Once they can remember it”

My earliest memory is of something that no longer happens anywhere in the world: I’m playing with discarded cigarette butts I found inside a little flap in the arm of my chair on a plane headed halfway around the world. I’m four years old, huddled on the floor in a hidden spot beneath the bassinet my younger sister is lying asleep in.

My parents are on their first adventure together overseas: my father had a short-term position as a mathematics teacher at a private boys college in Brighton, England. We were to live in a house owned by the school for nine months, and then travel around Europe in an RV. Having two daughters aged 18-month old and 4 years old wasn’t going hold them back from their lifelong dreams of traveling.

That time in England left me with a small collection of scattered memories. These include things like forever losing a toy in the sand of the school’s long jump — the toy no longer remembered either. Or the feeling of heartbreak when discovering someone had smashed up my very first snowman when swinging open the front door the next morning. The memory of a starling which had found its way inside the house and flew around madly for what seemed like hours while we tried to help it. That cold smooth heavy feeling of the billiard balls in the staffroom of my father’s work. A giant brightly colored lollipop. Tripping face-first in Sherwood forest and receiving a mouthful of thick, complexly textured forest floor which took all afternoon to completely rid all trace of. The dirt had made much more of an impression than the trees had, of which I can no longer remember.

The disconnected memories I have from those six weeks touring Europe in an RV with my grandparents who had flown over really do not make much sense either. Why do I remember these things and not others? We’re driving the autobahn in Germany, I have a polystyrene ball nestled in my hand (where from?), picking off tiny piece by piece and letting them fly out the window, seeing them dance in the air and then off into the distance. ‘Litterbug!’ my adult brain sighs at my four-year-old self. I remember being in awe of the brightly colored blue carpet lining the walls of the Eiffel Tower elevator. That made a lasting impression, but there nothing left in my memory from the tower or view itself from that day. Or for that matter, anything else of romantic Paris. There’s a familiar thread in that I can only remember the unevenly spaced and twisted angled incredibly worn steps of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, not what the view from the top looked like or even details of the surrounding buildings. I don’t remember seeing art galleries and museums.

I do remember feeling utter satisfaction from learning to say “bonbon” or whatever other words there were for candy in each country we visited. I recall falling out of my hammock onto my grandparents below most nights, and then spending the rest of the night snuggled warmly between them. I played with little toys and dish-washing liquid bubbles in the RV sink. Looking out the window of the RV one night at dusk, I dreamily asked to go to a circus as we drove the freeway. My parents promised me that if they ever saw one, we could go. I’m sure they thought that there was zero chance of that happening. Minutes later, I could barely believe it: across a field were the unmistakable bright lights of a circus tent. Childhood wishes did come true.

We remember the strangest of details, tiny fragmented moments which become trapped in our memories. They’re the stories we tell others, the ones which become more and solid in the way we tell them over the years. Everything else fades.

I know that these are my own memories – they’re not documented in my parent’s photographs. Their albums show all the things we think are important and are easy to record – the sights, the views, the architecture and the food. I don’t remember any conversations or key moments where I learned something important. Those movie-moment lines simply aren’t there. And my stories are probably not the ones my parents will tell you about their time abroad in 1982 either (endless bonbon requests aside). I only recently learned from my parents that I went to Disneyland on the way there and back from the trip — for whatever reason, the happiest place on earth didn’t stick in my memory.

But I do know that time on the other side of the world shaped me into who I am today. It gave me the undeniable knowledge that travel is meaningful in how I see the world and how I can reflect on what’s important to me in life, and what is excess baggage.

My parents didn’t wait until we were old enough to remember it all (besides, who does remember it all?) and that didn’t matter. The remembering of it all is not what’s important.