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Traveling, Kids, and Good Parenting

Despite the preponderance of posts on the serious and tragic lately, I don’t spend every waking minute chasing down scandals and gnashing my teeth at the ways we fail each other. My family won’t let me, and I shouldn’t let myself, either. I have three energetic, creative, busy children and household to run and two businesses to manage. Ain’t got no time fo dat.

Sometimes, we just need a break. I need to leave the laptop at home, we need to walk away from all the demands, and just have some fun together.

Last week, the kids were off for the end-of-trimester teacher work day, so we decided to take them on an overnight to the Great Wolf Lodge. Our school district had negotiated a group rate for night before the Teacher Work Day, so we knew our kids would see many of their friends, and we got a great deal on the room. It was (still is) the end of winter but not quite spring, and we all needed (still do) a diversion.

Sounds lovely, right? It was. Except that we’re just like everyone else when it comes to family trips. We get all excited and then someone starts singing and someone else whines, “Stop that! It’s so annoying” and the singer just sings louder. Then we have to decide what to do or where to eat or figure out a map, and the arguing begins. All of this is normal every-day stuff in a family, but for some reason, it’s worse when we’re on a trip. Or maybe it just seems worse because we have this expectation that traveling will take us out of ourselves, not just our environment. Turns out, family travel is just like family life, just Some Place Else.

With all that in mind, I began flipping through a new book out by Bruce Feiler called “The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More.” (I reviewed another of Bruce’s books awhile back, The Council of Dads, two years ago, and really like him.)

The title caught my eye of course, and then I found the chapter on family vacations. It is titled “The Family Vacation Checklist,” but it covers so much more than just how to plan ahead so you don’t forget things. Bruce asked the game creators at Zynga for their best ideas for a few difficult travel scenarios involving children: engaging kids on long car rides, getting through extended layovers, and spicing up a restless afternoon in an unfamiliar city. You guys, that chapter alone is worth the price of the book. But I digress.

One suggestion in particular sounded like something we could try and enjoy: The Amazing Race game. It’s modeled after the show, which our family enjoys watching together, but is modified to be manageable for kids on a vacation. I knew we’d have some time at Great Wolf when we didn’t want to swim and would need something to do outside our suite, so I kept my eyes open for a way to implement a scavenger hunt into our day.

Sure enough, the day we checked out, we were looking for something to do after we were done swimming but before we headed home. The hotel offered a scavenger hunt called Magi-Quest. We tried it last year, but it was a dismal miserable failure. The kids didn’t get it – who knows why. Too young, too tired, bad time of day… maybe the game wasn’t working. Anyway, it reminded me of the Amazing Race game, and it reminded them of it too. So we decided to try again. At first, we did it with the kids, helping them navigate taking turns, running up the stairs and riding down the elevator to all the different floors. They liked it ok, but they weren’t enthusiastic.

Neither Scott nor I had slept well and we were tired. After one game, I bailed. I fell into a couch and stared at the window. The kids begged us to let them play another game. Normally I would have said no, but something in my gut told me to let them do it. And that’s when it completely turned around. They ran around happily, laughing, working together, and not arguing much for the next hour, while we sat and read and rested.

This is something I’m learning about parenting. Sometimes you need to let the kids run. Good parenting isn’t always super-visible, out front and leading the charge, or bringing up the rear keeping everyone corralled. Sometimes, good parents step back and let their kids play *gasp* unsupervised. I need to remember that more. I need to stop feeling guilty for stepping back, taking care of myself, and letting them go it alone. They are, after all, growing up. Some day they will live somewhere else and have no choice. Better to let them experience a little independence now. And as my friend Megan wrote last week, our children need to learn that they are not the center of the universe. My acting like they are won’t teach them that.

P.S. Now that we’re home, the kids talk about the Magi-Quest game almost more than they talk about the water slides. They make up their own versions of it. And they work together, except when they don’t.

How do you handle traveling with kids? Do you have a tendency to hover as a parent, and how do you decide when to step back? Do you have a secret to a happy family you’d like to share?

Disclosure: I was provided a free copy of this book to review. Opinions are my own.

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