Growing green kids

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Petting a mossy rock in Yosemite.

My wife and I like to think we’re growing green kids in this family. That doesn’t mean we’re raising aliens. It also doesn’t mean we’re trying to keep them as innocent as possible. It means we’re bringing up our girls to appreciate every aspect of the environment in which they live.

Most of the time, this is a quiet quest. We have them pick up trash. We encourage them to conserve water. We go for hikes and teach them how to distinguish between a black oak and a live oak.

Sometimes, however, we make our commitment public.

That was the thinking behind my latest piece for Alaska Beyond, the (recently) rebranded in-flight magazine from Alaska Airlines. The story is a personal essay about our drive to raise our kids to be mindful of the environment. In the piece, I recount some experiences we had during our April 2014 trip to Yosemite National Park. The headline says it all: “Growing Green Kids.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember posts from (or about) that trip. This essay starts with an anecdote I haven’t told anywhere—a recollection of the night L and I almost bumped into a bobcat on the prowl for dinner.

From there, the piece waxes philosophical, but not overwhelmingly so. I won’t spoil the message here, but instead invite you read the piece. If it resonates with you, please share it with others.

The only way we’re going to preserve our environment is to get our kids excited about doing so. That challenge starts with us.

Family Travel Association broadens its reach

Together now. Later: Grown-up time.

Together now. Later: Grown-up time.

A few months back I announced my involvement as a board member for the Family Travel Association (FTA), a group dedicated to advocating for family travel around the world. At that point, the organization opened its doors to businesses—hotels, airlines, outfitters, etc. Tomorrow, the FTA reaches another milestone: It opens its doors to consumers—people like you and me.

This is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it means that anybody can come to the FTA’s website and get information about how and where to travel with a family. Second, it means the site is jumping head-first into the consumer-oriented content business, curating original and repurposed stuff every day.

To commemorate this occasion, the organization debuted a new (and expanded) website with an article by yours truly.

The piece takes a look at the importance of preserving grown-up time when you’re traveling with kids. Technically, it’s a totally new post. If you’re familiar with this blog, however, you’ll recognize the premise from a post I wrote in these pages (about sex!) back in 2013.

Regardless of where the idea for the post originated, the key message of the story is the same: Family trips with kids shouldn’t be exclusively about the kids.

Mine isn’t the only story on the site—the FTA also has published original content from fellow board member Keith Bellows and Kyle McCarthy, editor of Family Travel Forum. The volume of content on the site only will grow in the coming weeks. If you’re interested in a host of fresh and expert perspectives on family travel—as well as some great information and (eventually) deals—check out the site today.

Proof that family travel trumps video games

They'll remember this hike forever.

They’ll remember this hike forever.

Family travel zealots (including yours truly) have argued for years that experiences lead to greater happiness than material things. Now, apparently, there is scientific data to prove this point.

A recent article on the Fast Company website details much of the latest research on the subject. You can read the piece for the nitty-gritty details. The gist: While the happiness from material purchases diminishes over time, experiences become an ingrained part of our identities.

The story notes that, “rather than buying the latest iPhone or a new BMW…you’ll get more happiness spending money on experiences like going to art exhibits, doing outdoor activities, learning a new skill, or traveling.” Another particularly relevant section spotlights how experiences are paramount even when we think they weren’t that fun—a situation to which traveling parents can relate after their kids have been particularly troublesome on a family trip. Here’s a snip:

“One study…even showed that if people have an experience they say negatively impacted their happiness, once they have the chance to talk about it, their assessment of that experience goes up. [This is attributed] to the fact that something that might have been stressful or scary in the past can become a funny story to tell at a party or be looked back on as an invaluable character-building experience.”

Personally, I am delighted to read this news. I am a HUGE fan of experiences over material items—not only in my personal life but as a parent and as a traveler as well. On a day-to-day basis, Powerwoman and I reward the girls with daytrips instead of goodies or toys. In the longer term, we value travel and education through travel above all else.

(By the way, I just completed my taxes and Schedule C expenditures for 2014 demonstrate this point clearly.)

Read the story, think about the message, and discuss it with friends. There’s a direct relationship between happiness and new experiences, people. Don’t you want your kids to be happy?

New way to keep tabs on the sun

Finally, a break from the constant lubing-up.

Finally, a break from the constant lubing-up.

We love being outside on family vacations. In summer, however, this presents two problems: 1) Powerwoman has made the girls completely neurotic about ticks, and 2) It can be challenging to minimize the girls’ exposure to the sun.

The first problem is somewhat easy to remedy—in addition to warning the kids not to run through tall grass, we do regular tick checks to make sure the kids haven’t picked up any of nature’s hitchhikers.

The second problem, however, has proven to be more difficult.

Pretty much since we became parents, Powerwoman and I have been maniacs about applying and reapplying (and reapplying again) sunscreen when we’re out and about with the girls. It’s a constant struggle, since we spend a lot of time in beachy destinations, and neither of them enjoys the sunscreen process very much.

All of that changed recently with SunFriend, a new tool that takes the form of a bracelet and measures a child’s exposure to harmful UVA+B rays. A friend who does PR for the company recently sent me a bracelet to try out. After a few uses, I am happy to report positive results, and find myself wondering how we ever managed without this sort of technology previously.

Think of the thing like a FitBit that measures sun exposure. You can set it to any skin sensitivity level. Over the course of a day, the device measures how much UV/sun exposure you have; when you’ve reached your optimal exposure levels, the LED lights flash, effectively warning you BEFORE you burn.

(Once the lights flash, the manufacturer suggests you either apply SPF 50 lotion, put on long-sleeved clothing, or go inside.)

I tried the device on both kids over the course of two different outdoor adventures close to our Northern California home. Since L has a much darker complexion than R, I set it for different skin types each time. The day L used it, she was able to log about four hours in broad daylight before her lights flashed. The day R used it—an overcast day—she was able to log four hours.

Both girls enjoyed the experience, saying it was “neat” to have a sun reader on their wrists. (Of course L, who is a bit more anxious overall, freaked out once she reached her optimal levels, and refused to go outside again.)

Other benefits of SunFriend IMHO: It’s waterproof. It doesn’t get too hot in the sun. It’s seemingly indestructible. And it’s super-easy to read—even for kids.

While I don’t think this bracelet is the end-all and be-all of sun management techniques, it certainly has given us a fresh perspective on how to minimize overexposure to the sun in our clan. We’re excited to take the device on more test drives during vacations this spring. If you’re looking for an alternative to constantly lathering your kids with sunscreen, I suggest you give it a try, too.

Previewing the family road trip of my dreams

Come June, this will be us.

Come June, this is how many days will end.

It’s easy to make excuses to put off big trip. We lead busy lives. Money doesn’t grow on trees. Especially for family travelers, it seems there’s always a convenient excuse to cite as the reason for NOT taking the vacation of your dreams.

Which is precisely why it’s so liberating to finally say, “No excuses,” and take the leap.

This concept of “No Excuses” is the basis of a major advertising campaign from Expedia, one of my biggest clients. And because I’m the senior editor of the Expedia Viewfinder travel blog (a great source of inspirational travel content, by the way), the concept also was the basis of a recent blog post, which was published on the site earlier this weekend.

In the post, I essentially preview what will become our big trip of the summer—a three-week (and maybe longer) road trip from our home in Northern California to the San Juan Islands in Washington State.

As I note in the post, the SJIs hold a special place in my heart, and I’ve dreamed of taking my family there for more than a decade. Finally, with the support of Expedia, we’re making the trip happen in a big way.

Our plan is simple. We’ll rent a house. We’ll explore. We’ll watch for whales. I’ll run a half-marathon. And we’ll just relax.

Sure, we’ll book some day trips (I mention a few of them in the post itself). And, as of right now, it looks like my inlaws will join us for part of the time. But there’s no grand scheme. We try to take one big trip every summer, and the goal of that trip is to assimilate, to become part of the local zeitgeist. This trip to the San Juans will be no different.

I’ve made excuses for years—the girls were too young, they wouldn’t appreciate it, blah blah blah. The truth: The time for excuses is done. I’m delighted and excited to finally have the opportunity to take my family on this adventure. To be honest, June can’t come soon enough. (Oh, and stay tuned for updates.)

Where have you always dreamed of visiting and why?

The evolution of hiking chatter

R, in full hiking attire.

R, in full hiking attire.

As an avid hiker, I’ve spent a good tenth of my life ambulating on trails. Most of those hikes have been alone or with friends. In recent years, however, many have been with different companions: my daughters, L and R.

Naturally, the change in partners has resulted in some subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences, as well.

Specifically, the chatter is a lot different with my kids.

I have spent most of my solo hikes, for instance, daydreaming about winning millions in the World Series of Poker Main Event. In my 20s and early 30s, when I hiked a ton with guy friends, we spent the majority of each tromp talking about girls (as in, women we were dating, not 3- and 5-year-olds).

Now, of course, since I do most of hiking with my own kids, conversation ranges from the educational (“Wow, honey, that’s a madrone!”) to the inspirational (“I love the sound of the wind in the oak leaves”). Sometimes, especially when we come upon animal poop, it’s comical (“Dad, what does frog poop look like?”).

Still, I’m not sure any hike chatter can beat the game I played on a recent midday hike with Little R.

We were hiking in an open space preserve near our house here in Northern California. About halfway out on a two-mile loop, the kid was getting restless and I asked her if she wanted to play a game. She responded by creating a clue-based quiz about Disney princesses. The rules were pretty simple: She gave me clues and I had to guess which princess she was describing. I got a point for every princess I guessed correctly.

Over the course of that second mile, we went through EVERY princess, twice. She liked the game so much she insisted we continue playing back at the house. (I think “Ariel” was an answer nine times.)

Was the game my idea of fun? Not exactly; I can deal with Disney but something about the mix of Disney and nature just feels wrong. Still, I embraced it; considering how hard it is to get kids to embrace the outdoors these days, I’ll take whatever sort of motivation I can get.

I might even suggest the “Princess Game” on our next tromp. I’ll just have to study to improve my score.

Great tips for improving family vacations

Tip: Have kids do research before a big trip.

Tip: Have kids do research before a big trip.

I enjoy many benefits of being on the Board of Directors of the nascent Family Travel Association (FTA). One of my favorite perks: Getting to know people such as fellow Board member Keith Bellows.

Keith, emeritus Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveler, has been an advocate of family travel for years. Covering it was a priority of his when he headed up editorial coverage at Traveler. He also wrote books and longer articles on the subject himself.

His most recent piece, which appeared today on the FTA blog, might be my favorite of his family travel pieces ever. In it, he lists 10 very simple tips for improving our family vacations. Some of the tips are straightforward—most of us traveling with children likely would share experiences with them and regale them with stories and myths about our destinations before we go. Other tips are new and life-changing; Keith’s expertise changed my entire perspective on how I’ll approach our next family trip.

My favorite tips of his promote individuality in kids. No. 1 on my list: His tip to give each kid $10 to spend on whatever he or she wants every day, so long as the purchase is a tangible good that is difficult to find at home.

Other highlights IMHO include giving kids destination-specific challenges to solve on the trip, and encouraging them to make and/or tell their own stories about the experience.

I won’t steal all of Keith’s thunder; for a more complete POV on his tips, read the whole piece here.

Once you’ve read it, feel free to add some tips of your own in the comment field below. I’ll make sure Keith sees them before our next board meeting. Who knows? Maybe you can change his life the way he has changed mine.

Ashton Kutcher feels our pain

Our new spokesperson. Credit: Jason LaVeris, FilmMagic.

Our new spokesperson. Credit: Jason LaVeris, FilmMagic.

In America, for better or for worse, nothing really is news until a celebrity deems it so. With this in mind, thank goodness we traveling dads have actor Ashton Kutcher on our side.

Kutcher was gallivanting in Los Angeles with his daughter this weekend. The kid needed a diaper change. But when Kutcher looked for a public restroom with a changing table, he came up empty. So he Facebooked about it. And his 18.7 million followers listened in a big way.

Within 24 hours, the episode was grabbing headlines on E! and other news sites. Two days after the post, his initial rant (if you want to call it that) had garnered 220,000 likes. Three days out—in other words, this morning—the subject had crept into the national discussion, popping up on morning news broadcasts and talk shows from sea to shining sea.

As the father of two girls who is out and about with them all the time, I can’t help but be amused.

I mean, Kutcher is right: More men’s rooms need more changing tables, absolutely yes. But thousands of traveling dads (including yours truly; this post was published back in 2012) have been saying the same thing for years, and nobody has so much as moved a muscle about it, ever.

Now that we’ve got this mouthpiece, here are a number of other fatherhood/travel issues I propose Kutcher espouse:

  • How condescending it is when strangers see us dads out and about with our kids on a weekday and think it must be “mom’s day off.”
  • The assumption that because we’re dads, our jobs are to schlep the family luggage through airports.
  • The proliferation of “Mommy Groups” that don’t include dads.

While he’s at it, I’d love for Kutcher to become the face of the anti-family travel hater movement. Even if he and Mila and Wyatt flew coach JUST ONE TIME and suffered the fools who assume the worst when they see parents and a young baby, raising awareness about their “hardships” could help the rest of us tremendously.

Kutcher, dude, we’re counting on you. Don’t let this opportunity disappear.

Potty breaks while traveling solo with kids

Too old for the men's room? Then what?

Too old for the men’s room? Then what?

I travel a ton alone with my girls. And considering that they are developing female humans and I am a grown male, sometimes potty breaks while we’re out and about can be a bit, well, dicey.  Naturally, then, when a reader wrote in recently with a question about how to handle this very scenario, I figured it was time to address the point here.

The bottom line: There’s no good answer here.

At the heart of this issue is the question about the cutoff age for children of the opposite sex being in a restroom. There’s no hard and fast rule here, but generally speaking, I’d say the age is somewhere around 4 or 5.

This is the age when kids start to internalize differences in body types; the age when daughters might notice certain parts near the urinal, or when sons might feel the need to comment about sanitary napkin pails. It’s also around the age when strangers (in this case, other grown-ups) might become uncomfortable with your kids seeing them doing their business.

I know at my gym, the rule is that no opposite-sex kids over the age of 4 are allowed in locker rooms. I know other gyms and YMCAs have that same cutoff. Personally I use that as my barometer.

Of course it’s not always so easy; especially when complying with this (totally arbitrary) rule could put your child in danger. Let’s say I need to use the men’s room in a crowded airport—do I leave L standing by herself outside?

Sometimes, sort of, yes.

My first choice in this situation always is to look for family restrooms. These usually are private rooms that comprise one toilet and one sink—and have a door you can close and lock so you and the kids can do your thangs without fear of interruption. Many airports offer this amenity (one at PDX recently saved R and me during an extended flight delay), and a growing number of shopping destinations do, too.

If I can’t find one of these wonder rooms, I usually have the girls “give a pee-pee concert.” This is our code for my Backup Bathroom Plan B.

In this scenario, I go into the bathroom to do my business and have the girls stand right outside the door, belting out “Twinkle, Twinkle,” “Let it Go,” or some other tune so I can hear that they’re safe. As soon as I’m finished, I race outside to meet them. Then I clean my hands with a wipe or their antibacterial gel.

I’m sure this strategy looks—and sounds—completely absurd to passersby. Still, it satisfies all objectives: I get to pee, we respect the privacy of other men, and the kids stay safe outside.

The Concert Plan certainly can backfire. My kids know that if they need me for any reason during a pee-pee concert, they are to scream a secret word (I’m not sharing it here to keep it secret). One time, one of the kids lost a hairclip and thought that constituted an emergency. I rushed out to find everything under control. My pants, however—let’s just say they didn’t fare so well.

(Obviously, there also are potentially more serious outcomes of this scenario, as well.)

Again, the rub here is that there’s no right answer. I’m sure other parents have other ways of dealing with this challenge. I suspect there also are some parents who scoff at social mores and bring along kids of the opposite sex when they must.

What’s your strategy? When do you think kids of the opposite sex are too old to accompany mom or dad into the bathroom? Please leave your thoughts in the comment field below.

Chatting about family-friendly spring travel

Little R, using technology.

Little R, using technology.

I’m lucky enough to have some pretty incredible friends in the family travel blogging space. Naturally, then, when a handful of them ask me to participate in a TwitterChat about something near and dear to my heart, I drop everything to make it happen.

That’s precisely why I’m participating in the next #KidsNTrips chat, scheduled for tomorrow—Thursday, March 5, 2015.

The chat kicks off at 9:30 a.m. and lasts for an hour. The subject: family-friendly spring travel.

Over the course of the hour, I’ll share my picks for best spring break trips with kids, off-the-beaten-path destinations in spring, and more. I also will share some tips about maximizing car space on spring break road trips, getting overtired kids to do homework on the road, and how to make sure you’re choosing the best hotel for everyone in your brood.

Of course I’ll be in illustrious company. Also on the line will be Coleen Lanin, of TravelMamas.com; Katie Dillon, of La Jolla Mom; and my buddy, Jen Leo, who reviews kids apps at BestKidsApps.com and also writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Did I mention we’ll be giving away some pretty amazing prizes? You can read more about the chat by clicking here.

Again, to follow along or get involved, go to Twitter, and search for the haghtag, #KidsNTrips.

Tomorrow’s chat comes on the heels of yet another spring travel TwitterChat—one I did today on behalf of my client, Expedia, in conjunction with the Expedia Viewfinder blog. This one didn’t have a family focus, but I seized the opportunity to Tweet about heaps of family stuff nevertheless. (I also embraced the chance to make tons of obtuse Spring Breakers references, as well as one shout-out to 22 Jumpstreet.)

For me, these chats are a fun way to interact with readers and get the word out about the blog. Hope to see you participating in one of these events down the road.

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