Embracing a new travel plan

Self portrait by the Big Girl

I’ve made no secret over the years about the fact that our biggest girl, L, struggles with anxiety issues from time to time.

Some weeks, this has no bearing whatsoever on our lives as a family of five. Other weeks, it means our individual and collective lives are characterized by aggressive behavior, wild mood swings, lousy attitude, and more.

As you can imagine, enduring these tough times on the road can be a real struggle for everyone involved. This is why we recently sat down with our (regular) family behavioral therapist to come up with a strategy for navigating any potential behavioral hiccups during our upcoming family trip to Disneyland this weekend.

The therapist worked with us to devise what she calls a “Travel Plan” for the trip. Basically, this document—and it is a physical, typed-out document—serves as a playbook that establishes ground rules and sets expectations for everyone.

The plan lists everything from specific meal times and bed times to time-out consequences for temper tantrums or what to do if someone falls ill (answer: GO BACK TO HOTEL WITH A PARENT).

Our document even has space to list out a specific itinerary for the two full days we’ll be in the park.

As our therapist explained it, Powerwoman and I are supposed to work together to fill out this itinerary on the nights before our park days, then spend five or 10 minutes on the mornings of our park days reviewing the plan with the girls. The goal: To eliminate surprises and potentially challenging transitions for our Big Girl.

If you’re reading this and you think, “That sounds completely NOT spontaneous,” you’re right. And that’s exactly the point.

You see when you travel with kids who experience anxiety, you want to eliminate as much of the unknown as you possibly can. Naturally, when you’re traveling, it’s impossible to manage EVERYTHING. But we *can* manage what we can manage. So we try.

Will it work? Will the plan make a difference? Only time will tell. It’s a good sign that everybody—including L—is excited to use it. This might just be the first trip of the rest of our lives. Wish us luck.

Four secrets to wine-tasting with kids

Lunch, after tasting.

Lunch, after tasting.

When you live in Wine Country (that’s where we live), you do what you have to do for a nice day on the town. Sometimes, that means taking the kids when we go wine-tasting. People think I’m crazy when I tell them Powerwoman and I do this on a regular basis. The comments I get are always the same. How do you keep them occupied? What do you do if they melt down? Wineries actually let kids in?

The truth is that wine-tasting is just like any other travel-related activity; you can bring the whole family, provided you plan ahead.

Of course the “planning ahead” part is where most people veer off-course. Some fail due to laziness. Others falter out of ignorance. Here, then in no particular order, are four of our top secrets to wine-tasting with kids.

Tip 1: Pick the right winery

Not all wineries are created equal. Some are snobby. Some take themselves way too seriously. These are not the ones to which you should bring kids. Instead, look for wineries that promote a more laid-back vibe, ones with outdoor seating, or ones that actually go out of their way to be family-friendly. Some wineries—such as Honig Vineyard & Winery in Rutherford—actually provide paper and crayons for kids who accompany their parents for tastings. Others, such as Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, have a host of activities for youngsters—everything from bocce to a big teepee with library books for perusal. If you’re not sure whether a winery would be good for kids, it never hurts to call and ask. Just remember: Don’t be intimidated by an attitude!

Tip 2: Pack distractions

Not even the best kids on Earth can be expected to sit still for an hour while their moms and dads get drunk. This is why distractions are critical to help them through it. The best distractions are the ones that elicit creativity—art projects, crayons and coloring books, card games (for older kids), or loom bracelets. Other distractions might include educational apps on a tablet or Mad Libs. (If you really must, technically you can stick your kid in front of a screen, but we are not fans of that approach around here.) The more distractions you bring, the longer you should have to linger with grownups. Just this past weekend, we visited Three Sticks Wines in Sonoma for a private tasting, and the glitter-sheets and sticker books we brought with us took up just the right amount of time.

Tip 3: Have a backup plan (and a DP)

If you’re bringing a finite number of distractions and it seems like one (or more) of the natives Is getting restless, it’s important to devise a Plan B. This can be as simple as using silly voices to describe certain highlights at the winery or as complicated as an exit strategy for dragging the family over to a vehicle across the street. At Three Sticks, where we plied the kids with arts and crafts, the backup plan was a sack full of Shopkins, and it worked like a little plastic charm (see what I did there?). Backup plans aren’t only good for the younger generation; they’re good for us grownups, too. It’s a good idea to always designate a “Designated Parent” who can stay relatively sober to deal with transitioning from the first distraction to Plan B. In our family we call this person the DP. (And, for better or for worse, I’m usually the DP.)

Tip 4: Reward accordingly

Once you’ve tasted your wine, once you’ve left the winery for the day, it’s important to reward your kids for good behavior. Not only does the reward celebrate their good choices, but it also makes it clear that they will receive benefits for good behavior down the road. The rewards can be different each time—sometimes we’ll take the girls to get ice cream; other times we’ll buy them each a (small and inexpensive) new toy (what are Shopkins anyway?). This past weekend, after our tasting at Three Sticks, we took the girls to a nearby playground and let them run around like maniacs for the better part of an hour. Then we treated them to a kick-ass lunch. They appreciated the indulgence. We grown-ups did too.

Over the years these are the secrets that have worked for us. Of course they’re not exclusive; I’m sure there are dozens of other good pointers on the subject of managing a wine-tasting with kids. If you have any other tips to share, please feel free to add them in the comment field.

UPDATE: A reader reminded me of an important caveat worth mentioning here: Don’t drink and drive! People who are not familiar with winery-hopping might not realize how much wine is poured and how quickly you can get tipsy. Also, remember that when drinking, you are setting a living example for your kids. This means it’s important that you sip and spit, have a Designated Driver, or hire a car and driver. These precautions always are important, but even more so with children. I’m just sorry I neglected to make this clearer from the beginning.

Lessons from Maine: Don’t be an asshole family traveler

Good for you, Marcy's.

Good for you, Marcy’s.

By now you probably have read about the diner owner in Portland, Maine, who screamed at a mom and dad for not quieting their crying toddler while the family dined in her restaurant this past weekend. You might have read some high-level etiquette theory about who was right, who was wrong, and what might prompt someone to go berserk under these circumstances. Maybe you even read the mother’s response.

My take: Though the restaurant owner seems like a bit of a loose cannon, the parents in question also behaved badly, and as parents, we really shouldn’t be assholes when we are dining with our kids away from home.

You read that right, folks. I’m saying I support the rabid restaurateur.

Could the restaurant owner have been a bit less crass in her tirade? Of course. Am I cool with the fact that the restaurant owner directed some of her vituperation at the 21-month-old herself? Not at all. Generally speaking, however, I think the diner gal was totally right for going off on these negligent parents, and think the vacationing parents were totally in the wrong.

I mean, the facts almost speak for themselves. The child screamed incessantly FOR 40 MINUTES and the parents didn’t even try to take the kid outside. The owner gave the family to-go boxes and asked them to take off. It was at that point, with the kid still crying, the owner went Andrew Dice Clay.

(UPDATE: Some reports suggest the child cried for only FOUR minutes. To me, the duration of the episode is irrelevant; after about 30 seconds of crying the parents should have had the kid outside.)

What’s more, the mom said she didn’t want to take her child outside because it was raining.

Again, I don’t condone cursing at kids. But I certainly understand the restaurateur’s frustration. Reports indicate there were more than 70 other diners in the restaurant at that time. Crying babies are loud. Other patrons were getting annoyed. Somebody had to do something.

So what if it was raining. Didn’t the family have a rental car? If so, that would have been a great enclosed and confined space in which the child could have cried it out. If not, surely there were awnings or vestibules of nearby businesses that would have proved worthy shelters to shield the shrieking child from the rain.

In short, I believe, the parents completely failed in their responsibilities as traveling parents who had taken a baby out to eat.

These duties aren’t complicated. They involve three basic rules: 1) Pay attention to your kid, 2) Try to keep your kid happy, and 3) Remove your kid from the situation if the kid can’t deal. According to eyewitness reports, these parents failed in each and every one of these cases.

When dining out with kids—whether you’re vacationing or not—it’s up to us traveling parents to make good choices and take responsibility for our children’s behavior, no matter what the circumstances. In this case, on that fateful Saturday in Maine, IMHO these particular parents acted like assholes and got what they deserved. Let the story be a lesson to all of us. Don’t be like these parents on your travels. Ever.

The harsh realities of spotting fish

L, in a quieter (and calmer) moment.

L, in a quieter (and calmer) moment.

There’s a saying in poker that goes like this: “If you can’t spot the fish [a.k.a., the worst player] at the table, it’s probably you.” Something very similar could be said about family travel—when you can’t spot the most poorly behaved child on a plane or at a resort, it’s probably yours.

This isn’t a platitude, people. It’s not me waxing philosophical. It’s truth. It’s reality. It happens to every traveling family at one time or another. It happened to us. On our vacation to Maui earlier this month.

As amazing and perfect as she is, our Big Girl, L, is incredibly sensitive to disruptions in her sleep schedule. As a result, the poor thing spent portions of our trip being a wildwoman. She hit. She scratched. She screamed. She kicked. She said horrible things about how she wanted a new Daddy. At times she even lashed out at her Mom (this is akin to the Dalai Lama dropping an f-bomb).

In short, my kid had a few bad days—just like every other 5-year-old in the history of 5-year-olds.

For us, managing her during these episodes was trying and exhausting and exasperating and awful. For other guests of the hotel, however—people who don’t know her or us—the scene was full-on hell.

These people gave us eye rolls. They tossed dirty looks. Some shook their heads in disapproval. One night, when L was grunting like a gorilla because she didn’t want to pee before bedtime, a neighbor actually shouted, “Shut the hell up!” from his lanai.

To be honest, I sort of don’t blame the guy.

I also don’t feel bad. Kids are kids. When you travel with them, sometimes it gets ugly. As parents, we can try our best to manage these situations when they arise. But at some point, you just have to deal.

Many parents “deal” by not taking their kids anywhere. That’s not an option for us. And it never will be.

Instead, we simply take things as they come. On good days, those days on which everyone behaves, Powerwoman and I kick back and watch the girls and smile squinty smiles and whisper to each other how lucky we are. And on bad days, those days on which a stranger tells our kid to shut the hell up, my partner and I try our best not to snap at each other, and to remember that, despite the drama at hand, life’s still pretty great.

Sometimes we fail—we’re human, after all. Sometimes it’s so stressful that one or both of us ends up crying in the bathroom. And sometimes we wonder why we even try to travel with such young kids.

Here’s the thing. Sure, we question. Yes, we doubt. But we never waver from our commitment to show our kids the world. Traveling with children can be tough—we’re the first ones to admit it. But even when our kids are the fish at the table, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Pulling the plug on a family trip

A quieter moment, before the storm.

A quieter moment, before the storm.

If you’re a parent with kids under the age of 7, you know that public tantrums don’t discriminate. Kids can have them in any place, at any time. In the morning. At night. Heck, most little ones can go psycho mere moments after telling you they love you.

Kids even can have public tantrums on family trips.

Maybe it’s the new surroundings. Maybe it’s the challenge of grappling with different sleep schedules. Maybe it’s a different diet. Whatever the reason, it can happen. And it sucks.

We know this because we’ve suffered through them. L had some epic meltdowns during our spring trip to Yosemite—meltdowns that left us wondering if park staffers were going to report us to rangers for harboring a wild beast. R had a doozy during last month’s trip to Lake Tahoe—an episode during which she locked herself in an empty hotel room and we had to call security to get her out.

When such dramas occur, we parents are left with three basic choices: a) Ignore the bad behavior, b) Discipline the behavior accordingly, or c) Pull out of the public situation and retreat to a more private spot.

Powerwoman and I have tried all three of these options. Lately, however, we’ve opted for Choice C.

I know, I know—every kid is different. Perhaps your son or daughter will respond positively to choices A or B. Perhaps he or she might be scarred for life if Mom and Dad leave that kick-ass aquarium just because of a “few little slaps.”

The point of my post is this: In the event of a tantrum on a family trip, sometimes you just have to pull the plug. And it’s totally OK to do so.

Here are some signs a pull-out may be necessary:

The tantrum has gone on for at least 10 minutes. Most tantrums end on their own after a few minutes of hell. If your kid keeps going after that, it might be time to get outta there, for his sake, for your sake, and for the sake of the other people around you.

The tantrum is putting people in danger. Everyone’s child goes bag-of-bones during temper tantrums. That condition (no matter how biologically peculiar) can’t hurt anyone, except maybe your kid. But if your child starts flailing or throwing objects, it’s time to abort the mission immediately.

Others are getting agitated. Normally my opinion about others in relation to parenting is, “Who cares?” In this case, however, especially if you’re in a place with its own security guards, when other grownups get agitated, it is high time to hightail it home.

There are no signs of listening whatsoever. Kids are great at tuning us out, but there usually are at least a few indications their ears are still functioning. During doozy-level temper tantrums, those few indications disappear. Be aware of this situation and act swiftly and accordingly to rectify.

Most important, follow your gut. If you’re just feeling like it’s time to leave, leave. Yes, this strategy usually means curtailing some sort of vacation-y activity such as hiking a trail or having a nice meal or checking out a museum. And, yes, the logistics of retreating can become difficult; especially if there are crowds involved (see my previous comment about those park rangers reporting us to Child Protective Services).

Still, we have found that with our kids, bailing in the event of tantrum helps snap them out of the horrid behavior more quickly, which ushers back normalcy and puts us in the best position to get on with our vacation more quickly and painlessly every time.

How do you deal with your child’s temper tantrums when you’re traveling as a family?

The Importance of Being Kind

We have to set an example when we travel. For them.

We have to set an example when we travel. For them.

Respect and kindness are big themes in our family these days, as we’re working with L and R to make sure they (don’t beat the snot out of each other and) always treat others the way they want others to treat them.

That’s precisely why this post, by “Mindful Dad” Josh Misner, resonated so strongly this week.

In the story, which was published on Misner’s blog and then on Huffpost Parents, Misner recounted a recent travel experience during which he behaved badly toward an airline customer service agent in front of his 6-year-old son. He then shared a wonderful anecdote about what happened next: Misner realized the error of his ways, and apologized to the customer service agent in front of his boy.

The story moved me for a number of reasons. For starters, it was a powerful reminder of the importance of leading by example, that our kids learn how to travel—and to treat others in general—by watching us. I also took comfort in reading another dad’s take on the whole notion of managing frustration when traveling with the extended family. The reality: when presented with disruptive delays while traveling with little ones, sometimes it can be really difficult to keep your cool.

Finally, the piece bolstered my opinion that the travel industry needs more families as customers.

Think about it—if Misner had been traveling alone, if he hadn’t realized his behavior was setting a bad example for his son, would he have made the effort to apologize and do the right thing? I’m guessing no. And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have.

One could argue that responsible parents traveling with kids actually make the skies (and airports, for that matter) a friendlier place to be. That’s something from which everyone can benefit.

To what extent do you meter your behavior when you travel with kids?

Jet Lag Exorcism

L and her Legos. Sometime between 4 and 6 a.m.

L and her Legos. Sometime between 4 and 6 a.m.

We contemplated bringing in some priests this week to save our older daughter from the mysterious entity that had possessed her.

Then, after enduring L’s hitting and kicking and scratching and biting and screaming and writhing around like a maniac, Powerwoman and I realized it wasn’t a demon that possessed our girl, but instead just a really horrid case of jet lag.

We should have seen it coming. That first night—Christmas Eve, actually—she woke up for the day at 2 a.m. On the three nights that followed, she woke up at 4 a.m. In between, the child fought naps as if she were an ultimate fighter and they were an opponent in UFC 168. It was a recipe for cataclysmic disaster.

Everyone told us coming home from England was easy. Stay awake until 8 or 9 p.m. the first few nights, they said, and catching up on the eight hour time difference will be a cinch.

For the grownups, this advice rang true. For the kids, however, it was easier said than done.

I mean, really, how does one force a child to “stay awake,” especially when she is falling asleep on her feet, at the dinner table, in the car, and just about everywhere in between? At what point does the whole drive to beat jet lag become inhumane? What’s more, with kids who are so sensitive to subtle changes in the sleep schedule to begin with, to what extent is it worth bending over backward at all?

Thankfully, today, our kind, creative and loving child reclaimed her body and we called off the exorcism. What we learned over the course of this past week: There’s no way to predict how jet lag will affect your children, and there’s no way to minimize the effects of it on your kids.

I guess I could couch this epiphany another way. Last decade, Sportscaster Dan Patrick coined the phrase, “You can’t stop him, you can only try to contain him.” Patrick meant for those words to describe athletes who left their opponents helpless on defense. He could have been talking about jet lag in relation to kids.

Next time we complete an international flight, we’ll just resign ourselves to a few days of parenting hell. At some point, it has to get easier for all of us. Right?

What are your suggestions for minimizing the effects of jet leg on kids?

Vacationing with the Spawn of Satan

Calm, after one of the storms.

Calm, after one of the storms.

When everyone in the family is behaving relatively well, family travel can be one of the most fulfilling experiences as a parent. But when one of your children is in perpetual meltdown mode, a family trip can be downright awful.

Powerwoman and I lived this nightmare for the first three days of our current trip to Oahu. From the moment we landed until almost exactly three days into our trip, L’s “spirit of Aloha” included prolonged temper-tantrums, hitting, biting and more hideousness.

In short, my older daughter was a demon.

As you can imagine, managing her during this dark period was challenging to say the least. We had plenty of the typical traveling-with-a-4-year-old negotiations (“If you eat three spoonfuls of corn, you can color in the giant coloring pad”). We also grappled with yelling, mood swings and paranoia. Minding our little spawn of Satan even had physical ramifications; because the child loves to scratch limbs when she’s frustrated, my biceps look like I’ve been attacked by a small mountain lion.

Thankfully, Powerwoman and I persevered through the misery until L’s behavior improved.  Here are some of the secrets to our (recent) success.

  1. Ignore. It’s tempting to be excessively hands-on while traveling, but the best way to handle freak-outs still is to ignore them. Yes, this meant that my child was the one screaming like a banshee outside the Ali’I Luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center earlier in the week. It also meant that each of her major tantrums passed quickly, like tropical squalls.
  2. Be stern (when necessary). There’s a time and place for discipline on the road, and that time and place is different for every family. For us, it all came down to being kind; we raised our voices when L was being intentionally hurtful (usually to her sister), but otherwise kept an even-keeled, almost saccharine tone.
  3. Communicate. When one of the kids is having trouble behaving on the road, Powerwoman and I make a concerted effort to talk with each other about parenting strategies. I admit—I tend to analyze stuff too much (um, hello, I’m a blogger). Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to remind your spouse that you two are teammates. Then, of course, you must play like them.
  4. Remember the big picture. There were times in the early part of this week during which I contemplated flying home early with our offending daughter. Then my wife reminded me: We have two kids. From that point on, for R’s sake, I redoubled my commitment to engineering a FUN vacation, knowing that, eventually, L would come around. Sure enough, she did.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t pass along the stuff that *doesn’t* work. No. 1 on my list: Sarcasm. The few times we applied it with L, she neither understood nor appreciated it as a concept. The use of sarcasm also can be debilitating for the grownups. Yes, in the heat of the moment, Powerwoman and I would ask rhetorically, “Is this really happening right now?” Looking back, though, the question itself was just hot air; the truth is that L’s bad behavior was happening, and the only way we could get past those hiccups was just to continue exploring.

Another no-no for me (and I’ve mentioned this before): The screen as a babysitter. In our family, we believe in disconnecting when away, which means minimal screen time of all kinds. Believe it or not, old-school alternatives such as crayons and paper, books and stuffed animals are just as good today as they have been for generations. Even for kids acting like the spawn of Satan himself.

What types of strategies do you implement when our child acts like the spawn of satan on family trips?

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