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?

Embracing Accidentally Family-Friendly Hotels

Bathroom televisions: Better than stuffed animals.

Bathroom TVs: Better than stuffed animals.

It’s one thing for a hotel to go out and declare itself as “family-friendly” and stock the rooms with all sorts of kid-oriented goodies and treats. It’s another thing for a hotel that doesn’t make a big deal about family travelers to boast the kinds of amenities that make us who vacation with kids feel right at home.

I like to consider this phenomenon “AFF,” or Accidentally Family-Friendly. As a traveler, when you experience it, it’s the best kind of surprise. Like a dollop of caramel in the center of a chocolate cupcake. Or a clutch hit from a rookie who just got his call-up to the Big Leagues.

Different families can deem different hotels AFF for different reasons. Here’s a rundown of some amenities that have made qualified properties as AFF in our recent experiences:

  • Bathroom televisions. Sure, L loved the free stuffed animal she received upon checking in to the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, but she’s still talking about the tiny television in the bathroom. The kid liked this TV so much she refused to watch the big one out in the bedroom. It also came in handy for me—while I shaved, she chilled out next to me and hung with “Sofia the First.”
  • 24-hour room service. When we travel internationally (or just cross-country), we usually reward good in-transit behavior with favorite foods. This means ordering odd items (French fries, hummus) at all hours of the day and night. It also means we’ve become huge fans of all-hours room service. The girls love knowing they don’t have to wait for their rewards. We love the good behavior this reality usually engenders in mid-air.
  • Flashlights. My kids love building forts and “camping out” (pretty much all the time at home and) in hotel rooms. The one item from home that’s always missing: A flashlight. I usually bring a headlamp for nighttime runs (yes, I’m that guy who runs at 11 p.m.), but the big boys are just too clunky to bring along. Naturally, then, you can imagine how excited the girls get when they find a flashlight hiding in the closet of a hotel room.
  • Extra space. We love hotels like Maui’s Fairmont Kea Lani, where even the “standard” rooms actually are suites. When everyone’s awake, this configuration gives the girls room to spread out and do puzzles or have dance parties. When the girls go to sleep, it also gives Powerwoman and me the chance to shut the door to the bedroom and have some semblance of alone time.

The bottom line: Some hotels might be more family-friendly than you think. For an honest rundown of how other family travelers have rated a hotel, call the concierge and ask what in-room features seem to resonate with other customers in your demographic. Another, easier option: Ask friends, either in person or through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. And remember, there’s more to “family-friendly” than toys and games.

To what extent have you found hotels AFF? Which amenities in particular did your kids adore?

Also: For more information about hotels and hotel amenities, join me this Wednesday, May 15, between 10:30 a.m. and noon, as I co-host a Twitter chat for Expedia. To follow along or participate, just log on to Twitter and search for the hashtag, #expediachat.

Managing Restaurant Meals on the Road

Creamers and sugar packets are our friends.

Creamers and sugar packets are our friends.

Because our brood travels so frequently, we’re often eating away from home. We tackle a good portion of these meals picnic style—either on a blanket in a park or standing/squatting by a (food truck, or a) tree alongside a trail. For the rest, we dine at restaurants.

No, these eateries usually aren’t fancy. On any given trip, the bunch usually includes Greasy Spoons, upscale diners, pubs, pizza parlors and Cheesecake Factory-type spots. Because we do a ton of traveling in our home state of California, we’re also huge fans of hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants. (I am grooming the girls to become habanero fiends, like I am.)

In any event, over the years, we’ve devised a number of strategies to foster and reward good behavior when we eat out. Here are our top few.

  1. Give them something immediately. Kids love immediate gratification; when they don’t experience it, they get antsy. For this reason, Powerwoman and I always travel with small snacks (Cheerios, nuts, etc.) to whip out as soon as we sit down. Once L and R have a few bites, they’re generally chill until their actual meals arrive.
  2. Ply them with crayons. Our dining-out bag of tricks (yes, we really have one) also is stocked with a wad of blank computer printer paper and two sets of crayons. We usually distribute these materials before the girls even ask for them. We carry two sets of implements so the girls don’t fight trying to share. We learned that one the hard way.
  3. Allow free play. Most of the restaurants we frequent have flowers, salt and pepper shakers, creamers and sugar packets on the table for all meals. We usually let the girls satisfy their curiosities and play with them. Yes, stuff usually ends up on the ground. When it does, we clean it up before we go (and leave a larger-than-usual tip).
  4. Be flexible. On a good day, we can get 45 to 60 minutes of sit-down time in a restaurant. On a bad day, that range can shrink by half. Powerwoman and I generally try to get a sense of how the girls are doing throughout the meal and adjust accordingly. If they’re chill, we linger. If not, we settle the bill right away, so we can leave whenever we choose.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t share another tip for managing restaurant meals on the road: Don’t force the kids to eat.

Granted, it’s super frustrating to order (and pay for) food that the kids might not eat. Still, trust me: Insisting that they shovel that food down their gullets is only going to make them miserable (which, in turn, is guaranteed to ruin your experience, as well).

During those rare instances where the little ones go on hunger strike, follow their lead(s), get a to-go box and offer them the food back at your hotel or during a quiet moment later in the day. Chances are they’ll eat the grub then. If not, your trip may be threatened by bigger problems (and, after a day or so, you probably should notify your child’s physician).

Finally, remember that for most children, dining out is like any other acquired behavior—doing it correctly takes practice.

The more you expose your kids to restaurant meals close to home, the more comfortable they will be in a restaurant setting, and the better they’ll behave when you explore eateries on the road.

IMHO, everybody wins from this “restaurant training.” Except maybe your skinny jeans.

What are your secrets for managing little ones during restaurant meals on the road? Please share your thoughts in the comment field above.

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