Taking the kids with you, even when they stay home

My phone, after L decorated it

My phone, after L decorated it

Most of my travel time these days is split between family trips (for this blog and additional outlets) and solo trips (to fulfill other assignments). When the kids come with me, it’s easy to monitor how they’re experiencing and internalizing our travel. When they stay home, however, this process becomes a bit more challenging.

Powerwoman and I have tried a number of solutions to overcome this hurdle. When she went to England with her oldest sister to celebrate their dad’s 70th birthday last year, she wrote the girls (just the big ones at that time) separate letters for them to open each day she was gone. When I traveled to Maui on behalf of Expedia last spring, I Skyped with the girls once a day so they could see palm trees and “feel” and “smell” the tropical breeze.

Both of these strategies seemed to work well. The letters, though asynchronous, enabled the girls to feel like as if were connecting with their mom even though she was halfway across the world. The Skype sessions were more interactive, though the kids’ attention spans always were shorter than I’d hoped.

On my next trip, for which I leave Thursday, I’m going to try something new: Text messages with photos.

This new approach is a direct appeal to spark additional interaction—L has become a wonderful writer and enjoys pecking out texts and emojis in response. The way we’ve planned it, I’ll send texts and images once a day. L will respond to hers directly. R will tell L what to type in response to the ones earmarked for her.

I’m eager to see how the girls respond to the texts. I’m headed to Vegas, a place I’ve covered as a beat for their entire lives, so they are particularly interested in the pictures I send back. (To be specific, they are interested in pictures of the private pool in our kick-ass suite, the giant televisions in the sports book, the bingo hall, and pictures of Daddy playing poker. This is what happens when your dad covers gambling.)

Normally I’d say this setup encourages way more screen time than I like my kids to have. In this case, however, I think the additional screen time actually may be a good facilitator for the kids to experience my travel vicariously.

The goal of all of this is to spark the same sort of curiosity that we spark when we travel with them. So long as the texts accomplish that, I’ll be happy.

How do you interact with your kids when you travel and they stay home?

The ultimate vehicle for family road trips

Inside our van, during a rare moment sans kids.

Inside our van, during a rare moment sans kids.

My name is Matt Villano, and I drive a minivan. A Honda Odyssey, to be exact. And I’m proud of it.

I know what you’re thinking: WHAT A TOTAL LOSER. And you’re entitled to your opinion. The truth, however, is that I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU THINK. What’s more, I actually kinda sorta love my new wheels. So there.

No, dear readers, minivans aren’t pretty. They’re not cool. Even after Toyota tried to brand its version as the “Swagger Wagon,” they’re not even remotely stylish. But I never was a form-over-function kind of guy. Minivans actually are the ultimate in function-over-form. And when you’ve got a wife and three kids and you take a lot of road trips, all you ever really care about is function, anyway.

Let me repeat that for you, just to make sure there’s no miscommunication here: MY NEW MINIVAN IS AWESOME FOR FAMILY TRAVEL.

Allow me to count the ways:

  1. It came with seats for eight human beings. EIGHT HUMAN BEINGS. That means our family of five has room to spread out. Hell, I took out the center seat in the second row to let L access the back of the van more easily and there’s still room for seven. (ICYW, no, we are not having more kids.)
  2. It has SEVEN cup holders (nine if you include the two that were part of the seat I removed). This means there are plenty of places for Powerwoman and me to put our coffees/water bottles, and plenty of places for L and R to store their plastic gems and other treasures they collect along the way.
  3. It has three-zone climate control. This rules because I doze off behind the wheel if I’m too cold. With this feature, the girls can be all warm and toasty (at different temperatures, mind you), and I can be chilling (literally) behind the wheel.
  4. Even with the third row of seats, there is ample trunk space. This is good news for our family, since the girls like to take a bunch of crap stuff when we road-trip.
  5. It has cool back-up and side-view cameras. I don’t really use these things, but they are great tools to call into action when L and R are melting down or fighting (or both). You can almost picture how this goes. HEY KIDS, STOP YELLING AT EACH OTHER AND CHECK OUT HOW COOL THE SHOULDER LOOKS THROUGH THE SIDE-VIEW CAMERA! It actually works!

These five faves barely scratch the surface. Another reason I love the new van is because it reminds me of the first car I ever had—oddly that also was a minivan, though I removed all but the third row of seats so I could make out with girls in high school and college. (Definitely another story for a different blog.)

Admittedly, our new van isn’t for everyone. Most people likely would have sprung for the model with the built-in TV screens in the back; we, because of our stance on screen time, did not. Most people in the Bay Area probably would have opted to spend a little extra money for an oversized SUV (such as the Chevy Tahoe or Suburban) with four-wheel drive; we, because we only go to the mountains once a winter, did not.

(Also, if you care about things such as gas mileage, the van’s is pretty terrible.)

Still, this vehicle is PERFECT for family road trips, and we intend to take it on a bunch. Already, in the van’s short life with us (we’ve had it for fewer than 1,000 miles to this point), we’ve taken it to the beach (60 minutes away), the city (75 minutes away), and the remote country (90 minutes away). Next spring, we’ll take it to Yosemite. Next summer, it might even make the drive to Disneyland.

In National Lampoon’s Vacation, the Griswolds called their lovable station wagon the Family Truckster. I think we’ll start calling ours the Family Vanster, or F.V., for short. Make fun of us all you want. We’ll be laughing from our comfortable ride all the way home.

What are some of your favorite vehicles for family travel?

Travel fun without screens

The new book from Jervis = Genius.

The new book from Jervis = Genius.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and again, probably): We’re not fans of screens in this family. Sure, the girls are allowed to watch programs here and there (as well as the occasional movie), but for the most part my wife and I try to promote tech-free fun.

This is why I was so jazzed when a friend lent me a copy of How to Entertain, Distract, and Unplug Your Kids by San Francisco Bay Area-based writer and maker (and single dad) Matthew Jervis.

The book came out this summer. In it, the author provides a treasure-trove of tech-free options for keeping kids occupied (the subtitle actually is “Tricks, Tools, and Spontaneous Screen-Free Activities”). I know the American Academy of Pediatrics recently stepped away from its previous declaration that parents should eliminate any screen time for kids under the age of two, but research indicates that kids who are encouraged to be creative on their own (read: WITHOUT SCREENS) tend to be more skilled and confident and perform better in life.

That’s where Jervis’ suggestions can come in handy, especially on family trips. Many of the suggestions work well during family travel. Some even work perfectly in the confined spaces of passenger cabins on airplanes or trains.

Take the one on page 60, for instance—“You Complete Me.” In this exercise, Jervis suggests folding a piece of paper in thirds length-wise and having different family members take turns drawing different phases of an object (be it a person or an animal).

This game is one of our favorites on the road, and it usually keep the girls busy for hours (Jervis notes it keeps most kids busy for 30-45 minutes).

Another of my favorite of Jervis’ suggestions: a game he calls “Pebble People” (page 44). In this activity, the author suggests finding 10-15 smooth stones and drawing faces on them, then encouraging kids to draw play environments on a piece of paper so their new friends can have some context in which to interact.

I could go on and on summarizing all of the games in the book but that would spoil the fun. Instead, check it out before your next family trip and leave your tablets and Kindles and iPod Touches at home.

What are your favorite screen-free activities for a family vacation?

Put down the damn phones

This is easier than it looks.

This is easier than it looks.

Walt Disney World is a place where magic happens. It has rides and castles and roller coasters and soft-serve ice cream. At any moment, you might spot (someone dressed in a mascot-sized costume of) Marie from the Aristocats or the Beast (from Beauty and the Beast) or even Doc McStuffins. Especially when you’re there with your kids, dreams can quite literally come true.

Please, then, tell me: Why on Earth were the vast majority of people at the park on a summer Tuesday wandering around while staring into their smartphones?

I mean, I know the park has invested a ton of money into this great new app, My Disney Experience, on which you can organize Fast Passes and check wait-times for rides. And I know we all have become obsessed with Facebook and Twitter (heck, even I file stuff on social media from time to time).

But, seriously, three out of every four families we saw today were walking around with their heads down, totally ignoring each other.

I like to call people who do this Cell-Phone Zombies (CPZs). And the zombies were everywhere. In Fantasyland, which recently reopened after a historic expansion. On Main Street, where there is never a shortage of things to see. Inside the Be My Guest restaurant, which sits INSIDE THE BEAST’S CASTLE. Hell, even on the bus back to our resort, at least 75 percent of the passengers were CPZs.

The scene was so egregious, so ridiculous, that even Little R noticed.

“Da-da, why is everyone looking up Ellie Goulding songs?” she asked, a reference to the fact that playing deejay is one of the only things I actually do on my phone in front of the girls.

(ICYW, my response was, simply: “Mickey Mouse loves Ellie Goulding, too, honey.”)

This isn’t a rant against Disney World; this parks are better than ever, and whether the girls are behaving or not, we’re having a blast living in the moment. Instead, I’m calling out my fellow family travelers. Visitors to Orlando! Disney World is awesome and y’all are lucky to be here! Now put down the damn phones.

Really, it’s a lesson we parents can apply to any family trip: Be present. Sure, it’s nice to document our group vacations with photos, and, yes, it’s great to text with people back home. But unless something’s urgent—or unless you’re Annie Leibovitz, for crying out loud—stop being a CPZ, know when to get the technology out of the equation, and interact with your kids. They’ll be better for it in the long run. And you know what? So will you.

How much time do you spend staring into your mobile device when you’re on a family trip?

Softening on road-trip screen-time

Our new setup.

Our new setup.

You can teach an old dog new tricks.

That was the lesson from today’s road trip to North Lake Tahoe, where we’ll spend the better part of the next week at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe. (One of the reasons we’re here: the tents in which the girls are sleeping as I write this post.)

In the olden days—you know, four years ago, when L was one—I swore I’d never be the kind of parent who stuck his kids in front of a screen on road trips. I grumbled about the parents who fail to engage kids on long drives, cited research about the deleterious effects of screen time, noted that my kids seemed more lethargic after watching TV, and vowed that I’d never, EVER soften on this stance.

Today, however, I finally and formally caved; the kids watched Frozen on our Kindle Fire during the first 100 minutes of the drive.

Logistically, this development was easy; once I installed a plastic arm from iGrip to the pole of my headrest, the biggest challenge was staying awake to write about it. Philosophically, however, it was a HUGE deal for me.

The kids, of course, thought their new in-car entertainment system was a real treat. As soon as the movie ended, they clamored for more.

And that’s where I drew the line.

You see, after years of railing against the notion of screens in cars on road trips, I wasn’t about to embrace these suckers on an unlimited basis. Instead, my new philosophy on the subject revolves around limited exposure—they can watch ONE movie or ONE program per drive. Nothing more. No matter what.

So far, the new policy seems to be working out for everyone. The lesson: In family travel (and in everything, really), be ready to admit you’re wrong.

What’s your opinion about screen time for kids on road trips?

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