How to Raise Kids That Are Good Travelers

Photo: AE Pictures Inc./ Getty Images

By Michela Montgomery

We’ve all seen them, heard them or sat next to them on planes. They run around, kick our seats, spit food and are generally a complete pain in the…well – you know. These kids were clearly never taught how to be good travelers by their parents, who hide behind their magazines to avoid the hateful stares from strangers who are left to deal with their little darling’s behavior. 

And then there are the other kids. They sit in their seats, have their snacks, read or play a game and rarely are trouble to those around them. The question you should be asking yourself is, “Are there tranquilizers involved with the second category of children?” The answer is no. With a few simple steps, your children can fall within the second category of kids who travel well and don’t drive fellow passengers to ask if parachutes are on board the 747.

My son was six months old for his first airline trip. By his sixth birthday, he’d been on two cruises and traveled to Canada, British Columbia and Alaska. His sister, two years his junior, accompanied us as well. Just before his twelfth birthday, I took both kids to Belize and the Caribbean for two weeks. Everywhere we go, I am showered by compliments from strangers when my son pauses to help the elderly or my daughter entertains a younger passenger in a seat next to her. I’m going to let the cat out of the bag here by telling you…neither child was born this way. I had my share of nightmare flights where one (or both) had an earache and cried the whole time, or my daughter was sick on a train and cried when we couldn’t simply “get off at the next stop”. The trick with traveling with children is twofold; one, patience and lots of it, and two, repetition with reminders.

No one is born just ‘knowing how to be a good traveler’. I’ve traveled the world – both for work and pleasure – and bad travelers come in both adult and pint sized versions. If your child is toddler – ages 2-6 – and has not traveled extensively, the key to making them a good traveler is both preparation and managing expectations. Set the stage by telling your child exactly what is going to happen before you get on the plane, a train, a boat or a tour. Most incidents happen when a child is afraid or confronted with the unknown.

“Why do they need me to walk through that thing?”

“Why are we going through that tunnel? I thought we were getting on a plane?”

“I can feel us moving! The boat is rocking! Are we going to sink?”

As exhausting as this seems, you’ve got to give them a blow by blow. Now, some kids won’t need this. Most at this age will be fascinated by it. And the more detail you give, the better prepared your little traveler will be when they encounter it in person. Also, if any part of your description of the process causes concern, you can deal with it at home as opposed to trying to board a cruise ship with six hundred people around you wondering why your little one is losing it. 

Secondly, make sure you – as the parent – have a bag of tricks with you. Quiet games, coloring books - the more you have the less likely your little one is to going to think about the fact that he is hovering thirty-thousand feet in the air in a plane made of metal. On our last trip to Dublin, the toddler several rows ahead of us felt turbulence and began screaming, “We’re going down, we’re going down!” The parent quickly explained what turbulence was, and the little one dissolved into tears. Had she explained what turbulence was beforehand – this situation might have gone much differently.

If your child is a little older, between seven and eleven, you’ve got a little reasoning power. By then, you’ve stopped worrying about things interfering with naps and feeding schedules and started worrying more about them getting bored and disrupting others. If your child has never traveled (or traveled very little) at this age, that’s okay because they can become more engaged in the overall process – and in most cases entertain themselves with an iPod or phone. Bring out the map beforehand, show them where you’re headed and where you’ll be at each stop. Seeing the reality of how far away you’re flying sometimes is easier to grasp than the ‘the flight is six hours’.

Whether your children are toddlers or adolescents, manners do not have an age limitation. From the time mine could speak I reminded them to be polite, hold the door for their elders, ask before they took something and above all…use a softer voice when we traveled. Amazing how, even at fifteen, my son still needs occasional reminders. When kids get excited, the natural inclination is for their voices to go up…both in tone and volume. Lean down and get face to face with your child, or whisper in their ear as you remind them to lower their voice. A parent screaming over their child is likely not going to calm the situation down any. Worst case scenario, gently touch your finger to their lips to quiet them, then remind them again.

It’s our first snap reaction when our child misbehaves to correct the situation immediately and harshly. We’re embarrassed and we want to lock that mess down. I urge you, as hard as this sounds, take a breath and calm yourself first. There’s a reason that you secure the air mask in an airplane on yourself before your child. It’s because, as the grown-up, we need to breathe in order to get our children to breathe.

If your teenager is laughing and throwing things at his sibling and your gentle reminders aren’t working; get up out of your chair and re-seat one or both of them. Remove the articles that are being thrown and quietly remind them that other passengers aren’t here to babysit them. If this doesn’t work and they continue to be a nuisance, most airplanes stock duct tape. Just kidding.

I’ve had more questions from parents on how to get their children to try and eat new things when traveling than any other subject. My answer is always the same; patience and repetition. I took my children back home to Boston with me when they were five and three. We ate in Chinatown, at this fabulous restaurant with pork shu mei and steamed dumplings. Yes, they wrinkled their noses at some of the food I ordered. But before we entered the restaurant, the rules had been laid out to them; you may not like what you see, but you must at least try some of it. If you don’t like it that’s fine – but then quietly put it on the side of your plate and try something else.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard the complaint from parents, “He’ll only eat mac ‘n cheese/pizza/nuggets.” My response is not popular. He won’t starve. If you want your child’s palette to expand, you must first put him in the position that he must try something new. If you tell little Johnny that if he doesn’t like it, nuggets are coming right out, I will guarantee he won’t like whatever comes out pre-nugget. 

The night we ate in Chinatown for the first time, I ordered steamed mango. And yes, it looked plain awful when they lifted the lid. My daughter – at three – tried a miniscule bite on the very end of her fork. Her little face was tight, preparing to hate the flavor. But then, upon tasting it’s sweetness, she dug her fork in again…and again. None of us got to try that mango – because that little rascal ate the entire piece herself.

Yes, teenagers who actually like trying new foods are like the Amur Leopards; almost an extinct species unto themselves. I’ve seen teenagers at a restaurant spit food out onto their plates and announce loudly that they ‘hate’ the particular dish. Their embarrassed parents sit in awkward silence, not knowing whether to hide under the table or impale themselves with their butter knives. If you are confronted with a teen (or younger) that behaves like this, despite your pre-restaurant instructions, the only thing you can do is quietly remind them that they need only put that dish to the side and move onto something they like better. Making a scene in a restaurant isn’t going to make things better. Once you are out of the restaurant, remind your child what kind of behavior is expected of them and try again at the next meal.

Like everything, traveling is a process. It takes us, as adults, something like five times of doing something before we make it into a habit. With our kids, it feels like you can add a zero to that number and still not make any headway. However, if you have patience, use repetition and reminders, your little travelers will glide through traveling anywhere in spectacular fashion.

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Originally appeared at The Good Men Project

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