The Quiet Zone: Tranquil Travel with a High Spirited Child

High Spirits (public domain image)
High Spirits (public domain image)

Oh, how we were glared at when we entered the Quiet Zone carriage on that evening train home from Legoland Windsor.

The harried mother had arrived with her two young children, noisy at the transition from waiting to boarding, said mother harried due to the realisation that their reserved seats were in the dreaded area that could just as easily be named the designated ‘Child-Free Zone’.

The old guy at the table adjacent to ours put his head upon his hands and muttered some complaint about our arrival. The lady with him, who I presume was his wife, basically told him to stop being such a miserable git. I silently willed my children to do as they usually (touch wood) do when we make a journey: once settled into their seats, transform into angelic, thoughtful beings who are actually placated by the excitement of our trips.

I’m often amazed by FreeToBeP’s complete change in character when we travel – he forgets to annoy his sister, adopts a slightly dreamy look and becomes absorbed by the travelling. Or resigned to it? Either way, if only we could both learn how to adopt this somewhat meditative state in our home lives.

Six year old FreeToBeP could be described as being on the upper end of the ‘boisterous boy’ scale. A day doesn’t go by where I don’t hear myself frantically asking him to “Calm down and just listen!” when I’ve asked him to stop doing something for the umpteenth time and it appears that, despite his actions being obviously questionable to the adult eye, he has lost any capacity for either hearing or self-control (and, yes, I do realise that my own reactions are a big part of the picture!).

FreeToBeZ, having recently turned 2 years old, is naturally highly spirited by virtue of her being a toddler.

Yet travelling often seems to put children into a different state of being – for leaving familiar territory can quieten the restless mind. It’s true for all of us to some extent.

The mundane everyday realities become somehow more exotic, especially to those who are still relatively new to the big wide world. Perhaps the sandwiches are out of a self-chosen packet from a shop shelf instead of mum’s (boring and familiar) homemade cheese and pickle.

Even the opportunity to sit on the loo seat of a clattering train or as the plane hits some turbulence tinges even our most base needs with an element of adventure.

And, wow, the unknown quality that hangs in the air as you see the look on mum’s face when she realises you’ve just pooed your pants at 30,000ft, minutes away from the compulsory seatbelt-wearing descent whilst all the loos are occupied. Such priceless moments which are just impossible to recreate in the comfort of your own home.

Some children are thirsty to explore the world and seem to become different people when they travel. ‘Demanding’ and ‘wilful’ children are often trying to tell us (through challenging behaviour rather than words) that they’re feeling bored or isolated or under-stimulated. In all of these instances, travelling helps to address these underlying needs.

Also, whilst travelling with minimal possessions and without the daily distractions of our home and working lives, we can become more attentive parents, able to enjoy the beauty and bustle of the great, wide world with our children beside us instead of allowing the little stressors of day-to-day life to become the focus of our days together.

I have no doubt that my children become more relaxed in the knowledge that, on a journey, I have become a captive audience to all their needs and verbalised thoughts – much more genuinely ‘with’ them than if I’m preoccupied by cooking or tidying or the obsessive-compulsive checking of communication devices.

Travelling puts everything into perspective.

When I see my son carrying his own cabin bag between connections or passing through the airport security scanners on his own, it occurs to me just how young and vulnerable he still is. Practicing the empathy and compassion I always hope to practice with my offspring suddenly becomes easier when we’re ‘out there’. My role as protector and provider comes to the fore as we leave behind the security of home sweet home.

I do believe that the earlier you start with family travel the better. My children have always known long car journeys due to our 4-5 hour treks to visit my immediate family at least 4 times a year. I expect that this – along with my natural inclination to practice a flexible lifestyle based on each new day rather than adhere to strict schedules and routines – has helped my children become the adaptable and obliging little travellers that they are.

However, most children’s natural curiosity and malleable nature means that even without having travelled extensively during their early years, older children – however ‘spirited’ – may benefit from the out-of-the-ordinariness and new experiences that travel offers.

Whilst I know many families who feel that the lifestyle I share with my children would not be appropriate for their own children (some of whom have diagnoses for various behavioural issues and learning difficulties, and who need carefully preparing for any changes in routine), there are different degrees of family travel that can allow any family to experiment and note how their children respond. You needn’t jump in the deep end and plan a backpacking trip in another continent; just a family day trip on the train to a town you haven’t visited before can help you gauge how your children react to the concept of travel.

I’m certainly not saying that my own children’s generally calm response is how all children respond to travel. Your child may well be the opposite, and turn from generally obliging and thoughtful to over-excitable and disorganised. This over-exhilaration is perhaps what is expected of children when they travel – but can you blame them? Whilst, as adults, we can usually control our excitement internally, the joy and expectation of ‘holiday time’ is expressed physically by many young children.

We can either live in dread that we’ll have difficult journeys to our destination or reframe our outlook and deal with it creatively (see 10 Mind-Altering Family Travel Tips for more ideas on keeping family travel full of sweetness and light).

All the sights and sounds of travel provide parents with ample opportunity to channel high energy appropriately – all the waiting and sitting gives us lots of time to engage our children in conversation about new and unusual experiences. Shared observations and conversations aid our loving connection to our children which in turn serves as the basis for a strong, respectful relationship (i.e. ensuring it’s more likely that they’ll listen to us when it’s really important that they do).

I also tend to think that the more we look to the spirit of adventure, the more new things there are for everyone – ergo, the more distractions and novelties there are to limit or prevent tantrums of boredom and under-stimulation.

The last leg of the journey to a Mid-Atlas hamlet: travel needn't be a trial and can actually be a treat. There was no chance of FreeToBeP being a bored passenger here.
The last leg of the journey to a Mid-Atlas hamlet: travel needn’t be a trial and can actually be a treat. There was no chance of FreeToBeP being a bored passenger here.

Travelling also gives children the opportunity to take on little responsibilities that they may not usually have, thus keeping restless feet and hands occupied. FreeToBeP often takes care of his passport when we queue for passport control. I was initially wary of this, but in trusting him with the responsibility, I have learnt that he takes it very seriously: the bored child wanting to swing on the barriers becomes a child so focused on using his hands to hold onto his very own important documentation with all his might that nothing else matters.

So, if you’re a parent with a desire to travel yet hear a little voice telling you about all the things that could go wrong with your lively 4 year old, I would encourage you to put aside the worries and give your dreams a chance.

I always say that it’s better to try and fail than to never try and never know.

Yes, things could go wrong. They could also go very, very right.

 



Have you noticed a difference in your children’s temperament (for better or worse) when you travel? Do you concur with any of the above observations? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to leave a comment below if you wish to share your experiences.

Next week: Paltry Packing: 10 Tips for Travelling Lightly

10 Mind-Altering Family Travel Tips

New Eyes

If to be mind-altering something must change one’s mood and behaviour, then I hope the following post will live up to its title.

I would like to share some ways of doing and thinking that may allow your family more freedom, fun and flexibility as you journey to new horizons. My focus is on adopting an open and relaxed mental attitude to ensure you truly embrace the adventure of travelling with your children.

There are plenty of resources out there sharing information about practical matters such as documentation, transportation and sights to see, but little about actually nurturing yourself and your family to make the most of the travel experience.

If you travel with a genuinely positive and relaxed attitude, any obstacles and challenges can be experienced with a level of grace and acceptance that may be much harder to accomplish if you pressure yourself to stick to a predetermined plan shaped around ideals that work well at home but may not adapt so well to the spirit of travel.

This list has no particular hierarchy and can certainly be added to, but herein are 10 pieces of advice for anyone hoping or planning to take a family trip anywhere in the world (yes, even Skegness). Some of them may go against conventional parenting advice but I would like to suggest that your best ally as you travel is the ability to think outside the box . . .

 

1) Prepare Your Self

Body and mind are as important as bags and money (or, indeed, bags of money) when it comes to anticipating a trip with children.

I tend to get the packing and paperwork sorted well in advance of travelling – not because I’m super organised, but because I’m super excited! This gives me a bit of space and time to ensure I’m well-rested before embarking on our journey (or at least as well-rested as a restless single mother to two young children can be).

I can’t emphasise enough how useful it is to ensure you have some well-sharpened relaxation tools in your metaphorical toolbox before you go, whether that be a well-tuned meditation practice or merely the awareness of a need to take some time out and have a drink.

I’ve heard many stories of family holidays being the absolute opposite of the relaxing and bonding experience that was hoped for, and I’ve wondered how many of these families have well-established mental anchors when the stress levels start to rise. My own anchor isn’t always heavy enough to keep me from allowing the anxieties to get the better of me at times, but I generally avoid being too buffeted by the ocean of emotion when I remember the many relaxation techniques at my disposal.

If all else fails – keep quiet and just breathe!

Before I embark on my journey, I also take some time to reflect on what I’m hoping to get out of the trip, yet also how I can be mindful and accepting of whatever comes our way.

Whilst the logistics and practical concerns of travelling as a family take precedent, we make ourselves better able to deal with any strains or unforeseen events if we are mentally prepared to accept that:
a) we can never be 100% prepared; and
b) in choosing to go beyond our usual environments and comfort zones with our little ones, poo happens (sometimes quite literally).

2) The Group Mind

Travel as a group.

Taking your own community of friends or extended family with you is a big bonus. Though perhaps not the norm, it is a set-up I would recommend whenever it is possible. I suggest that you and your travel companions speak in advance about what might be expected of each other, the details of which may be dictated by whether or not they also have children with them.

The old adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” seems somehow all the more appropriate when you’re in strange new places and in need of that extra support when the kids go hyper just as you’re queuing at passport control or involved in some other such non-negotiable event.

Sharing your trip with others also serves as a home base for everyone. You don’t have to agree on what to do each day and you may separate to pursue different outings or activities, yet it is comforting to know you will be seeing a familiar face for dinner or evening drinks.

3) Be Spontaneous

Whilst preparation is the key to making a smooth getaway and in ensuring you have everything you need for the duration of your stay, spontaneity is a good trait to practice during your actual holiday.

I generally have some idea of things that I’d “quite like to do” in a particular location, yet I do my best to avoid setting in stone what will happen when. Keeping a loose agenda takes the pressure off and, if you do have a day where it feels better to stay close to your accommodation for easy rest or if the kids seems a little off-colour, this can result in a fresh burst of energy the following day when – feeling rejuvenated – you may end up packing lots of activities into a single day.

Be dictated by the needs and feelings of your family rather than by a schedule.

4) I Repeat – Forget the Schedule!

I once spoke to a family whom had hosted another family in their Mediterranean home during the summer. Just envisage those balmy summertime evenings following siesta time, families gathered around for late evening meals and socialising…

Well, they were rather bemused when the visiting family told them that their children would be going to bed as per their usual early evening bedtime – and that the visitors also expected the hosts to impose the same bedtime on their own child!

Even if you don’t intend to tell a host family what to do with their own children (perish the thought!), I would also encourage you not to tell yourself that you must adhere to what is actually an arbitrary, culturally-prescribed set of expectations. What works on a school night is not necessarily the best rule for other nights. The sense of time passing and the sense of what is necessary to get done changes from country to country and culture to culture. And, as they say, when in Rome…

Many would argue that adherence to as close a routine as you have at home is desirable. Whilst this is true, particularly for young children, with regards to keeping things familiar and consistent (e.g. retaining the same comforting bedtime routine, whatever time bedtime actually falls), being too focused on this can be a stress in itself – especially if there have been delays during the course of the day (be it problems with transport or the need to accept some countries’ more ‘mañana’ attitude).

Here we must make the distinction between a ‘routine’ and a ‘schedule’.

If you’ve passed the usual 7pm wind-down time and everyone is still waiting on an evening meal, you’ll do yourself no favours by worrying about it. You all need to eat and you’ll all get to bed eventually. As long as you respond to (and, ideally, premeditate) your children’s needs for food, drink, toilet stops and sleep/rest throughout the day, kids themselves are incredibly adaptable and accepting beings who, depending on their age, aren’t that conscious of the actual time. As long as they’re with a loved and trusted caregiver who doesn’t berate them for behaviour that results from any tiredness, they can feel ‘at home’ in themselves.

By all means resume your scheduling when you return home, but embrace the spirit of adventure whilst you’re away – take a risk and see what happens!

Eat when you feel like eating, sleep when you feel like sleeping, and build your usual little rituals and routines around that. If all hell breaks loose and the kids start pushing for tighter boundaries on their time, rein it in again. But you could be pleasantly surprised by the opportunities it gives you and how liberating it feels to fall into natural rhythms.

5) Must have a GSOH

I find that remembering one’s sense of humour is most useful when around the inevitable grumpy old men you will cross on your travels (I can count at least three) who will invariably find a reason to audibly complain about your children, even when your little sweethearts are actually being on their best behaviour. Some people just aren’t child-friendly. Don’t take this personally.

I vividly recall standing in the queue for passport control when returning to the UK and both kids were tired and in need of a trip to the toilets. They were complaining very noisily. A couple in front of me did much staring and tut-tut-ing before the woman loudly announced to the queue “This is why I’m glad I never had children!”.

I actually felt quite sorry for her. Reflecting on this, I could just as easily have felt sorry for myself. Thankfully, I was quite seasoned at travelling with the kids by then and was able to shrug it off and even snigger about it when an airport official then let us jump the long queue precisely because I did have children.

I’ve also employed humour to get me out of many an argumentative situation with FreeToBeB. We don’t have the luxury of living together full-time in order to create a stable basis for our relationship before we’re travelling around Morocco together and dealing with the usual family travel gripes. It can make our time together as a family fairly intense.

Mid-disagreement I will remember to think about how ridiculous our concerns are in the great scheme of things, and I will break into a smile and laugh (if you want a reminder of how ultimately insignificant all our worries are, check out this link ). My giggles aren’t always met with a matching reaction, but at least my own tension is released, which means there is no animosity left for the other party to feed on other than whatever they still choose to dwell on.

I’ve also employed the method of making fun of our previous fallings-out to lighten the mood and remind us that we always make up in the end, so better to make it sooner than later.

Emotions are often heightened for couples during travelling, so I imagine these techniques could work for anyone – including with our children, whose own moods can only be calmed if we ourselves are calm.

6) Blue Sky Thinking

Turn holiday time into adventure time!

For some, the words ‘family holiday’ may conjure up images of all-inclusive excursions to busy holiday resorts.

I’ve never taken a package holiday with my kids (unless a night in Legoland counts), although I can certainly see the appeal in the apparent ease of this. Yet I’m not satisfied with run-of-the-mill ‘family entertainment’ (i.e. I tend to find it downright cringe-worthy) and tend to think there are so many more activities ‘out there’ that can open their minds, hearts and souls to all that is beautiful and diverse and possible in this world.

Some people may feel less able to think creatively when they have children to consider and perhaps assume more ‘outside the box’ activities just aren’t possible for families. This makes a good excuse for taking the easier option.

However, the easier option is rarely the one that develops us as individuals, and I heartily recommend going outside one’s comfort zone when it comes to planning a family break.

There are many other ways to ‘do’ family travel which allow us to introduce our children to new and exciting aspects of life which may not otherwise be easily available to them. Whatever your interests or ambitions, there will be someone out there catering to families or at least making provisions for adults who will be accompanied by children. And if there isn’t? Well, there’s that niche business idea you’ve always been after!

Volunteer programmes such as WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) offer families the chance to work and learn whilst experiencing different countries and cultures.

CouchSurfing is also a popular way to go out and experience the world. You are accommodated for the price of a gift or favour to the host (which itself isn’t obligatory but certainly good social etiquette) and you also benefit from experiencing the destination from the point of view of a local, including the added bonus that you might have a free walking, talking guidebook. CouchSurfing is great for people genuinely interested in cultural exchange, including language exchange. You may feel more comfortable staying with another family who are familiar with the ways of children, yet there are many couchsurfers without children who are more than willing to host entire families.

Backpacking is also an option. I successfully spent 5 days backpacking and CouchSurfing around Andalusia with a 25kg rucksack, FreeToBeP (then 5 years old) carrying his small backpack, FreeToBeZ (then 15 months old) on me in a front-carrying sling, as I hobbled along on an injured foot (brave or crazy? You decide!).

Yes, it was hard work. Yes, it was extremely satisfying and life-affirming.

I have even heard of families successfully being able to take their children on meditation retreats, with lovely tales of their offspring tuning in and peace-ing out amidst the calmness of the community. I’m yet to test this theory on my own kids and think this is the point at which I would really be pushing my comfort zone – given the way all hell has a tendency to break loose when I instigate our nightly bedtime routine (which often includes meditation), I’m not sure I’m quite ready to let them loose amidst a group of Buddhists. That said, we could be a good test for other attendees’ true level of enlightenment and Zen-ness 😉

7) Luggage That Fits Into The Kitchen Sink

I will be covering the topic of packing lightly in much more detail in a couple of weeks’ time.

However, many of us have a tendency to over-pack, and this can be an additional and unnecessary burden in an already challenging situation. There are also many lessons in doing the exact opposite and taking as little as you can get away with.

I try to pare things back by thinking about what I really need for survival and comfort, and about what I can do at my destination. Perhaps there are things you can purchase at your destination instead of lugging it around in your luggage? Maybe you could do a little washing every couple of days instead of packing more changes of clothes? This also does away with the mammoth laundry task when you return home.

Travelling has also truly alerted me to how much we have in this country compared to many places in the world and how bizarre some of our ‘necessities’ are. That’s consumer society for you!

It was very humbling (and somewhat embarrassing) to realise that I often take more personal possessions in a single suitcase than many Amazigh women have in their entire homes. FreeToBeP takes more toys in a couple of pencil cases than a whole family of young boys may own in the Atlas Mountains.

Yet every place has its pros and cons. In the mountains, nature is their playground. FreeToBeP can forget all about Lego for an entire day when he has tree-climbing, rock-scrambling, bug-hunting friends to explore with, with the required trees, rocks and bugs right on the doorstep. In urban landscapes, we make up for that lack of natural freedom by filling rooms full of toys.

The boys in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco
The boys in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco

I’ve found that the less you take, the more you are forced to really take in and take on what is around you. Ergo, you go from a sight-seeing tourist to an all-seeing traveller.

8) Be a Cheapskate

Don’t be afraid to do things on the cheap if you need to. Having a low budget does not prevent you from travelling – but it does make you more resourceful.

Most of the things we think we ‘need’ as families are actually things we’ve just become used to and dependent upon as adults in a highly commercialised, consumerist society, whereas children are naturally quite adaptable in new and different situations.

Indeed, as with the examples above about packing, this can help to highlight different cultural and societal norms that your children may not experience if you partake in a holiday resort experience in a country where the typical activities and living standards of a resort are not the embodied experience of the families who actually live in that country.

Depending on the age of your children, you may all be comfortable sharing a double room (or even one bed) for your travels. I once booked a single room for myself and the two kids in Spain with camping mats as our second bed; the hotel owners actually provided a second single mattress for the floor at a cost of 6 Euros (their standard charge per child), which still ensured the single room remained cheaper than the double, and much cheaper than a family-sized room.

Provided you are capable of doing a quick risk assessment upon entering a hostel room, there is nothing wrong with booking a low budget room for your family and doing your own safety-proofing where necessary and possible. Ultimately, you – and no amount of health and safety legislation – bears the responsibility for keeping your children safe. If anything, taking the cheaper and apparently less ‘child friendly’ option can make us all the more attentive and responsive as parents (by which I mean being more present for them opposed to wrapping them in cotton wool).

As with all things, trust your intuition.

That said, I’ve stayed in some really grotty places that I would never recommend to anyone. It has made me really aware of what I’m prepared to compromise and what I’m prepared to pay for. And, also, how clean my home actually is despite housework not being one of my strong points (for I’ve never entered my own home wondering what that awful smell is only to discover a decomposing toad lying under my bed, maggots and all. That’ll serve me right for staying in the cheapest place in town).

Again, I would heartily recommend options such as CouchSurfing to families on a budget. One of our big joys as a CouchSurfing family is hosting and meeting other families in our own home. I also know of families who have arranged home swaps via CouchSurfing for the purpose of taking a cheap holiday.

If cheap equals simple, I like to think simple is the blank canvas required for further blue sky thinking. A room without a TV and a hostel without family entertainment will force you to spend more time bonding as a family and to get out exploring as much as possible.

I know that my truly budget travels have been the times that have resulted in the greatest challenges yet also the greatest learning.

9) Slow Down

Going at a child’s pace may be something we’re happy to do on a leisurely wander up to the local shops, but compile an itinerary for a journey (particularly by public transport) and we suddenly see a list of strict deadlines which we will make our children adhere to.

Provided you factor it in before you’re due to make your trip, it is possible to take your time. The journey to your destination need not be one fraught with panicking parents and cranky kids as everyone gets hurridly ferried between connections.

If need be, book a pre-flight hotel stay. When booking in advance, I’ve been able to book a well-equipped, en suite family room complete with king size bed for as little as £18 a night at Gatwick, with kids eating for free in the morning.

I find this extra expense a good investment for a payback of reduced stress levels, well-rested children and an extra day of travelling adventure. I will often do this even if my flight isn’t particularly early, as the peace of mind experienced from knowing I’m already ‘at’ the airport when I wake up in the morning is invaluable.

I actually find it much easier when I’m away somewhere to factor in all the dawdling, fussing, staring and general messing about time that young children must do. At home I’m much more likely to be preoccupied by a to do list or the need to be somewhere at a specific time, yet the nature of taking holidays should enable us to stop clock watching, be more mindful of the present moment, and ungrudgingly take things at the pace of the slowest members of the group.

Yes: slow down, lest all the speed just blurs the scenery.

10) Through The Eyes of a Child . . .

. . . is an amazing way to view the world!

Taking this view allows us a greater understanding of children’s needs as young travellers, yet also allows one to be the most open, non-judgemental person possible in a new environment.

Zen Buddhists (yes, them again) talk of seeing the world afresh in every moment, and this is all the more apt as travellers – to leave behind our own cultural conditioning and experience a place for what it is rather than what we feel it ought to be. And, in meeting them in empathy, truly allowing our children to do the same.

 

Please feel free to feedback in the comments below. Do these tips have the capability to alter your mind? Which of them resonated for you and which didn’t? Do you already have success in utilising some of these things?

Keep following Free To Be for my top tips on travelling as a single parent, travelling with a baby and travelling whilst pregnant.

Next week: The Quiet Zone: Travelling with a High Spirited Child