As I write, we are enjoying the last few days of our time in Mexico, but we are looking forward to an early return home. After 90 days of adventure, we’ve simply ground to a halt. So we’re heading home.
Before we return to our everyday life in the UK, I want to share some of the hard-earned wisdom that we’ve accumulated in our travels. Life on this adventure hasn’t always been fun, even if it has been consistently rewarding. We’ve learned a lot, but there has been struggle and tears from time to time. For all of you who’ve told me you’re planning a similar adventure, I want to share some opinions which may help you define your own approach to taking youngsters with you on global travel.
First, a parenting philosophy
Before I dive into the clickbait list of advice, I want to be clear about what I believe kids need both at home and abroad:
I believe that kids need structure and routine. I believe that adults need it too, but we tend to have more agency in providing our own support mechanisms and are wiser about recognising our own needs. Nearly every time that our crew suffered a meltdown or threw a tantrum, there was ambiguity and change involved that made the uncertainty unbearable.
So I start with the assumption that we all need some amount of structure and order. That to explore new places and experience the unknown we all need a basic order and routine to rely on. There’s too much cognitive overhead in pure chaos to enjoy yourself or get anything done. All of your energy and enthusiasm will fall down the gravity well of taking care of basic needs and an extraordinary experience will unravel into a chaotic expression of your home-life in extremely challenging circumstances.
Not structuring life for kids on a trip leaves the door wide open for homesickness.
Mind you, I’m not advocating turning your kids into robotic slaves, just providing them with something that approximates your rhythm at home. After all, adventure is often chaotic and the best family experiences may be about defining new habits and norms together.
1. Wait till kids are ten for big journeys
Everybody’s family will be different, but I believe its worth waiting until there’s enough maturity and resilience to deal with the chaos and uncertainty of travel. At ten a kid knows their own likes and dislikes and has a good body of knowledge already. Knowing enough fuels their curiosity and informs the places they want to explore. They’re simply up for more.
In a practical sense, ten year olds will also be able to walk further, tolerate stranger food, go longer between snacks and hopefully tell you off when you’ve lost the plot and your temper. A curious “tween” makes an awesome travelling companion.
We’ve travelled with kids before they were in school and it was easy, but the kids barely remembered it. Despite their obvious portability, I think its worth waiting until they can participate more in the adventure and support and inspire you along the way.
2. Make parenting a process of humility everyone participates in
Conflict is going to happen. Unless you’re crazy wealthy, you’re either going to be sharing a hostel/hotel room with your kids or you’ll be lucky enough to be travelling in a live-in vehicle. That much time in one room with your family is going to bring out the worst in everyone from time to time.
My own worst behaviour means loss of temper and a cruelly critical tone. I turn into a shitty parent even though I’m trying my best. I’m not proud of that, but it would be a waste of time to deny it.
That I’m not perfect is hardly a headline. My point is that the only way I am able to make things right when I fall prey to my own humanity is by being up-front with my kids about how I botched things. I admit I was wrong. I ask for forgiveness and, probably most importantly, I leave them in the driver’s seat about how they react and whether they forgive or not.
The upside of this is that I’ve got kids who are now able to call me out before my mood is absurd and who are more mindful of their own missteps when they inevitably happen.
3. Dont go for more than 2 months
We travelled for 3 months on this trip. We were scheduled to travel for 3 1/2. We ran out of steam, big-time just after two months. There are a variety of contributing factors that explain our burnout, but time was the biggest.
Seeing and doing so much for such an extended time numbed us. Instead of being wowed by beaches, they became “just another beach”. The kids’ curiosity plummeted and our patience for one another cratered. It was painfully obvious that we’d simply had too much of a good thing.
Your threshold may be different from ours, but my advice is to schedule your trip so that you leave wanting more, instead of never wanting to travel again.
4. Provide a schedule and routine
I wrote above about my belief in everyone’s need for routine. While travelling its super important to make that routine obvious, explicit and visible.
I was reminded before we departed that the kids didn’t have a choice about the trip. So I’ve spent a lot of time during our travels, creating charts, maps, itineraries and calendars that we can all refer to for certainty about what happens next. Having the breakdown of the trip taped up beside the hostel room door sends kids the message that you’ve made a commitment that they can see and any changes won’t be foisted on them unawares.
If you’re the one in charge of schooling while on the road, this is doubly important. I got the most resistance to daily lessons during weeks when I had failed to provide a ticklist of the week’s agreed work up front. My kids thrived and committed to learning when they could mark their own progress.
5. Brace for Homesickness impact
Someone in your crew is going to suffer from Homesickness. At the time, it may not look like Homesickness. It may express itself as rage, sadness, violence, stubbornness or a whole cocktail of difficult behaviour. It doesn’t matter what you want to call it, it is your loved one’s unfulfilled need for comfort and certainty.
The triggers are anything and everything: the mention of a pet, the smell of familiar detergent, the loss of a sock. Once Homesickness is triggered, it will expand to fill the emotional space and turn any trip uncertainty into despair.
The only way I effectively dealt with this was to be a better listener and stay present. The truth is that you can’t, and probably shouldn’t, bail on a long trip because someone misses familiar circumstances. There’s something rewarding about pushing through that discomfort and discovering your boundaries while abroad.
But that glosses over the real pain that you and your kids may be feeling. So sit and listen. Accept the blows of a tantrum and dry the tears of sorrow. Just be there. Family is where you lend your support, not four walls and a roof. So be the shelter that they need.
6. Don’t move too much
We were really tempted to bounce around like giddy backpackers on a gap year. We wanted to fit everything in and do it all.
But I knew that would exhaust me and I suspected it would destroy my kids too. So I resolved with my partner to break the trip up into big chunks and set up base in a few choice locations we’d use as hubs to explore from.
Did we do that? No, we did not. We bounced around. We let the awkward travel days between destinations become two nights in one place followed by more and more little short stops. It was chaotic and it really wore the kids and me down.
See everything you can, by all means, but take it in chunks. Let the kids have the comfort of knowing where the toilet will be and where they can put their underpants and souvenirs for at least 5-7 days at a time.
7. Look for your own resistance and anger as attachment to an outcome that you want
When Homesickness hit a horrendous peak mid-trip, I’m ashamed to say I lost my shit. I got shouty and sullen and started to model all the worst behaviours for my kids.
When I calmed down, my heart broke a bit to see someone I loved obviously struggling and adrift. And in hindsight I could see that my overreaction to their acting-out was down to disappointment I was feeling about my own needs.
I needed to be really mindful of my own resistance whenever someone’s Homesickness raised my temper. I needed to raise my parenting game several notches. The secret was looking out for things I was attached to, when I didn’t want to put in the time to be present for my kids. A missed wildlife encounter, time to myself, a specific meal I felt I deserved.
When I learned to find and acknowledge what I was attached to, I could finally let it go and deal with my children’s struggle, which was obviously more important.
8. Prepare yourself for even more responsibility
It’s easy to see the travel blogs and Instagram posts of sex-drenched Millenials roaming the world as digital nomads and get major FOMO triggers. Travelling with kids will involve at least a smidgen of nostalgia for less responsible times in youth, when it was easy to cut loose and backpack.
Travel usually involves a diminished set of responsibilities. There’s no job to attend, no flat/house to manage and a cut down schedule.
But the truth is that as soon as you take your kids along on the adventure, your responsibilities will ratchet up by 400%. You’re now with your kids 24/7 and they will offload as much of their needs on you as they can. You’re now a caretaker, therapist, cook, referee, teacher, medic and playmate.
All of that is pretty awesome, but set your expectations up front. Don’t imagine you’ll be in the bar until late, or blogging often (cough, cough) if you really will be building lesson plans and planning the next days activities.
9. Feed them all the time
OK, if you’ve survived the toddler years, then you’ve probably got snack management on lock. But if you’ve got to do it in a foreign language, with few familiar options and on somebody else’s schedule, you’re going to struggle.
It doesn’t matter. Just keep feeding them. Fight the hangry and be on guard for the grumble.
Most importantly, mealtime is not the time to start expressing your own aspirations through your kids’ diet. If they want to eat spaghetti bolognese for 15 days in a row, just let them. It’s not your expectations that need nourishing, it’s their awesome little adventuring bodies. It’s a trip, its not forever, so just let them eat what they want, so long as they eat.
10. Finally, be liberal with forgiveness
I’ve touched on this a few times, but it bears repeating. You’re on journey of discovery. Any journey is tiring and stressful. And an adventure involves challenge and adversity. Since your crew will never have more than 75% of their energy at any given time, you need to be forgiving with just about everything.
Forgetfulness, anger, spite and punching-your-sister-in-the-back-of-the-boat-in-the-Amazon are all examples of times when you need to let something slide. Just do it. You’re carrying a ton of luggage and probably an intestinal parasite, don’t carry a grudge too.
And most of all, don’t waste the precious moments of your adventure waiting to get around to forgiving each other. Acknowledge it, forget it and move on. Hand-in-hand is the best way to see the world.