When we got back from Spring Break in New York City, I started to write up all the crazy and cute things that happen while traveling with kids. After a couple of paragraphs of, “… and then he said PIGEON!” I stopped. I then tucked those little memories away and took a hard, left turn. Brian and I were the crazy I really wanted to write about. If you’re curious about how many times a three-year-hold can notice a common bird in the biggest, most pigeon-y city in the world, I’ll tell you that one over a glass of wine.
It’s not that traveling with kids is hard. It’s become too easy. Here’s what I mean.
Brian and I parent like we were parented: high expectations, high guardrails, low drama.
We structure our days. Work and play are pursued with equal intent. Even whimsy is on purpose. Then, we periodically recall studies done on the benefits of free time. It’s then squeezed into the schedule with a sigh. All the planning is more me than him (but I’m guessing you knew that.)
Parenting like we were parented works for the most part.
- We know what to say to requests for candy at the check-out. “Nope!”
- We know what to say to get the kids to the dinner table. “Now!”
- And when it comes to breaking up an argument between siblings, we know what to say then too. “Separate!”
We have a copy and paste script for all the typical situations. These default settings are useful in our attempt to recreate our own childhoods with all the same loving, achieving, enriching, fun, boring, tedious, difficult, and joyous ups and downs.
And, that’s where technology has us all fucked up.
Technology makes things easy that used to be hard. As Gen Xers raised in the 1970s and 80s, we want to preserve some of life’s difficulties because there are golden, grit-building lessons there. At the same time, we don’t want to inconvenience ourselves because we’re old enough and already learned those lessons. So, we’re stuck.
The transition from hard to easy seems especially noticeable when it comes to travel.
For spring break this year, we decided to take the kids on a road trip to New York... from Falls Church, VA-- which is, like, not that far. It's maybe 4.5 hours with no traffic. Unlike the car trips of our youth in the 70s/80s, this journey was well... you be the judge.
The 70s/80s car trip was long and boring whether you were going to the grocery store or to Alabama. The van smelled bad like poopy diapers and hot vinyl before it left the driveway. (Car fresheners had actually been invented. They just weren’t worth the investment of $1.29 in the mind of the 70s/80s parent.) In the backseat, there was a bag with a couple of coloring books and an assortment of broken crayons. Most of the pages were already used up and there was no red.
In the front, there was another bag with some hard granola bars and tiny metal cans of puke-inducing grapefruit juice. For entertainment, there was one cassette single of the “Greatest Love of All.” It required your mom to hit play, then rewind and wait before she’d hit play again. At some point your mini-concert would come to hard stop when your dad interrupted with, “I think Whitney needs a break.” When you then sweetly asked what you could do instead, he made his eyes big in the rear view mirror to emphasize the point, “LOOK OUT THE WINDOW!”
On our 2018 car trip, the van is still smells factory fresh-ish to me. There are nearly a dozen DVDs neatly stowed in their designated compartment. For those not interested in their sibling’s choice, just power up your tablet while still complaining. Loudly. The snack bag is still centrally controlled at the front of the van and it contains 8 different salty and sweet, chewy and crunchy, healthy and treat-y options. No one feels nauseous and there is absolutely no need to look out the window.
The 70s/80s trip required a map. While not on straight highway, complete silence was mandated so the 70s/80s parents could concentrate. After 16 wrong turns and some snapping back and forth in the front seat, we’d arrive at our destination or just A destination. It was more like the van just eventually stopped.
On the 2018 trip, Brian reflexively turns off the radio as the NY skyline comes into view. He asks the back to hold further questions until arrival. (Everyone ignores this request. Linc especially seems to forget what we’ve been talking about for 3 weeks and asks, “Are we in Falls Church?”) Headed into the Lincoln Tunnel at 2 miles per hour, we have 3 sets of directions with voice cues including Google Maps, Waze, and the van’s own navigation system. We pull up in front of the hotel without a single wrong turn. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, I snap at Brian just for fun.
And it just goes further downhill from there. And by downhill, I mean, we just rolled. It got easier and easier. There was no wandering, menu-reading, and guessing about dinner. Reservations are made via OpenTable based on proximity to the hotel and Yelp reviews for kid-friendliness. All the activities are pre-planned based on emailed recommendations from friends and top-rated blog posts. Everything goes perfectly according to plan.
All this technology-aided ease is both a worry and a relief. Isn’t travel in part about exposing yourself to pain in the hopes of discovering something new? Okay, maybe it’s sometimes about relaxing and having fun.
Even in their pursuit of fun, however, most people my age and up would estimate travel as about 20 percent fun and 80 percent pulling-out-your-hair-hassle. This is rightly based on years of complete misery belted into the backseat of a stinky van. And, in a completely twisted way, I’m thankful for those hours looking at the window. Having survived it, we’re all stronger, grittier, and more equipped than these soft-boiled eggs we’re raising today.
But, what can we do? Foregoing the technology that makes travel so easy means that we- the parents- would suffer too. And, that just ain't happening. We’re clearly not willing to go backwards into the dark ages of the 70s and 80s and guess which roadside chain restaurant has the best chicken tenders-- no matter how grit-building that might be.