Practical tips are one thing, but often before we take that first trip with our kids we don’t really know what we’re in for. In fact, as the kids grow, we face different challenges… so every trip is its own parenting adventure.
The first time we took our kids overseas, we went to Bali. From Australia, Bali presents a nice, easy first-time destination for families. We had a two-year-old and a four-month-old at the time, so the challenges we faced were mainly around nap times, teething, and vaccinations. Read this post on Bali with kids for more info. This year’s international jaunt to Malaysia and Singapore held different challenges. We now had a three-and-a-half-year-old and an 18-month-old – two growing boys who were starting to fight with each other (and us!) and express their own personalities and needs, sometimes in a very trying fashion.
Here’s what I think every parent should be prepared for before they hop on the plane. I wrote this post with my gorgeous friend Esther from Gather and Play – as a general rule, the ranting is mine, and the super helpful parenting tips are Esther’s!
You will learn to go with the flow
There’s nothing quite like travel to make one humble. In a lot of ways, you’re not really in control anymore. No matter what you do, you can’t fix a flight delay or prevent a cyclone. From the minor to the major, all you can really do is work around such issues. That’s all nice in principle, but it’s a different ballgame with kids.
Getting kids to eat a balanced diet can be tricky, we know that. But add in a new culture and cuisine, and a new climate to boot, and there’s the potential for feeding time to become really difficult. Our kids love all manner of foreign cuisines because we eat a really varied diet at home, but there’s always bound to be something they haven’t tried. On our last two international trips, we went from the cold and miserable weather of Adelaide in July to the hot and sticky tropics. The kids completely lost their appetite. We love eating in hawker centres but found ourselves looking for air-conditioned restaurants just so they would eat more than a couple of bites, or ordering room service at night. When they won’t eat anything because of the heat, they’ll only drink juice or milkshakes. At home this would be a no-no but on holiday we learned to have the attitude of “oh well, it’s a holiday treat and at this point we just need them to have something in their tummies… milk and fruit is much better than nothing!”
There’s the potential for battles when you return home as you attempt to return to a normal routine… But they will be short lived, and worth the lowered stress levels you’ve experienced on the holiday.
Sometimes you’ll want to give up and go home
One of my friends asked me, when we got back from Malaysia, what my biggest travelling-with-kids tip was. “DON’T BRING THEM!!!” I cried.
Yes, the trip was exhausting, and in hindsight our itinerary wasn’t great for little ones. (You can find our Malaysia and Singapore itinerary here… it was a great route and this post has lots of tips, we just did it too fast for the little guys.) That said, watching our eldest give a talk to his classmates at school about our trip was worth it. He has gained so much confidence from getting out into the world.
I’m a big history buff so being afforded the time to explore historical sites and really learn about them is important to me. This is pretty hard with kids, especially young ones who can’t read and who don’t have a real understanding of time. And sometimes they’ll have a meltdown somewhere embarrassing – like a temple or a museum. Just like when it happens at the supermarket, you might want to slink home in shame. But this is normal, and absolutely to be expected.
Something you could try as a family is to sit down and chat about everyone’s expectations before you go. Family meetings are a great way of letting the kids have buy-in. Do this before you leave on your holiday, and make it part of your routine at dinner each night or in the morning before setting off for the day’s adventure. This gives us as parents a chance to explain what we’re doing and lets the kids ask questions. For example, when visiting a temple, explain what the temple is, what it looks like, and what its purpose is. Also explain the general guidelines for behaviour. Saying something like “it’s okay if you feel overwhelmed” gives them a way to verbalise their feelings. This might help to minimise meltdowns or anticipate any escalating emotions before the meltdown happens.
You learn to slow down
The pace issue is a big one, and obviously one we’ve learned the hard way. When you’re traveling with kids, particularly little ones, you just need to slow down.
Utilise the family meeting to really figure out everyone’s “must-dos” as you plan your itinerary. What is important to everyone? What is just nice-if-you-have-time? Which activities are kid-friendly, and which aren’t? Which activities are geographically close to one another?
Organising a quiet day between busy days gives everyone the chance to recharge – not just the kids, but the grownups too! And let’s face it, who doesn’t love hanging out by the pool for a day? Making sure this is incorporated into your itinerary from the get-go gives you to head off overwhelm at the pass – for the littles, and for you!
This is a big one we learnt in Malaysia. We got our itinerary mixed up a few times and did a lot of backtracking. We’ve now developed our Penang guide taking these errors into account so you won’t make the same ones, so check it out.
You learn to appreciate resorts on a whole new level
Room service. Buffets. Giant pools. These are things that can be nice for a grown-up if you’re into that sort of thing, but like foods they can be a ‘sometimes’ thing. Before kids we always liked to explore a range of cities in various styles of accommodation before finishing our trip with some relaxation in a nice resort.
With kids, it’s different. The amenities a resort offers can be really useful when it comes to keeping the kids calm and occupied. Just like I mentioned before, slowing down is really important and a resort is the perfect space to be when you just need a ‘down day’. Hanging out by the pool for a day gives everyone the opportunity to recharge.
In my review of the Hard Rock in Penang, I mentioned how cool it was to be in such a kid-friendly hotel. It’s definitely not what Mr. W and I would have chosen for ourselves, but waterslides and Hard Rock chicken tenders delivered to our room had the kids enamoured.
Also don’t forget (ever!): UTILISING KIDS CLUBS DOES NOT MAKE YOU A BAD PARENT. In fact, sometimes they’ll have more fun than with you. The kids club at The Andaman, for example, ran sessions on regenerating the coral reef and teaching the littles about reef health. The kids will probably even make some friends too.
You’ll figure out if your parenting styles are compatible, and test out your teamwork skills.
There were a couple of times on our Malaysia trip where our eldest son’s behaviour was so full on that we didn’t know what to do. He was so tired and overwhelmed and was expressing this in a really destructive way. We felt pretty defeated, honestly. It was at this time where we started to realise that our ideas on what to do about it differed. When we started to get desperate, we started to disagree about what to do next. When we started to disagree as parents, I would get really stressed. How was it possible that my husband and I could think so differently about such a crucial issue?
But that’s the thing. There are always going to be times of disagreement in a marriage. It’s what you do next that counts. At one point, after I really lost my cool, I was crying to my husband and feeling like a really shit mum, honestly. My husband wrapped his arm around me and reassured me that I was an excellent mother and also, importantly, only human. But seeing me now in distress, he sat down with me and we hashed out the situation together. We contemplated the causes, came up with different solutions and together decided on an action plan.
But the real bright side of this is that we were given the opportunity to have big discussions about how we wanted to parent our children. These kinds of discussions, while daunting, always make us stronger as parents and as a couple. As parents, and as people, we were overwhelmed too. It wasn’t just the kids. And while it seemed a bit strange (we just wanted to forget about it after the stress was gone) it was important to revisit when we weren’t in the heat of the moment – and not engaged in a battle of wills with our children!
Something that felt nice was to sit on the balcony after the kids had gone to bed and chat about the day. Make any topic free for discussion – have no limits, and no judgement. Then discuss ways you could problem-solve in certain situations so when it next comes up, you’re already on the same page without having to say anything.
I mentioned earlier, and on other posts too, about wanting to explore historical sites that aren’t really kid-friendly. This is where teamwork can really come into its own. When I wanted to explore the Blue Mansion in Penang, Mr. W. knew this was a lifelong dream of mine. He took the kids back to the hotel and gave me 90 minutes to just do my thing. And guess what? Every time I remember doing that tour my heart bursts. Not only do I remember how much I enjoyed it, but also that my husband recognised how important it was to me… and he made it happen.
You will learn more about your kids, and learn new parenting skills
The stressful situation I’ve talked about with our eldest led to a bit of a turning point. Before we’d gone on holiday, it had been suggested to us that he see an Occupational Therapist as he may have some sensory processing issues. We had considered this but held off as it was a fairly minor issue and we were going away. Being on this trip showed us just how overwhelmed he was with all the new sensory input he was experiencing. Something that had seemed fairly minor, and perhaps just a personality quirk or an issue of preferences, was magnified by being in a foreign environment.
We saw the OT in conjunction with a Psychologist, and sensorily he was mostly in normal range. The Psychologist then did a cognitive assessment. We now know our son falls in the gifted range and struggles with change because his brain just works a bit differently. He just gets overloaded sometimes from all the extra input. He gets highly anxious when he can’t control his environment, and becomes very rigid. This is what we were experiencing overseas.
We’re now very grateful for this experience because we know our kid better. We know more about how his brain works, and what he’s really feeling when he acts out. And now we have a bunch of coping mechanisms in our arsenal to work through these challenging moments. (Which are getting fewer and easier now our parenting has changed to suit him a bit more!)
You’ll make the best family memories, and that’s what matters
When we got back from Malaysia I was utterly exhausted. I was, honestly, a little turned off of the idea of travelling with kids. But as I got my energy back and we consolidated our memories of our time away, I started to feel differently.
I think about watching the glorious pink sunsets of Batu Ferringhi and Datai Bay. Enjoying that special moment with my husband and kids, watching my sons really appreciate a sunset for the first time. I think about watching my fairly timid eldest son ride a luge in Singapore, racing down the track with a huge grin on his face. The way they embraced different foods, started to understand different cultures and formed a stronger brotherly bond all stand out in my mind. I think about nights spent with room service, movies, and snuggles… and of not having to race off to work but just being able to enjoy each other’s company instead. These moments, these memories, represent my idea of why travel is so important.
Travelling with kids can be stressful at times, but let’s face it – so is life back home. But the benefits travelling brings to every member of the family are enormous. For us, it becomes a simple concept – there’s no way we can choose to stay home and not provide our kids with those experiences.
Travelling with kids takes more work, more planning, and more prioritising There are a lot of things to think about that one wouldn’t necessarily have to consider when heading off alone. But if you take the time to consider these things, to plan, and to communicate, experiencing everything the world has to offer as a family is one of the most rewarding experiences we can have. Indeed, it can be absolutely life-changing.
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