I'll begin the new year answering a question I do get quite frequently. It goes something like this from a recent email I received: "I was hoping you might be able to point me in the right direction as far as resources for researching your areas of travel. I know you lived in Japan for sometime, but are there particular books, websites, etc you recommend when researching a destination? I have a strong desire to expose my children to different world cultures and to formulate ideas and opinions based on experience with those places and people as opposed to what is fed to them. My kids are 4.5 and 2.5 now. How long does it take you to plan your adventures? Do you establish contacts within the country beforehand? I don't even know where else to begin, I'm sure you get many emails like this, and I appreciate your reading mine."
Well... of course that's a lot to answer and my answers vary greatly. I will begin with Japan. Yes, I lived there and the girls' dad was working there 6 months out of the year at the time- so that was an easy choice. The girls were 3 and 5 at the time- so how did I prepare them for the trip? Here's where people get uneasy. I didn't. At that age I simply told them, 'We're going to Japan." that's it. I feel very strongly about that age- as you may know from my blog- I'm a real believer in the Waldorf method for the young years in particular. Filling a young child's head with information really detracts from their ability to fully live in the experience, I find. At that age everything is an adventure. Most outings away from home (outside of the regular routine) are new to them, so experiencing a foreign country is much the same. I am a HUGE proponent of observation based parenting. Even when traveling. I like to sit back and watch them explore. They notice things I would not and I do not go to a country with an agenda and preconceived notion of what we will glean from it. That being said, we do need to make reservations for certain things, but I really try to keep that to a minimum.
For Bali, I had traveled there before in my early 20's and it grabbed me like no other place ever had, so I knew one day I would take my children there. We made no plans and had no reservations. The maximum visa for tourists is 30 days- so we knew we'd stay the max. Everything on that dvd unfolded as it happened. We picked up hotel brochures in the airport on arrival, asked taxi drivers where to stay and eat and just bumbled along. People think I made plans to meet those children dancers and it must have been a cumbersome process, which it would've been. But we just met them and enjoyed spending time with them and hung out at that location until we were ready to move on. Bali is like that. It is magical and magical things happen.
For the British Isles the girls were getting older- then 6 and 8 and were very interested in seeing real castles. They still were (still are) firm believers in fairy tales, princesses, faeries and Harry Potter and really wanted to see these things for themselves. Ireland and northern England were obvious choices to go exploring these things. At this age the Martha books (Laura Ingalls Wilder's great, great grandma I think) were great! They are full of faerie folklore! I read up a lot on faeries as well- non fiction, that was truly fascinating. I don't get into history or any of that stuff outside of a story context, such as the Martha books- which are historical fiction, for the girls. That will likely change as they age- according to their own interests.
I made a huge mistake in doing too much internet research ahead of time for that trip. I found a lovely little cottage rental in Ireland online and wish I would've stopped there. But then I looked up all of the "attractions' in the area and the girls and I couldn't stop looking. We were so excited about the trip- the caves, the forests, the shops, the sheep, cableknits- everything was gorgeous! And when we got there in real life it wasn't quite as grand as the pictures had made it out to be. The caves for example, that showed someone climbing into it was really a guided tour with a roped off path. No climbing allowed. So I learned my lesson. It's the difference between exploration and following directions. One is fun and the other you simply check off of your 'to do' list.
Iran was a special case of course, because Americans are not allowed to travel freely in the country. I thought a group tour sounded too much for me to handle so we hired a private guide- and all of that is well documented here on the blog in the Iran travel diary. The tour company arranged where we went and what we saw. I only said to them, "I have children, am not terribly interested in history- though I know yours' is as impressive as they come!, like hands on activities and like to go to places to meet locals as much as possible. And I must go to that excellent caravansari I had seen in a video." The gal at the office sent me a sample itinerary that knocked my socks off on the first round so I sent them money- to Thailand because the US and Iran are not allowed to send money to each other. People ask me a lot- "Weren't you afraid it was a scam? How could you send money to Thailand?" Of course they were also asking why the heck I wanted to go to Iran in the first place!
Also, Waldorf education is based on a child's spiritual development, rather than academic development so the curriculum is different than most educational systems. Though I tend mostly to unschool the girls there is something about the Waldorf curriculum in each year that I do incorporate into our reading and daily life. The big sister would be in 3rd grade right now where they learn house building and study the old testament of the bible because at 9 years old metaphorically they are leaving 'the garden of eden."This is the year they really leave young childhood and begin to move towards adulthood so the curriculum teachers survival skills so they feel capable of moving into a more independent state. They learn how to build shelter, grow food and learn creation stories of how the world came to be. So Iran was an excellent place to visit. There are some areas there that are relatively unchanged since biblical times and we visited houses made out of mud with stables filled with hay. I look at bible stories metaphorically and we incorporate all religious stories into our life, so I loved being there near Christmas time, with absolutely no commercial signs of it anywhere and to say, "Jesus was probably born somewhere like that." Iranians believe the 3 kings came from Persia and spoke of it often. We bought gum that was made from the sap of a frankincense tree that was boiled in milk- also likely unchanged since biblical times, bathed with sheep fat and barley flour- also quite likely what Jesus used. It was a good time for a trip to this area for her.
History in context is very different than it being some abstract thing that I would not bring to children under the age of nine. I know- it's very different than public school. I saw a kindergarten history lesson a few weeks ago that made me laugh because a five year olds' perception of history cannot conceive of what the lesson was attempting to teach. Ask any five year old the difference between 10 years ago and 100 years ago and you'll see. Even my nine year old looked confused when the guide spoke of a ruins being 4500 years old. "Was that before Kaya (the American Girl doll)?" was her comment. I'm pretty sure 2500 BC was before 1764 AD.
When people ask why I want to go somewhere or how I chose that location it is very difficult for me to articulate. Why do I like chocolate? I don't know. I just do. Desires are like that. It is not a mental decision for me as much as a true desire to explore that location. When I'm in a location, I like to do the same. I don't like having too much of it planned out because that hinders the process of going with my gut and making it an exploration. That was the most taxing part of the Iran trip for me. I'm not used to be on a schedule like that and can't imagine ever doing it again, but who knows- maybe when I'm 80 I'll enjoy it!
When I was 16 and my sister 18 we backpacked through Europe for a summer and drove each other bonkers! I wanted to board a train and get off where it looked 'pretty.' She wanted to open the guide book in the morning, pick our hotel or hostel and make a reservation. I have often said, I would rather eat a bad meal that I've never tried before than eat a great one I've already eaten. I'm just like that. My sister and I have changed little since that time and still approach life in opposite ways...and still have challenges understanding the other's viewpoint.
Our next trip is a case of convenience. My brother is working overseas and has a big apartment. Free housing means a lot! And the country has 3 month tourist visas. enough said.
I don't know if that clarified anything or made it more confusing- but there you have it! As always, happy travels, whatever style you choose.
The question I get asked the most by reporters and such wanting to do a story on a mom traveling with two young children is, "What travel tips do you have for other parents?"
I've been traveling with my oldest daughter for 8 years now and I still can't come up with a list of tips for other parents.
I recently screwed up an interview so badly I decided to really think about it and come up with a list. I actually took out a pen and paper and began: 1. um...nothing. truly blank. I talk a lot. I write a lot. Why can't I come up with a list of tips?
The last interview went something like this: Nice young interviewer asks me the tips question and I begin with a very long winded answer about how I parent no differently while on an airplane than when on land. I have never seen it my responsibility to entertain my children or keep them busy. This is their job. When they were infants I did not subject them to noisy 'activity centers,' tv, or toys that made noises or lit up. I would put them on a blanket on the floor and they would watch the tree blowing in the wind outside the window. A simple wooden teether would keep them occupied for long stretches of time.
So, I'm attempting to tell this young man in his early 20's with no children that I travel with my regular purse (which always has a bag of raw almonds in case anyone gets hungry) and each child has their own bag with whatever they've put into it and that's it. The last trip to the British Isles they were ages 5 and 7- they each brought a blank artist pad and their crayon roll. When they were 3 and 5 they each had a few of their favorite books and crayons and paper. When they were infants I brought disposable diapers (my travel indulgence) and a change of clothes but never used bottles or sippy cups. I don't bring extra 'kid snacks' or juice boxes. We don't use portable dvd players, ipods or gameboys.
So, I say to the interviewer that it's all in what each family does that they should continue doing. If I give them advice to leave all their gadgets home and travel like we do but their kids are addicted to them - that would be a problem. "Just do what you always do." I tell him. This sounds completely reasonable to me. He keeps pushing me. He wants a list he can print. So, he continues with, "What if you have an active toddler that won't sit still and it's time to take off and he won't sit down?" Here's where things get tricky... Past job titles of mine include "Child Development Specialist" and "Parenting Instructor." Surely I should be able to come up with a good answer here. Instead I say, "Well, I don't really think an airplane is the place to begin parenting for the first time. If you've never put parameters around your child's behavior, maybe expecting that child to sit still for 10 hours for starters is a little unreasonable." This is not a very helpful answer I realize.
"Well, what if you haven't and here you are and your kid is screaming and it's time to take off? Then what do you do?" he probes. At that point I say, "Gee, I suppose you can do what my pediatrician recommended to me and just drug em'."
I think any intelligent reader can guess by now that that is not at all a good answer! We wrap up the interview and I forget about the conversation until the story prints. It is interview style that goes something like this:
Newspaper: What are some travel tips you can share with our readers to make a flight easier?
Me: "Drug em." (laughs)
Yup, that's right, My entire answer ends up as drug them! From me the gal that has had a root canal au natural, home-birthing, herbal healing earth mom with the advice to drug kids for flights.
Well, it certainly taught me a lesson.
If I were to make a list I suppose it would go something like this:
1. Do not put your infants in plastic noisy gadgets that go beep, vibrate or swing.
2. Do not ever put your infant in front of a tv!
3. Do not have battery operated toys for babies and young children.
4. Give your child space to explore their world in real time.
5. Don't rush your child.
6. Don't over schedule your child.
7. Do not feed them artificial foods.
8. Spend LOTS of time outside in nature.
9. Spend time with children singing and talking
10. Slow down and just adore who they are and stop pushing them to do so much.
That's my real list. and I'm sticking to it. And yes, I do know that a newspaper will never print it!
An airplane is an intensely interesting place for a toddler- there is so much to see. If a parent hasn't knocked wonder and a true sense of exploration out of their child, flights are fantastic. What I see over and over again is that the parents that have the most difficult time are the ones who allow their children to explore the least. They try so hard to keep them distracted rather than engaged. When walking with the child down the isle why not let them stop and pick up that piece of lint and explore it? Notice on the next flight the parents who are relaxed and allow their children to turn around and play peek a boo with the people behind them or cruise the isles with a toddler without rushing them are the ones with the happy kids. The ones who are carrying the kids are usually the ones with the screamers and the dvds and the giant bag full of plastic toys. Children (as all people) want to be engaged rather than distracted.
Next time you find yourself with your child on your lap facing away from you and you're trying to distract them with something, turn them around, look them in the eyes and begin a gentle song. Children, today more than ever crave connection. um, do I need to clarify - that's connection to other humans and not electronics?
I actually look forward to long flights because they are times when I am not distracted by things like phones, cooking, cleaning and all the stuff of daily life that pulls me away from my kids. To have a 10 or even 20 hour stretch where I'm continuously available to them is a treat for all of us.