The Secret to Traveling With Young Children

It's August of 1986. My husband and I have been on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride trying to get to the TWA terminal at New York City's JFK Airport. Along the way, we've been issued too many passports, lost our car's dipstick and replaced it halfway across the country, lived through our first packout and dropped our car off in Bayonne, New Jersey, for shipment to a place no military people we've spoken with have ever heard of. What a great way to kick off our first PCS move!

We have waited several hours for our flight to Rome. Our first duty station, San Vito dei Normanni, Italy, awaits us. I notice a mother and her two young children. They are sitting near us, and Mom is telling her children to be patient. The airplane will arrive soon, we will board it and have dinner on the plane, she says. The children, who are of preschool age, want to run around and play. She lets them, but makes sure they stay nearby and speak quietly. I am impressed. Although I don't have children of my own, I've been a day camp counselor and a babysitter and I know what effective discipline looks like. Mom smiles at me and says something like, "We travel regularly to Europe, and we have a routine. I start talking to them about the trip about two weeks before our travel date. I tell them we will go to the airport, get on the airplane, have dinner on the airplane, change our clothes and sleep on the airplane. I do this every day. By the time the travel date arrives, they know what to expect."

The airplane arrives, passengers deplane, time marches on and we are finally able to board. Mom and her children have seats a couple of rows ahead of us. We take off, dinner is served and then I notice Mom shepherding her children to the restroom, pajamas and toothbrushes in hand.

A short while later, the children emerge, clad in their jammies and looking sleepy. Mom smiles at me as she tucks the children into their seats and covers them with blankets. She has given me the key to traveling with young children, and I don't even know her name.

You see, young children understand many more words than they can say, and they experience emotions long before they have the words to explain how they feel. By preparing her children for the overnight flight using detailed descriptions and repetition, this mom gave her children words to describe what would happen as well as reassurance that the flight, while a new experience for them, would involve predictable events. 

When our son was not quite two years old, we took him with us to Germany to attend a dear friend's wedding. I remembered the mom from JFK, and about two weeks before our flight, I started describing what air travel looked, felt and sounded like to our son. I told him we would be going on a big airplane, and that we would have dinner on the plane. I talked about changing into pajamas after dinner and sleeping on the airplane. I said that when the airplane landed, we would be in Germany, and we would probably all feel sleepy for a few days. I told him that he would sleep in his portable crib during our trip. 

Of course, I packed extra diapers, plenty of small toys, his favorite snacks and a couple of new, surprise toys. I wasn't surprised when he had a hard time sleeping (he's an adult now and still does not sleep on airplanes). We had a couple of interesting jet lag days at the beginning and end of that trip, but he was a hit at the wedding, dancing with everyone until almost midnight. 

I remembered what that traveling mom had shared with me as we continued our military journey. Every time we took a long trip, I used the two weeks before our departure date to prepare our children for what would happen along the way, whether we were flying or driving to our destination. I can't tell you that all of our trips were perfectly calm, but I believe it is important to tell young children about plans that will affect them so that they know what to expect, even if we don't think they will understand what we are saying. Young children understand our words long before they can pronounce those words. They remember travel experiences even if they can't tell us about their memories. 

The secret is simple. Talk to your children about what will happen on your trip. Do this even if your children are infants. Bring 50% more diapers than you think you will need, a change of clothing for toddlers, two changes of clothing for infants and enough food to get you through your flight or drive plus three hours. Pack a surprise for your toddler. Don't plan to sleep during your flight or drive, and be ready to cope with that reality. Have a plan that lets you catch up on sleep at your destination (this usually involves having another trusted adult watch your children while you crash). Leave all toys with tiny pieces at home. Sing with your children. 

It will work.

Photo credit: Josh Willink/Creative Commons Zero License