Over the Easter break, I went travelling with my four-year-old nephew and one-year-old niece. (And their parents, obviously.) I thought it’d be a wonderful chance for some family time, and it was, but in many respects it was a handy reminder that there’s plenty of upside in the fact that I can still travel solo. Because parenting is always harder than I realise, and parenting while travelling is harder still.
And yes, I know that I’ve written before about how much I’d like to be a father. Yeah, um, about that. Let’s just say that while I’m sure that dandling my own child on my knee would be brilliant in lots of ways, I now realise that having young children would make one of my favourite activities a far trickier proposition.
1) Kids have different interests from grown ups.
Whether I’m travelling or not, my first agenda item each morning is the same: finding a half-decent cup of coffee. When I’m overseas, I’ll settle for any drinking receptacle that contains any variety of caffeine – I’ve even been known to settle for Mountain Dew on occasion, and let me tell you, actual dew licked directly off a mountainside would taste better.
But sitting down for a lengthy chat over a hot beverage is an energetic four-year-old’s version of hell, only instead of demons roasting you over a flame, it’s grownups saying “mmm” a lot as they read guidebooks.
Even when you're actually moving around, visiting temples, museums and other cultural sites are equally dull for kids – and look, I can understand that, I really can. In fact, I clearly remember being frustrated by my parents’ interminable delays when I was a kid. In reality, I probably never waited more than three or four minutes, but at the time, it seemed like an eternity, plus a few extra decades just to really twist the knife.
I am now one of the people inflicting that on my bored nephew and niece, and I’d feel terrible about that except that sometimes I really need a coffee, and hey, they’re only kids.
2) There are a lot of toy stores
By contrast, my nephew’s agenda has the same item at the top every day. We tried to find different toy shops to visit so that we, at least, had a bit of variety, but he was perfectly satisfied by the slightly different configurations of Ninja Turtles and Lego and Ninja Turtles Lego that appeared in every single shop. Until he was no longer satisfied with merely browsing, and turned his mind to adding to his collection. And let’s just say that the message that we’re living in a time of austerity budgets has not yet been accepted by my nephew.
3) There is also a lot to be said about toys
One of the things I really love about spending time with young children is that if they like you, they’re extremely eager for you to share in the excitement they have about things like; oh, let’s say, toys. Entertaining a child requires the grown-up to be able to sustain protracted conversations about things like the Star Wars canon – a subject which, I’m glad to say, I’m relatively well-versed in, especially since my nephew isn’t yet old enough to watch the movies. I haven’t yet introduced him to Jar-Jar Binks, though, because I don’t want to ruin it for him.
4) Getting around is s-l-o-w
One of the really difficult things about travelling with kids is travelling with kids. Long plane rides with limited sleep are my idea of a nightmare, but somehow parents endure this, probably because they think they’re going to get at least an hour or two of blessed relaxation at some point during the holiday that lies ahead of them.
But it’s not just the plane trip that poses challenges – while getting from an airport to one’s accommodation is simple for grownups, it can be a major hassle with young children. Will you get a cab? Does it have child seats? Will all of you plus your luggage fit? Probably not in a standard cab. So, will you get a maxi taxi or a hire car? How do you organise that in a foreign language, anyway?
Let’s say you get a train instead. What if it’s so crowded that you can’t sit down and your kids are howling or wriggling and there are lot of stairs and you have heaps of bags to lug and a portable cot and a stroller and everybody in the train carriage is clearly resentful of your presence? Even getting from A to B can be far harder for parents than I ever realised.
5) But young children are fast
My nephew may not go on to represent Australia in an Olympic sprinting contest, but from my perspective, he can do one hundred metres in the blink of an eye. Or, if I’m slightly more honest, while my eyes are momentarily elsewhere. He has very little fear of the world yet, so if he sees something interesting over yonder, bang – he’s there.
Combine that with the fact that he finds just about everything extremely interesting, and you have a kid who not only needs to be watched like a hawk, but regularly sprinted after. Still, chasing him was the most exercise I’ve had in years, and it turns out that when I’m fuelled by terror at something awful happening to him, I’m surprisingly quick across the ground myself.
6) I am scary
There’s no way around this one: my one-year-old niece finds me terrifying. My all-time record for holding her without her bursting into loud sobs is around thirty seconds, and I think that for 29 of those seconds, she didn’t realise I was holding her. I hope things will improve when she starts talking, but until then, she’s being held by some kind of Godzilla demon.
7) Tablets make great babysitters
What did parents do before the advent of smartphones and tablets, honestly? A little dose of Peppa Pig can transform a restless child almost into a statue. It’s altogether too effective, really – it makes you worry about whether it’s somehow harming the child. Interactive games (which are also available from the Peppa Corporation, fortunately), seem a slightly better option. But I’ve learned that sometimes, the only thing worse than a child staring at a screen is a child not scaring at a screen – and by a considerable margin, too.
8) Try distraction instead of confrontation
I did gain one insight from the trip that may well come in useful if I’m ever a parent myself. Rather than confronting my nephew, I learned that it’s sometimes better to try and be lateral. So instead of saying “no, we can’t go into that lolly shop”, it’s better to instead say “bet I can beat you in a race to that pole over there”. Five seconds later, he’s forgotten about the shop.
Of course, this is simple stuff for parents, and they often have to simply confront a child when they’re doing something they’re not allowed to. But for an uncle, it was quite a neat trick. Maybe that’s why I remember playing lots of fun games with my own lovely uncles and aunts – they were cleverly trying to get me to do stuff.
9) Kids need routine
Especially involving baths, pyjamas and bed. My nephew and niece just had to be back where we were staying by 6, or the whole schedule would get out of whack. By 9, they were asleep and their parents were available for dinner, if we could find a place where we could bring sleeping children. This means that bars, clubs, and pretty much anywhere smoky or raucous was out. I was very grateful that, post-dinner, I could bid parents and kids farewell and head out to some bar or karaoke joint.
10) Having young kids limits your choice of holiday
When kids are incapable of independent movement, it’s not so hard – you can push them in a pram or stroller, or wear them with a Baby Bjorn. But as soon as they’re capable of independent movement, things get far more difficult. As a result, the kind of holiday where you stay in one place and chill out at the beach/by the pool/etc is probably fine, but anything more ambitious is hard. Like, really hard. Just like having children is.
So ultimately I learned that if I want to backpack around Nepal or go on safari in Kenya or learn surfing in the Maldives or anything that isn’t sitting in a resort with excellent facilities for children, I’d better call my travel agent now.