When you’re traveling with kids, there are really only 2 scenarios: either they’re sleeping in the backseat (or, possibly watching a movie), or you’re threatening to park the car at a rest stop and disappear into the woods. Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center For Toddler Development and author of How Toddlers Thrive is known around town as “The Toddler Whispers” — and not in a creepy way. She says that while vacationing with a toddler can feel more exhausting than staying home, parents can make it work by planning ahead and letting go of expectations. Here are her tips so you’ll never have to threaten to turn the car around.
Don’t Spill The Beans Too Early
You don’t want to prepare a toddler too far ahead of time. “You start to tell them a week in advance or even 4 days in advance that we’re going to go visit grandma in a week they think it’s 5 minutes from now,” Klein says. “They don’t get that and it makes them anxious.” Instead, Klein advises parents to wait until the day before they leave to let kids know … but you should probably start packing now.
There’s No Such Thing As Being Over-Prepared
You’re usually prepared for every conceivable worst-case scenario with children, but are you prepared for one inside a metal tube 5 miles above the Earth? “If the plane gets delayed or you’re get stuck in hours of traffic, children need to have something to do,” Klein says. Her solution is to “think in 20-minute installments.” If your kid likes stickers, bring stickers in a bag. But don’t just throw that bag down like they’ll self-regulate. Doll it out over the course of the trip. Every time boredom hits …. boom, different pieces of adhesive that will distract them.
Leave The Complex Toys At Home
You think you need invisible marker books and a Where’s Waldo anthology to keep them entertained, but the stuff you bring on a trip to keep your toddler occupied doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, go simple or you’re going to wind up bringing a bunch of toys you’ll dread to shove back into the carry-on. “Basic materials we don’t think about too much, like crayons and colored paper or old-fashioned Play-Doh,” says Klein. “You pull out a container and it’s really novel at that moment and the child’s entertained again.”
Toddlers Get Into “The Zone”
Yes, your 3-year-old is a living example of chaos theory, but when they’re traveling that may result in the opposite reaction of them chilling out. Klein says be cool and let it happen. “Children will often get into the mode of sitting back after a while,” she says. “And they don’t have to be entertained every second. If they’re perfectly content sitting and looking out the car window that’s great.” More Play-Dog and stickers for you!
Deploy Screens Strategically
You downloaded all 4 seasons of Team Umizoomi on an iPad — good thinking ahead. But that’s not the whole strategy. “Save the tech for when you need it,” says Klein. “If you start a plane trip with a game or a show on an iPad, at some point your child gets bored with it and you might have 4 hours to go. So it’s always better to put that as one of your random activities.”
Instead of putting the tablet in their hand as the plane is taking off, Klein says try pulling it out in the middle of the trip, when they’re “starting to get bored and wish they were off the plane,” she says. This is, of course, all relative to where you’re going. Orlando: Low degree of difficulty. Tokyo: High.
Keep To Routine As Much As Possible
Toddlers are like old men: they live for routine. For them, traveling is like your grandfather finding out a restaurant isn’t open for dinner at 4 PM — they go a bit berserk. While you can’t keep to a strict routine on the road, Klein advises parents to keep up as much of the regularly established order as possible. “If your toddler’s bedtime is usually 8 PM and you put them to sleep at 11 PM, you’re assured a cranky child,” she says.
Lower Your Expectations
“Often when we go on vacations, we have high hopes,” says Klein. “We think we’re going to just sit on the beach for 8 hours or we’re going to go to fantastic event and be really happy.” Kids are masters at subverting that. So keep it simple and let your kid’s mood guide your days. “If you’re making lots and lots of plans, chances are you’re going to be disappointed,” she says. “Your child may be a little out of sorts, especially initially. And that’s ok. It’s a new place and it may take them a little while to understand that mommy and daddy are going to be there with them and to relax and enjoy it.” Failing that, there’s always Pina Coladas.