5 Reminders to Keep Parents Sane While Traveling With Children

I'm not suggesting vacations are a free pass for kids to misbehave. I'm merely saying you should ease up a bit on expectations as a way to maintain some parental sanity on vacation.
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2014-10-22-P1000419b.jpg Photo by Michael Mundt

Oh, dear reader. How I wish I could tell you my family's first visit to Mesa Verde National Park in August 2014 was memorable for all the right reasons. That it was enlightening, educational and enjoyable. That my boys appreciated Colorado's only UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of our nation's greatest archaeological preserves. That we were the poster family for parents creating lasting, quality memories with their children.

But nope. I can't.

Instead I will remember Mesa Verde as the "The Place Where My Kids Were the Biggest Turds in the Universe" and "The Day My Husband Lost His Mind."

The truth is that when I sat down to write this, I fully intended to craft an informative piece for families about one of Colorado's most spectacular tourist attractions. But as I relive this excursion, my fingers won't let me write about anything but our poor judgment as parents.

And I don't mean the "let your 3-year-old child use a lighter" type of bad judgment. I mean the "well, idiot, of course you and your family had a crappy day together" variety.
The good news, though, is that it wasn't the end of the world and it didn't ruin our vacation. It was simply one of many "teachable moments" for us as parents.

So allow me to share these five reminders to avoid child-parent breakdowns on your next family adventure.

1. Don't discount the "down days" on vacation.

We visited Mesa Verde during our trip's midpoint, when we'd already logged hundreds of miles and stayed in two hotels. So why, for the love of all that is holy, would we visit world-renowned, Ancestral Puebloan dwellings and expect our boys to behave like anything resembling civilized human beings?

Because we just weren't thinking.

I'd like to believe I'm mindful of allowing downtime in our everyday life. I try very hard not to over-schedule my kids with extracurricular activities or race around during every spare minute of weekends. The same goes for summer vacation.

But while we're traveling, it's easy to lose sight of that. In an effort to maximize sightseeing opportunities, we parents often cram every day of vacation with activity and simply expect the kids to fall in line like soldiers.

In hindsight, we should have designated the midpoint as an official "down" day, spending it swimming at the hotel pool or splashing in Durango's Animas River. Maybe even taking a leisurely walk. Anything but making tired boys tour a historical site that largely forbade running around or touching anything.

2. Set expectations low.

I'm not suggesting vacations are a free pass for kids to misbehave. I'm merely saying you should ease up a bit on expectations as a way to maintain some parental sanity on vacation.

Case in point: My kids usually like to eat pizza, and it's often their first choice for dinner at restaurants. But by the third time in a row of choosing it, the adults were "pizza-ed" out. And not only was Michael tired of eating it, but he had to go particularly out of his way to find some pizza for lunch before driving to our destination.

Bottom line: He was already aggravated by the time we started driving to Mesa Verde. So when the boys complained they wouldn't eat it because the slices were too big, well, it wasn't pretty.

You know the cartoons where a character is so mad that his face burns scarlet red before steam shoots out of his ears and his head explodes? Yeah, that.

I don't mention this incident to shame my husband, who felt horrible after his outburst (and still wasn't able to convince them to eat the damned pizza). It's only meant to remind us parents to give the kids a break sometimes, especially when traveling.

Yes, it's annoying when kids beg for a certain food and then refuse to eat it. Yes, it's irritating when they whine and cry. Yes, it's maddening to cater to kids' every whim and still fall short.

But remember: If you're tired and grumpy while traveling, the kids are even more so. The takeaway? You cannot hold them to the same standards on vacation as you do at home.

Instead, just expect some vexing behavior, and I can promise your kids won't disappoint you.

3. If you think it's a bad idea, it probably is.

We can file this little nugget of advice under "duh." But we mistakenly thought the only way for us to tour one of the site's most famous dwellings, Cliff Palace, was to take a four-hour bus ride with a tour guide.

Translation: The boys were bored all afternoon. Not only were they expected to listen quietly and patiently each time we stopped at a site, but they also had to keep it together for four hours in a row on a bus full of boring adults who actually wanted to hear every tedious historical tidbit the guide offered.

Instead I wish we'd just listened to our inner voices screaming, "No, you fools! Bus tours + young boys = no fun for anyone!"

If we'd done so, we could have driven around at our own pace without worrying we were ruining others' Mesa Verde experience. We might also have figured out that you can take a ranger-led tour through Cliff Palace by purchasing tickets ahead of time.

4. It's okay to admit your failings.

If I've learned anything from becoming a parent, it's that your children need to understand humans are flawed. And that includes Mommy and Daddy.

For example, when you blow up at your kids, as Michael did, or behave in a less-than-flattering manner before their watchful eyes, it's OK to acknowledge that.

"Boys," Michael said, breaking the silence of our drive. "I shouldn't have yelled. I'm sorry. I just wish you would eat the food you ask me to buy for you."

They returned the apology, and then we put the matter behind us. We all felt better for it, and I hope the kids realized that they, too, can be imperfect yet still be worthy of love and forgiveness.

5. Laughter fixes just about anything.

I'm proud to say that we ended the day as a family with a massive dose of laughter.

As we drove home from our long, challenging excursion, a car full of what appeared to be college-age boys passed us on our left as the front passenger showed us his "full moon."

The boys thought it was the most hilarious spectacle ever. "Look at that guy's butt!" they giggled.

Michael and I weren't as pleased.

It was obvious the college kids had hoped to dart past us and get far enough ahead to lose us. But there was so much traffic that they couldn't get more than a couple of cars ahead.

They were stopped at a red light as we exited on their right toward Durango, when Michael blared the horn and offered a one-finger salute. As we passed them, they all shielded their faces from our glaring eyes, clearly ashamed at their friend's behavior.

It was the perfect end to a difficult day and one my kids will never forget. Just ask them: What did you see when you went to Mesa Verde?

I can almost guarantee they'll answer, "A guy's hairy butt!"

Click here to learn more about Mesa Verde National Park.

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