I’m as averse to unsolicited parenting advice as the next dad. But when the advice comes from the road — which is to say, the lessons learned from more than two years of nonstop travel — it feels a little different.
The road, an inanimate thing, won’t get its feelings hurt if I reject its lessons. Instead, I’ll just have to learn them for myself each time I travel.
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So what has a life of travel taught me about being a parent? Plenty. I’m more flexible because of my travels, more open to new ideas. And above all, the road has taught me to be patient. Very patient.
Unsolicited parenting advice #1: Go with the flow
Parents like to plan. Kids? Not so much. The road has taught me to plan, but also to go with the flow. Children like the security of structure, but they like breaking the rules, too. When we’re traveling, I start every day with a plan. I’m going to get up early and finish all my writing and then take the kids somewhere fun in the afternoon.
Here’s the tricky part: Define “fun.” For my youngest, “fun” means a day strolling along the beach. My middle son would rather play video games, and my oldest prefers to bury his nose in a textbook.
And hey, what about me? Does Dad get to do anything “fun”? No, he does not. Instead, he becomes the referee.
“I planned this great day at a museum,” I say.
“I don’t wanna go,” says the 12-year-old.
“Museums are stupid!” says the 14-year-old.
“I’m busy,” says the 16-year-old.
“I don’t care!” I say. “We’re going. Everyone into the car!”
Oh, if it were only so easy. When you’re traveling with kids, they rarely take “no” for an answer. So along the way to the museum, you might detour to lunch or you might get sidetracked by an interesting hike. And you might never make it to the museum. Which is fine. By going with the flow, I managed to get them away from the video games. And maybe that was my real goal. The museum can wait.
Flexibility. Compromise. It really works.
Unsolicited advice #2: Be open to anything!
Travel can open your mind. The road teaches you to let it. Being open means visiting strange new places, like the International Banana Museum in Southern California. I mean, it’s a museum about bananas. I admit, I was skeptical about going bananas, but it is said to be the world’s largest collection devoted to any one fruit. So — why not? And it was fun.
How about hiking in Sedona, Ariz, where we spent two months recently. Kids, can you feel the energy of those vortexes?
When we visit a new place, the road pushes also pushes us to try something new. Swedish pancakes in Solvang, Calif. Cream pies in Boston. Hot dogs in Chicago.
OK, when I say “the road” I actually mean Dad. You say, “We’re here, we have to try the salsa in Santa Fe!” And you do. And maybe you like it, maybe not.
When visiting a new place, be open to new experiences. It’s better than scurrying back to your hotel room, turning on Netflix and tuning out. You can do that any day.
You can’t go wrong by being open to new things, whether you’re traveling or not.
Unsolicited advice #3: be patient — very patient
The road can also test your patience. It’s not only the intermittent cries of “Are we there yet?” from the back seat. Yeah, those grate on your nerves, don’t they? It’s also the exercise of getting from point A to point B by car, train or plane. The waiting, the delays, and then the frantic moments before you arrive when the whole world seems to conspire to test your patience.
The road teaches you to pack a little extra patience. Do another five minutes of yoga at the beginning of the day. Take deep breaths. Your children will not remember how you behaved during the easy times, but how you handled the stress. Did you crack and start swearing like a sailor? Or did you take a few deep, cleansing breaths and then calmly respond?
And, as someone who has lost his cool a time or two (or more), I can tell you that children are like elephants. They never forget and when they remember how you lost your cool they trample on what’s left of your dignity, reminding you of how you overreacted.
Deep, calming breaths. Seriously.
I thought I was a model parent until we had our second child and he started talking, which was a week after he was born. Iden is the child who cannot stop talking. He is also a picky eater. One day when we were driving through Oregon, we stopped at a grocery store and picked up some items for lunch. Iden turned his nose up at the grocery store food, as he often does. A few minutes after we got back on the road, I heard a voice from the back. “When are we going to stop for lunch, Dad? I’m starving!” It was Iden. He was holding out for a restaurant meal, clever child.
I was furious. And we were driving down a two-lane road with dangerous drop-offs on one side leading to the Pacific. Part of me wanted to pull the car over and leave him there (or worse) but I decided instead to use my words.
“I just stopped at the grocery store,” I snapped. “We have PLENTY of food!”
OK, I yelled. I shouldn’t have.
I wish someone had warned me about days like this on the road. Well, now someone has.
Finding patience has helped me even when we aren’t traveling. Who wouldn’t want a little more patience in their life?
Maybe you don’t need any parenting advice
If you’re reading this and thinking, “This is all common sense,” then believe me, I know how you feel. If someone had told me before I started my adventure that flexibility, openness and patience were key ingredients to a successful road trip — perhaps even successful parenting — I would have laughed at them. I probably wouldn’t have made it past the headline of this story.
And that’s the beautiful thing about the road, a thing that won’t be offended if you ignore its advice. Because when you take off somewhere with your kids, it will be ready to teach. Will you be ready to learn?