I never thought I'd be saying this, but here goes: one of the best parts of this last trip was being around my son, who's eleven and has developed into a heck of a traveler.
It wasn't always this way. No, in fact, up until he was around eight I refused point-blank to take him on anything longer than a day trip or visit to nearby relatives. Even then, each time we'd return from a day in D.C. or a visit to my sister's in Virgina, I'd return dead tired and thoroughly fed up, and for good reason.
As an infant and toddler, my son virtually never slept in the car (oh, except once, coming back from an eight-hour drive to a family reunion, when he fell asleep during the last half hour and screamed bloody murder when we arrived and woke him). He wouldn't sit in strollers. He whined when he was tired, bored, not being paid attention to, or just generally to yank my chain. He was hyperkenetic, didn't take "no" for an answer, argumentative, and at times just plain impossible. He was what child rearing specialists, with typical understatement, refer to as "a difficult child."
Until he was nine, we took no family vacations. In fairness, this was as much a result of being financially strapped as it was his disposition. But from the outset, even though I love to travel, I declared that unless we could travel in reasonable comfort and sanity with him we'd stay home. I'd had plenty of opportunity to witness the Great American Family Vacation in action in nearby Washington, D.C. Nothing struck me as more miserable than the lot of such parents on a hot day in D.C. with whining children in tow, trudging endlessly through the Smithsonian, buying one treat after another to placate the little ones, trying to convince themselves they were having a good time. Or if not a good time, at least an educational one. Darn it, they'd been to D.C., and they had pictures to prove it.
Now, I'm not saying that all people with young children should stay home. Far from it. I've known people with tractable children - or endlessly patient dispositions themselves - that have traveled and genuinely enjoyed themselves. What I'm saying is that in our case the combination of my hyperactive son and my temperament were a bad mix for travelling. That is, until recently.
It didn't happen overnight. When my son was nine, he'd matured enough that we were finding day trips with him to be less of a strain. We decided the time had come for a family vacation. We started modestly, electing to drive to New England to a place we knew he'd enjoy, Wood's Hole, MA, to the Marine Institute where Robert Ballard is based. At that stage my son was captivated by tales of undersea exploration and was obsessed with the "Titanic." At Wood's Hole he was able to go into a replica of Ballard's undersea craft, tour the kid-oriented museum, and even had a chance to see one of the deep-sea robots from the original Titanic expedition. Standing before "Jason II" dockside at Wood's Hole, he reached out a tentative hand and touched the metal surface of the drone with a look of almost religious awe on his face. At that moment, I think, a traveler was born.
Raising a traveler is all about getting the child to connect an inner dream with an anticipated moment of fulfillment and - this is the tricky part - teaching him to enjoy the anticipation rather than being discontented with the waiting process. This happens in stages. Going up to New England, my son was in classic "Are We There Yet?" mode. He knew that we were going to make a pilgrimage to Titanic Land, but he simply couldn't see any benefit to the process of getting there. It was a bore. Why did it take so long?
One of the things that helped divert him was getting him to tell me about Ballard and the Titanic. How deep down was Titanic? When did it sink? What was the name of that robot, again? Being a kid who likes to be in charge, it helped that we gave him the sense that, as far as the Titanic was concerned, he was the expert. Of course, we'd brought lots of his Titanic books and various objects to entertain him. And this brings me to my next point: preparation is everything.
Our next family vacation, the following summer, was farther afield, to Washington State. I knew that there were some activities that would of special interest to him, like Mount St. Helen's, volcanoes being another obsession. The challenge was to keep his interest during the more adult-oriented portions of the trip. Frankly, we resorted to bribery. You can do this, we'd barter, if you'll cooperate when we do that. This worked fairly well, though we learned it was best to not expect him to be particularly cooperative if we'd done his activity before ours.
The next few trips were a hit. Although I'm not a beach person, I chose beach locations (St. Lucia and Kaua'i), as both my son and husband are avid beach goers. By this time, we were finding that even long airplane trips didn't pose a problem for him. I'd buy an inexpensive handheld video game, for example, and explain that it was especially for the trip, remaining stonehearted in the face of pleas to let him play with it beforehand. We'd also bought him his own small suitcase (letting him pick it out), a Walkman so that he could listen to his beloved Weird Al Jankovich CD's, and a fancy travel journal, with its own special pen. It was always important that we consult him when making plans. Which hotel did he like the looks of the best on the Internet? What sort of rental car? Of course, we weren't letting him dictate decisions; instead, he learned that taking a family vacation is a group venture, involving making compromises and taking others’ wishes into consideration.
By the time he'd turned ten, he had started to take a real interest in travelling. He'd watch "National Geographic Explorer" or some other program on TV, turn to us and ask, "Can we go there someday?" He would see something on TV, say, about coral reefs, and exclaim, "Hey, it's a humuhumunukunukuapua'a like we saw in Hawai'i!" He began, in short, to identify himself as a traveler.
This past Christmas, we went to southwestern Florida. On this trip, I found his middle school curriculum came to our aid, as they'd been studying various ecosystems in science. Playing that card, as well as getting books on shells, Florida birds, the Everglades, and other things we'd be seeing on the trip insured that by the time we got to Florida he had an entire agenda laid out: he wanted to see alligators, visit the Everglades, ride in a airboat, snorkel in the Keys, and go shelling. As a bonus, we'd finally gotten a videocam and he was the most adept at figuring out how it worked, so we put him in charge of making the vacation video.
After the success of the Florida trip, I broached the subject to my husband: was it time to try Europe with him? Sure, he'd done fine at the beach and out in Washington, where we'd done mostly kid-oriented things, but what about in London or Istanbul?
We let our son know we were considering a trip, but that this would be a different sort of trip. A more grown-up one. Was he ready for it? If the trip didn't work out, we let him know, then we probably wouldn't try another trip like this until he was much older. He'd already experienced being left behind the previous year when I went to London on my own, and he'd impatiently waited for his father to come back from several foreign conferences. His answer, of course, was that he promised to be on his best behavior.
I can honestly say that he was, too. We did similar planning for this trip, using his growing interest in ancient Egypt as a focus for the London portion of the trip and his interest in a computer game called "Byzantium" as a springboard for the Istanbul portion. In both cities, he demonstrated far more patience and enthusiasm than I’d ever hoped. Oh, he wasn't perfect - not by a long shot. But I genuinely enjoyed being with him, which is something I'd never expected back when I declared I wasn't going to travel with him until he was ready for it.
Now he's ready. I figure we have a few more good years before he develops a teenager's aversion to his parents, a few more years to share the world with him before he takes off to see it on his own.