Parker was 1-year-old when we took our first camping trip to Eastern Washington. It was 103 degrees and the heat sacked him out. So while he slept we carried his cute, sweaty body from place to place.
At midnight he awoke shrieking. After 20 minutes we could hear the other campers stirring in their tents, so we piled into the car and his screams reverberated in that compact space. We suffered for two long hours with our agitated baby wailing in misery. There was a discussion about hospitals — we were many miles from one — but it didn’t feel necessary.
Parker passed his first solid poop at 2:30 AM. It was the size of a golf ball. Everything went quiet after. We will never forget that feeling of relief when we allowed our eyes to close.
This incident was a warm-up torture — A fine introduction to traveling with children.
Vacation in those early years was hard. Beyond the crying and the diapers, we had nefarious runners! Also, the autism made communication very difficult. Lost stuffed animals pale in comparison to the frequent embarrassment of looking out of control in public.
Before we launch too far into this charade, if you don’t already know, Parker has autism, and so does his younger brother, Apollo. Our oldest son, Bryce, has/had severe ADHD. Everyone looks normal — which is nice — but actually makes things harder.
The good news is they’ve improved with age. They have grown more capable of exerting themselves, and can now be reasoned with in ways that were not possible before.
Nonetheless, poor coping skills are part of traveling with children. They fail to catch the vision, and they struggle to appreciate the beauty. At times, it can feel like a gigantic waste of time; like a masochist’s delusion; like we’re dragging gargoyles around the country.
And then there’s times like this. This photo means a great deal to us. You can make-out Niagara Falls in the background. Anyone who’s been there will tell you the two minutes at the base of the falls where you experience the awesome power of the river is an amazing sensation that cannot be denied.
Or times like this, when the two boys hiked over three miles round-trip to the Cathedral Spires in South Dakota. After years of breaking the kids into hiking, this was the first time we marched them into the wilderness and they didn’t complain. They actually look happy!
In our minds, we want our children to become well-rounded and efficacious people. In our hearts, we hope they will be thoughtful and unafraid. We believe the traveling experience will make them better citizens and are willing to see it through.
Idealism aside, this has been a hard fought battle. Their struggle has been our struggle.
In spite of the challenges we have faced over the past fifteen years, we have persevered. We’ve learned a few things in particular about traveling with children and we are going to share them with you here. Thanks for reading!
If traveling with children is the refiner’s fire where hides of iron are forged, then fun parks are a hell-scape battlefield where pride is trampled by the hooves of shame.
Ryan recalls standing at a kiosk looking at some wares with nine-year-old Parker. After a moment, a nice looking family of four walked up and stood beside us. One of the children stood too close for Parker’s comfort, so Parker let him know with a hideous screeching sound, like the world’s most loathsome car alarm.
The family was not impressed.
I moved Parker to the other side and the heinous sound abated for about three seconds.
“Dad. Dad. Hey dad. Hey dad,” Parker stuttered.
He does this often when trying to get his thoughts out.
“Dad. Dad. Hey dad. Hey dad.”
I smiled at the family. “He has autism.”
“Dad. Dad. Hey dad, when you get home, are you going to have sex with your husband?”
What could I say? It was an absolute show-stopper. The family peeled away without a sound.
“I, uh. Do you mean your mother?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said brightly, like it was completely natural to make that mistake (or bring it up in the first friggin’ place).
There is no doubt in my mind that Parker does this on purpose (and has no idea he is doing it).
Have you ever waited for the Disneyland bus with one child sprawled flat on his back on the pavement? You possibly have. It’s a warm-up torture.
But have you ever felt the dread of oncoming humiliation when your autistic child approaches a stranger and says, “Excuse me, sir,” for no good reason, only to follow it up with some bizarre statement, or to ask a question his parents could have easily answered.
Make no mistake, there is no scarier phrase in the English language than, “Excuse me, sir.” It means the shame train is a coming around the bend in seconds.
Imagine yourself in an airport, or the lobby of a restaurant. You watch a child emerge from a crowd of people who look like a family, and he approaches you with purpose. His parents look on with apprehension, even horror.
“Excuse me, sir,” he says with confidence. “Could you tell me what state we are in?”
As if the Hoffmanns are some wandering pack of rubes clueless to where we’ve gotten ourselves.
“Excuse me, sir. Who invented the airplane,” he asks the least friendly looking guy at the Kitty Hawk museum.
The cream on top is the jubilation he displays when they give him the answer. “Oh!! That makes sense! Thanks!”
His parents must not tell him anything. They must not know anything. I’m surprised they figured out how to make children.
Parker, the bathroom is right over there.
“Excuse me, sir. Can you tell me where the bathroom is?” (My parents can’t read).
Once inside the bathroom, he has been known to stand by the sinks and ask people questions as they wash their hands. “Excuse me, sir. Why do you think they invented toilet paper?”
Some people are very blunt.
“Excuse me, sir. Can I borrow your phone?”
“Excuse me, sir,” he asks a woman.
“Excuse me, sir. Are you a robber? I don’t mean that to be offensive. You just have that robber look.”
This has happened hundreds of times. It happens every dang time we go anywhere. It’s like watching the cringiest Michael Scott scene from The Office, only it is real! Monica has the fortitude to stand by and explain he has autism if the situation gets too weird. Ryan just keeps on walking.
If you have never felt that awful sting of humiliation because your children help you look like horrible parents in public, well, God bless you. You must have other challenges.
As to why we continue putting ourselves out there knowing this is a certain bi-product of our adventures… we figure it is the unavoidable cost of doing business. Some folks pay-off city officials, some murder their competition. We suffer the agony of embarrassment because it is outweighed by the importance of the experiences.
Look at these two guys. What kind of parents would let them do that in their clothing, or celebrate it even with a photograph? We were an hour from home with plans to attend a baseball game that evening. So, the kids are drenched. Now what?
In the above situation we found a laundromat and spent an hour or so with naked kids in the van. Everything worked out.
This kind of stuff happens far too often when traveling with children. Everyone gets dressed up to go out, and suddenly someone has a grass stain and a hole in their pants. “It was an accident!” they say.
How do we adjust on the fly when someone’s mistake blasts our plans out of the water (or is it into the water)?
The primary thing we have learned — more important than anything practical — is that we must be prepared to change our expectations when traveling with children. Once the damage is done, yelling “Dingus!” doesn’t solve anything, (although it is fun).
Logistically, we have learned to stash a bug-out-bag of spare clothing in the car at all times. No firearms and fish hooks — just undies, sweatpants, and someone’s old shoes. It’s like a homeless child Halloween costume. The “I wet my pants at school” starter kit.
Once the damage is done, sometimes it is best to just let it go and enjoy the ride. There’s no bringing it back. The pants are soaked.
At the tail end of a mediocre camping trip to Larabee State Park, Apollo was especially hyper around the campsite. I watched him jump up onto the bench of the picnic table, then jump backward to the ground. Well, he caught his heel on the rim of the fire pit and fell on his back into the pit. After a moment of measured assessment, he jumped up screaming hysterically.
At first I was bothered and told him to knock it off. There had been no fire since the previous night. After a few seconds, I realized he was swatting at a particular spot on his lower back. His t-shirt stuck to his skin when I lifted it. He had burned himself on some rogue ember.
Apollo spent the next four hours in the emergency room at the local hospital. Ryan took the other kids to the YMCA while Monica kept him company. All plans were cancelled — Life goes on. Traveling with children is like playing Tetris with your emotions.
Monica and Ryan were dressed up to spend the evening on the town in Charleston. We had reservations at a nice restaurant and plans to stroll along the water at sunset. All that was left to do was give the children simple instructions and drive off.
After doing so, the kids immediately took off on their scooters. We hopped in the car and slowly drove to the exit of the campground. Along the way, we spotted the kids zipping along up ahead. “Aren’t they cute,” we said, one second before Apollo twisted his bare foot under the wheel of his scooter and buckled to the ground.
We parked along side of him to assess the damage. His foot was missing a chunk of skin and the blood began to pool up and spill over his toes.
How many times must you tell a child to put on their shoes beforehand? In the name of all that is holy, how many times?!
Rather than a fancy dinner and a sunset stroll, we spent the evening watching movies in our skunky rig and catering to our wounded boy. It is a surprisingly good memory.
Dealing with the accidents isn’t the hard part of traveling with children. Parental instincts kick in and we do the right thing.
More or less, the problem lies in preparation. Did we put out the fire properly? Do we have the first aid kit? Do we have a change of socks, pants, or underwear? Can we maintain a good attitude?
Ryan has expectations. He tries to design an itinerary that should provide a good experience for the family. Things typically go well for awhile until someone gets tired or frustrated and the mood of the adventure turns foul. It doesn’t take long before the complaint box fills and animated discourse ensues.
Eventually mom sticks up for the kids, dad gets frustrated with mom — soon we’re arguing on vacation and there goes the friggin’ day.
When traveling with children, this will remain a potential outcome no matter the preparations. However, after years of struggle we have developed some understanding. The following are our three keys to a successful outing, whether for a day or a month.
We made a powerpoint before we took the kids on a 53-day road trip around the US. It was 175 slides and included every single thing we would see and do. We used funny photos and captions to keep the kids entertained. They loved it and we reviewed it a dozen times.
Each night we review the following day’s agenda. We do our best to make everything sound amazing to them. It is much easier to overcome objections the night before the excursion than in the middle of it.
Ryan struggles with changing expectations. He gets it in his head that things should work in a certain manner and obstacles can be overcome with motivation or force. But children are not very reasonable, no matter how well we organize our activities or negotiate on the fly.
We have learned to sacrifice our desires for a positive family experience. Peace is too valuable to forsake. The war can be won even if the battle is lost. Traveling with children is a long game.
These are our tricks when traveling with children. They can be used in any order, but the order they are listed is our typical cascade.
This is typically used when the kids are tired of an activity, like walking, learning, or doing cool stuff. Sometimes they need to be reminded of fun things to come. Often they need to be told how strong they are. Sometimes we can guide their hearts and minds to a higher place. Often we have to guilt them. The pep talk can be delivered a hundred different ways and used over and over during a single activity.
Monica loves to give the kids breaks. We typically bring snacks to offer. This is a great time to use the bathroom, explore the immediate surroundings, rest our legs, etc. The kids tend to push for breaks, and if indulged too often we never get anywhere. Often accompanied with a pep talk.
Sometimes bribery is the quickest and easiest way to settle a desperate situation when traveling with children. Often the bribe is small, like a can of pop. Sometimes we have to offer something more substantial, like a stop at Taco Bell or spending money.
Do you want to lose your privileges for the remainder of the day? Do you want me to sell the Nintendo? The threat may buy a little more time, however, Ryan has learned that once we reach this point, he is close to losing Monica’s allegiance (she is very empathetic to the children). This is frequently the tipping point where the arguing starts.
This is a hard decision to make, but absolutely the correct call when arguing begins. If we choose to “power through” once the arguing starts, resentment (and tears) are sure to follow.
We are not saying it must be a graceful exit from the itinerary — Clark W. Griswald’s epic Vacation speech comes to mind. But is it really worth fighting over the last stops on the Gettysburg tour if it means everyone hates you? Is the hike payoff that important if it means you have to endure a bitter symphony of wails? For the Hoffmann family the answer has become no. Most of the time, anyway. Dad will alway reserve the right to start some static.
Before we close with a deeply personal story, we will say this: Traveling is our favorite thing to do. Maybe second favorite. Honestly speaking, traveling with children is not as fun as traveling just the two of us. Occasionally we drop them off with Monica’s parents and galavant to Hawaii or Vegas and those are our favorite times.
We made a deal, though. We only have these kiddos in our home for another handful of years.
Who are we kidding? Parker is never moving out.
But for the sake of this point, we have a short time to make their childhood as memorable as possible. We don’t want to waste this opportunity.
We accept the challenge of traveling with children. For their sake, ultimately, but also for ours. We are growing just like they are. We are learning when to meet them on their level, and when to raise them up to ours. Over time we have grown to be more patient and kind, even when their struggles affect our happiness. Against massive resistance we are pushing their boundaries to create a bigger world for them to explore.
Sometimes it hurts. Often it angers. Every now and then it breaks us.
Our oldest son had a thing he would say whenever we pushed him to try something new.
“I’m not used to that.”
It was faulty logic and didn’t sit well with me.
I remember explaining that if he never did anything he wasn’t “used to”, he would do only three things for the rest of his life:
So crippling was this mentality, that when his mother and I took him to Disneyland for his 9th birthday he freaked out for three straight days.
Like any child, Bryce got excited to go on the rides. He could wait a lengthy line without issue, but as the front of the line came into view and the reality of the unknown experience became apparent, he became anxious and began to cry.
We offered support and encouragement like any well-meaning parents would do. Our best de-escalation skills were utilized to calm him, but we had no effect.
Mom held him and sang him songs. Dad told him jokes and pumped his self esteem. His eyes grew increasingly frantic with every passing minute.
We even pointed out five-year-old girls standing nearby, but he looked right through them. He was beyond shame. By the time we arrived at the front of the line he was in full blown panic.
The first few times we gave in and left the line. Clearly our tactics were ineffective, and everyone was looking at us. It was incredibly frustrating.
Once we arrived back in the common pathways of the park — and the threat of an unexpected adventure was removed – Bryce would settle down and eventually become excited about the rides again.
As soon as his elation overcame his memory of what just happened, we returned to the line wishing things would go different.
By the third meltdown, we firmed up and didn’t let him squirm out of it. Our resolution was probably misunderstood by onlookers in line. Imagine some cruel parent dismissing the pleas of their distressed child.
There is no worse expression than the one that says, “I’m not sure if you’re a monster, but I’m thinking you probably are.”
So the ride happened and went well. Afterward, Bryce was giddy and spazzy. He comically yelled, “That wasn’t so bad! Let’s do it again!”
So we did. Encouraged by his newfound sense of adventure, we got back in line. And then the tears started back up.
He had no comprehension that we had just gone through this; that he had just rode the ride and loved it; that he had just asked to stand right where he is standing.
The routine repeated exactly as it had before. No lessening of intensity, nor any vague recollection of success. In fact there was not one single difference whatsoever. For three long days it went like this.
He never got used to it.
We just dropped Bryce off in Riverside, California to serve a two year mission. Two years away from family. Two years of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with strangers who may not want to hear it. 730 straight days of not knowing what the day will bring.
The boy who was afraid of anything and everything unfamiliar has sacrificed two years of his life to find and teach strangers in a strange land. He didn’t cry when we dropped him off in a church parking lot. He looked a bit anxious, but he stepped right through it. Our young man has come a long ways from that weeping boy at the Tower of Terror.
Maybe all of it worked? We’d like to think so.
Parenting is a trip, but certainly not a vacation. Enjoy the hard fought journey. Have faith your efforts will produce fruit.
And don’t forget to laugh.
Learn our skills for traveling as a family. Get our free e-book PDF and jumpstart your family's journey.