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Family cruises: Controlling your kids at sea

Here's some advice from cruise executives, as well as what we've learned -- sometimes the hard way -- over 19-plus years of family sailing.
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On a sunny sea day aboard a ship in the Caribbean, I took the elevator down from the pool deck to the front desk. When the doors opened, three laughing boys about 13 years old doused me with sprays from their squirt guns. I wiped the water from my eyes, walked over to the teenagers and asked why they acted as they did.

"Because it's funny," the ring leader guffawed as he strutted over to his mother, sitting a few yards away. When I told her that I was both angry and wet, she retorted, "What's wrong with you? Can't you take a joke?" Flabbergasted, I congratulated her on raising a juvenile delinquent and walked away.

That situation, like many of the kids-run-amok incidents at sea, can't be blamed on the cruise line. The responsibility belongs with the parents. Before you blast me as a grumpy, child-phobic meanie, please know that I'm a pioneer in the field of family travel with 24 books on the subject and that cruises rank as one of my favorite family vacations.

But even on ships, kids must behave. Since more than 1 million passengers 18 and under sailed on Cruise Lines International Association ships in 2004, the potential exists for a great many happy or unhappy children and adults.

First realize that kids splashing in the hot tubs, throwing lounge chairs overboard or breaking shuffleboard sticks isn't just a cruise issue. On land, these same mini-hooligans likely throw lunch bags on the school bus, kick over garbage cans in the street and even spray paint cars.
"Communities across the nation are finding that unsupervised teens are a pretty big problem," says Charly McDonald, manager of guest vacation and leisure activities for Royal Caribbean International. "We're dealing with the same challenges as these communities."

How can you control your brood for smooth sailing? Here's some advice from cruise executives, as well as what we've learned -- sometimes the hard way -- over 19-plus years of family sailing.

Lay down the law
Pick the right ship and sailing date for your family. Make sure the children's program operates for your age child on your sailing, and that kids are supervised for several hours at a time. When children's activities are intermittent -- say "arts and crafts from 10-11 a.m." and "bingo at 4 p.m." -- kids get bored and that can lead to bad behavior.

Lay down the law. Tell your kids what is expected of them. Yes, it's a family vacation and there will be fun: curfews stretched to 3 a.m., unlimited slices of pizza daily and other we-never-do-this-at-home occurrences. But insist that basic good behavior still applies. No running, pushing, shoving or cursing in public areas. No cutting in lines, shouting in the halls or throwing food in the dining rooms.

Create consequences. If you or anyone else catches your progeny misbehaving, let them know what will happen. After my teenage son missed a midnight curfew by two hours, we "grounded" him the following evening, insisting he stay in the cabin after dinner with no friends visiting. For the rest of the voyage, he came in on time (though not one minute too soon).

Talk about sex, drugs and alcohol. Think of a cruise ship as a weeklong party for teens. Now think of what you warn your kids about before going to a land based bash: sex, drugs and alcohol. On a Caribbean sailing when we asked a mother of two lively 13- and 16-year-old daughters why her girls weren't participating much in the teen program, she told me the boys only want one thing "and my girls aren't interested." On another Caribbean cruise an outgoing and popular teen was busted mid-voyage for selling marijuana. He and his family were not forced off the ship, but he was booted from the teen program and shunned by his peers -- for getting caught, we think, not necessarily for selling.

You still have to parent
Read the cruise rules to the gang. Princess posts a short and clear statement asking that parents or guardians supervise children and teens not participating in the youth programs, restrain children in public areas from running or engaging in loud or disruptive behavior, and accompany children in elevators at all time. No one really enforces the elevator rule.

Fortunately, the slowness of the elevators deters kids. NCL adds a teen discipline policy, noting that an unruly adolescent will be warned, then given a time-out with his parents notified. If the problem persists, the unrepentant faces suspension from the activities program for 24 hours. After he is allowed back in, the first instance of bad behavior gets him expelled from the teen scene organized activities.

RCI offers the most comprehensive code of conduct, spelling out rules for all passengers, adults as well as children. The code appears on the passenger's ticket and can be picked up from the front desk. You learn the ages for use of the solarium (16 and over), the disco (18 and older), and other areas, and the documents reminds parents that 18- to 20-year-olds may only drink beer and wine in international waters after a parent signs a waiver.

"Once we tell parents that we will charge them for the property their kids destroyed and that if it happens again the entire family must leave the ship at the next port, then, typically, parents take on their parenting role," notes McDonald. "No one wants to have their vacation end early." Nor, we should add, pay an additional couple of thousand bucks (yes, the tab could be that high) for damages.

Monitor your kids. "Your parenting responsibilities do not stop because you walked across the gangway of a ship," says McDonald. We've learned to have our teens to check in with us several times a day. We tell them to find us at the gym, adult pool or other quiet spot we're likely to be by a certain time. This enables us to touch base, ask what they're doing, and make plans for dinner or the next day's shore tours. If for some reason, we've changed our locale, then the teen is to go to the cabin, look for a note from us and write down where he or she will be. Then, once in awhile go to where your child is hanging out and observe. It's not spying; consider it checking up.

Be realistic. Nobody's kids are perfect, and neither are the adult passengers. But clearly stated rules and expectations as well as frank talks go a long way toward creating the type of family vacation you want to remember for the right reasons.