Few experiences are more stressful than traveling with young children. Kids from 3 to 7 years of age are not designed to sit still for long periods of time in confined spaces. The problems are the same whether three brothers and sisters are sitting in the back seat of the family car or they are sharing three adjacent seats in Row 16 of an airliner. Invariably the level of noise begins to rise, arguments break out, and the road trip or flight shapes up as an ordeal.
Bookstores are filled with games to keep kids entertained. Parents travel with crayons and colored pencils. Some resort to reading "Goodnight Moon" or Dr. Seuss books over and over. Some have invested in video systems that flip down from the ceiling of their minivan or can be carried aboard airplanes. All these stratagems work to a degree, but the best way to pass time with children when traveling is to find a way to engage them in conversation.
Time spent traveling together as a family — whether in the car, aboard a train, or on a plane — is some of the only extended time that families spend together these days. At home, parents serve as little more than a shuttle service taking kids from kindergarten to soccer practice to school activities or off shopping for their daily bread. Getting aunts and uncles and the extended family involved is even more daunting.
Much has been written bemoaning the lack of quality time within families. Dinner time, which was sacred family time when I was growing up, has become a dash for fast food or the microwave on the way to the next activity. Going to church together has gone the way of the horse and carriage for many families. Even the big holidays sometimes find families splintered between home and friends.
But traveling time is family time — like it or not. Driving down the East Coast along Interstate 95 or across the country on Interstate 80, family members can get to know each other better. So can flying at 30,000 feet above the Continental Divide, provided you get adjacent seats.
Years ago, when I was traveling with my niece and nephew and their friends, I discovered that they love to talk about themselves. I don't know why this was such a revelation to me — heck, there are few people I like talking about more than myself. And I think most of us are the same. I started asking the kids questions about themselves and about the world that surrounds them. Their response was phenomenal. I learned something new during every car ride, and the conversation ended only when we reached our destination.
A bit more than a decade ago, I wrote a book called "Getting to Know You" (World Leisure, $6.95), and it became a bestseller. Today, it is still one of my best-selling books. It is a book of questions to help new lovers and seasoned partners get to know their significant other and their friends better. Questions like these:
- If you were casting a movie about your life, who would play the main character?
- What dreams did you once have that you are now glad never came true?
- What is something that you once excelled at, that you no longer do?
My co-author, Jeanne McSweeney, and I decided to put together a similar book of questions for parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and others to help them get to know kids better. We called it "Getting to Know Kids in Your Life" (World Leisure, $6.95). It was never a big seller, but it is a book close to my heart because I learned so much from using the questions with children. Each time the book came out of the glove compartment, my niece, nephew and their friends would literally cheer. Whatever disagreements were in progress in the back seat would immediately cease. The kids were ready to talk about themselves. The biggest competition was over which kid would do the most talking.
Here are some of the questions from "Getting to Know Kids in Your Life."
- What do most people say you are good at doing?
- If you could have three wishes, like Aladdin, what would they be?
- If you could be beautiful, strong or smart, which one would you choose?
I was always amazed at the almost instant focus that kids brought to the questions. The discussions got philosophical at times — for example, when they were asked whether it is OK to tell a lie. Their answers were fascinating. I learned that there are big lies and little lies — that it isn't OK to lie to your parents if you did something wrong, but that it is OK when your friend asks whether she looked good in an outfit she spent all day picking out and you say, "Of course."
I learned what kids thought jumping out of a plane with a parachute would feel like. I found out their favorite places to hide. I discovered what quiet things they did so their parents could sleep late in the morning. I know the biggest bug they ever saw, and I heard some wild animal sounds.
Best of all, our time traveling together became not only a voyage of discovery of place, but a discovery of each other during otherwise "unproductive" time together. My brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew learned that we could speak with each other and discuss things as equals because there were no wrong answers. And during that time in the car or soaring across oceans, we all learned to respect each others' stories and experiences.