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Parenting Questions Answered

Parenting Questions Answered

Packing and Playing While Traveling with Family

When I visited my mother over the holidays for five days, I caught a lot of grief about putting my 4- and 6-year-olds in bed pretty early (as usual) and limiting sugary treats (like always). How do you feel about adjusting bedtimes and diets when you’re visiting family and traveling?

It’s hard to be criticized for our parenting. Chances are, your mother was hoping to spoil her grandchildren over the holidays. You know your children best and make the best choices for them, but maybe there is some room for a compromise.

One of the exciting aspects of going on vacation is that routines get shaken up. For young children, that can mean a later bedtime, sleeping over with cousins, or having a few extra treats. Think about other times your children have gone to bed late or had a few more sugary treats. How did that work out for them? If they could handle the bedtime easily, I think it would be fun for everyone involved to have an extended bedtime when visiting family. Maybe your mom would be willing to do some reading with her grandchildren while you had some quiet time by yourself or with other adults. I would, however, caution against booking every night of the visit with an excursion or using the extra time in front of screens, as both may generate sleep disturbances which then turn an extra hour into an extra two or three hours. 

Remember, sleep isn’t something you can bank. For example, you can’t sleep an extra hour every night before the trip and have those hours carry you through the visit. Nor can you catch up on sleep on the weekends. If your child is very cranky without her eleven hours of sleep, stick as close as you can to normal bedtime routines or add a nap to help reduce meltdowns.

Many of us don’t get to visit with extended family very often. It’s okay to be flexible with the normal rules, but ultimately, trust yourself and make the choices that will work best for your family. 

At what age do you think it’s reasonable to require your kids to pack for themselves? We will travel over spring break, and I’m getting tired of packing bags for the entire family.

I don’t think there is a set age for this task, just like there isn’t a set age when kids can stay home alone. It depends on your child and how organized he is. Some teenagers and adults still struggle with packing. However, I do think there are steps you can take to help your children become capable of this task. One way to assess their readiness would be to let the kids pack on their own if you are doing a quick overnight or short stay. If you get to your destination with five bathing suits and no socks or pajamas, you will know your child isn’t quite ready. I would suggest packing any essentials in your bag, but this experiment will allow you to gauge everyone’s competence.

Packing is a skill that must be taught, much like keeping their bedrooms organized and being prepared for school. For preschool children, limit their involvement to choices, with questions like: Would you like to pack the blue or red shirt? Have them help put their items into their suitcase and explain what you are packing: We need three pairs of socks because we will be gone three days. For school-aged children, you have more flexibility. If your children can follow to-do lists, you are all set. I would be very specific the first few times and write down on one list what they need: three complete outfits (pants, shirts, socks, underwear), two pairs of pajamas, one jacket. If they aren’t ready for a list yet, help them by packing together. Be specific about toiletries, and remember to add shoes and outerwear to the list.

Do they need a bag for the plane or car ride? Don’t forget the travel backpack with books, electronics, chargers, and snacks. Again, involve children as early as you can, so they understand how to pack. If you are going on a long trip, it may not be the best teachable moment to have only brought one toy to occupy them. You may want to either oversee the packing or pack an emergency just-in-case bag.  Lists are a great tool for many tasks and with today’s electronics, lists can be easily saved and shared so the work for you is minimal.

Children will learn as they go. They may forget some items and leave some items behind at destinations. Phone chargers are the number one item left behind. If there is a must-have for the trip, it’s a good idea to double check to ensure those items are packed. Children do learn best through natural consequences, but you must be realistic. Would you really expect your 10-year-old to miss three days of skiing because he forgot to pack his ski goggles?  

By the time your children are in middle school, they should be packing on their own. I agree completely that packing isn’t a parent’s sole responsibility. With some simple steps and planning, you can soon have independent packers. 

Denise Noble is a mom of two and has master’s degree in counselor education. She is affiliated with, the parenting education arm of Greater Richmond SCAN, and has coached parents and worked with families for nearly twenty years.
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