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Vacationing with the Kids!

Our Guide to Travel Manners


Good manners. Today the term sounds all Dowager Countess of Grantham with a shot of Eddie Haskell. And who wants to spend a week at the beach with those two? You see my point.

Maybe manners need a reboot. Less Dowager. More Hermione. Boot Eddie Haskell and bring Captain America onboard! Good manners and character means having confidence in oneself, and showing kindness towards others with a touch of old-world elegance. No matter where we’re traveling on it, our planet is ready for more caring people – of all ages. (And STAT.)

Let’s agree that while we parents love good manners, at the root, we’re actually hoping to raise people with good character. Right? Well, that, and as a dear friend put it: “I just want my kids to have the kind of manners that would let me send them on a trip with Mimi and Pap without the fear of them getting shipped back home UPS in the middle of it.”


When You’re Not on the Scene, How Do Your Kids Choose?

For example, will your kids gang up with others and exclude another child at the pool? Does your kid happen to drop that they’re spending August in the Outer Banks – in front of the friends who rarely travel? Will your kids treat the staff at a restaurant with genuine kindness and respect?

In a fancy hotel, will your kids spin through the revolving doors thereby breaking said doors and embarrassing you half to death? (Yes, I’m still irked.)

From the pathetic-but-true file: Years ago we visited a Florida hotel and – because I’m a travel writer – I was speaking with the property’s head honcho. Out of the corner of my eye I could see my two boys and yes, husband, whipping through the revolving doors. I was too far away to halt the craziness so I continued nodding at the manager (and sweating). Eventually finished with my tour, I rejoined my family to discover that they had broken the doors. The kids were five. My husband? Too old to break hotel doors. In his defense he was playing with the boys, but seriously?

Welcome to my Oprah moment. I figured that I would have to teach my young boys – and old husband –  how to travel with good character and kind manners, or go insane. At first, I tried admonishing and lecturing. Finally, I took pages from kid-psych books and voila! How to make manners and character training engaging emerged.

Start at the Very Beginning

Before our next trip, my husband and I explained to our then 6-year-old boys that we were playing a new game. (Older kid-tricks are coming, so stay with me.) “Now,” I said, “manners are something we use all the time, not just when we’re expecting a reward. We treat others with manners because we want them to feel cared about – for others to feel that they’re as important on this planet as we are.” (A character-building comment.) One boy asked, “Dogs too?” The other added, “What about aliens?” Not to be diverted, we switched into game-mode.

Arrange Your Living Room to Look Like Airplane Seating

One adult plays the plane’s captain, welcoming everyone aboard, while the other parent holds luggage, bags of Cheerios, and little hands, and enters the plane. As you move down the aisle, be as obnoxious as possible. Climb over seats. Knock into others. Let your blanket and stuffed animal drape into your neighbor’s lap. Ask your kids for a critique. Act astonished when they say, “Mama, you shouldn’t bump into people! You might hurt somebody!” (High-five your child the moment he demonstrates caring for another.)

Then ask your kids how you should behave inside a plane. As they give you direction, add your own, “Ohhh, so you’re saying that I shouldn’t go to the bathroom every ten minutes? I should stay in my seat? Got it.”

I might also ask, “Do you think it’s okay if I kick the back of the seat in front of me? I mean what else is there to do?” I’ve been admonished with, “Never kick someone’s seat! If someone kicked my seat I’d be really mad!” (Again, get excited and shout “Exactly!” when your child responds with an empathetic comment.)

The faux-plane is also the place to teach kids to say “excuse me” when they bump into someone or “thank you for flying the plane so straight” when they say goodbye to the pilot. And do mention that even the most important person on the plane – the pilot – appreciates a heartfelt thank you.

Ditto for the Restaurant

Let your kids serve a dinner that they make like mac ‘n cheese, so that they have ownership of the meal. As they sit down to dinner, be under the table tickling your partner’s foot. Bump your head on the table as you get up and howl at top volume. Again, ask for a critique.

Later, while you’re raving about the food, share some of those top-secret tips that most kids don’t know, such as using an indoor voice while speaking to your fellow diners, placing your napkin in your lap, thanking the server each time he produces or removes an item, coloring quietly at the table, or keeping the volume off (not just on low) on electronic devices if you allow that sort of thing. Again, play the “be annoying” game and ask for your kids’ feedback.

Don’t Forget the Hotel Room

While still at home, do somersaults on your bed. Scatter clothes everywhere. Knock a picture or two off the wall. Again, let your kids correct your poor behavior. If they gleefully jump on the bed with you (as mine did), have the guestroom 101 talk and explain that beds are not trampolines, luggage items will not be strewn throughout, and coloring on walls is off limits, just like it is at home.

I also add that the cleaning crew is not responsible for putting dirty clothes into the laundry bag, stuffed animals into our suitcases, and trash in the trash can. That’s our job. I emphasize how many rooms a cleaning crew faces day after day. I use my everyone-knows-this voice, assuming that my boys want to be in the loop.

Every Other Travel Scenario 

We play the “yes vs. no” game with other travel scenarios families might encounter. For example, I give my boys a situation and let them shout out “yes!” or “no!” When they nail the question, I toss an M&M their way. For example, I shout with gusto, “When trains and buses are packed, I stand to let an elderly person or pregnant lady have my seat. Yes or no?” They yell, “Yes!”  Or, “I’m at a museum and I fall on the floor and whine, ‘I’m too bored to stand! Yes or no?’” Kids love this game.

Hold that Thought! (Seriously, Hold It.)

You know how kids announce (like a Kmart announcer) that a woman has a ring coming out of her nose? We all know most kids haven’t learned when to zip it.

The game for reducing embarrassing travel moments goes like this: I say to my kids, “When you see somebody interesting – turn to me and wink casually and I’ll know you have something to tell me. Later. In our room.” I emphasize that exclaiming about someone’s differences would hurt their feelings (another character-building comment). Once we started this game, I had two boys furiously blinking at me. Of course, I had to explain the meaning of a casual wink, but ultimately the method worked.

Everything is Awesome!

If we strapped a kid-cam onto our children we’d see that kids are constantly told that they’re doing it all wrong. Startle your kids when you’re traveling by catching them doing it right. Say, “I was so proud to see you holding the door for the lady and her baby, Sarah – fist bump!” Or, “You tidied up our hotel bathroom for the cleaning crew? You are a sweetheart, Daniel!” And, “I loved how you left the last waffle at the buffet for the other guest, Jonathan. You’re my breakfast-hero!” Place emphasis on how your child is showing care for others in the world. When you’re traveling, family life can get hectic, but it’s important to make time for this kind of affirmation.

Not to Brag, But. . .

When you’re checking in with family, friends, or the pet sitter, brag about your kid’s fabulous behavior and just happen to let your child overhear. Try to be specific. Say to your mom on the phone, “I wish you could have been there, Mom. Ben’s manners in the museum today were amazing. He said thank you to our guide and threw away trash from our lunch table. What an awesome kid.” (That sound you hear? It’s your kid purring.)

On the Other Hand. . .

Prior to a big trip, explain to your kids that bragging about visiting LEGOLAND or taking a ten-day cruise to the Mediterranean is not kind and it won’t be tolerated. Help them learn to assess their audience. If a friend is flying to Europe for vacation, sure, share away. But if a friend’s family is living frugally and rarely goes anywhere, it’s simply not caring to wax on about an insanely expensive trip that Grandma whipped up for the family. (And when your child nods in understanding, say, “You’re so considerate of others. I knew you’d understand.”)

Tweens and Teens Can’t Be Clueless

One thing tweens and teens are notorious for: They don’t want to seem unsophisticated. That goes triple for traveling. When broaching manners with your teen, you can’t go wrong with a compliment, “Catherine, you have such beautiful manners that I hesitate to bring this up, but we’ll be eating in the Ritz-Carlton.” You know how they have twelve different forks for dinner? Remember how it works? Because I don’t. Do you want to Google it?” End with another compliment, “You’re the best researcher. If you can’t figure it out, nobody can.” Then eliminate the stress by saying, “And if we use the wrong fork, we use the wrong fork. No biggie, right?”

When you reference your kids’ favorite actors and heroes, when you play fun travel games and praise your kids’ great behavior (in the moment), you’re speaking your children’s language. Addressing travel manners specifically with your kids helps them know what to do and when to do it on the big trip. So send your darlings off on an adventure with the grandparents with the greatest of confidence. Trust me. A gushing email from your mom and dad brimming with compliments on your little guys’ travel manners beats a UPS box by far!


Don’t Trip Up Your Kids! 6 Tips for Parents

1. Boredom and poor behavior go hand-in-glove. Build a travel activity bag with your child that includes audio books, lollipops (helps with ear pressure and excessive talking), healthy snacks, and lots of Calvin & Hobbes.

2. It’s currently hot to jam STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – lessons into every bit of a child’s life. (I’m as guilty as the next.) But experts agree: Kids need hours in the pool. Days at the beach. Time playing endless Monopoly or Hedbanz with you. A trip is an ideal time to give STEM a rest.

3. Exhausted kids – us too – can be surly when running on too little sleep. Don’t cave. Insist that everyone stays on (or close to) their sleep schedule.

4. It’s rough to eat well on the road. Make it a goal to have your kids eat one fruit or veggie per meal.

5. Explain to your kids often that people who work with the public – coffee baristas, hotel staff, and restaurant servers – face monstrous behavior on every shift. Remind your kids that a smile and a kind word from them may be the one ray of sunshine in somebody’s day.

6. Respect your kids. Watch their favorite movies (and whoop! when Iron Man arrives to save the day), show interest in their toys, take book trips together by reading aloud. Build your relationship with your child. When character discussions arise, your kids will be more willing to internalize your values.

Wendy irvine is a family travel writer who recently relocated to the East Coast and a regular contributor to Trip Advisor and Expedia online, as well as local and national magazines. She homeschools her twin boys and lives with one foot in RVA and the other in Atlanta. Visit for more from Wendy on the reality of family travel.
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