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Driven to distraction: James Lohan – Travel Dad

James Lohan, founding ‘Mr’ of boutique hotels website Mr & Mrs Smith, says travel needn’t bring out the devil in your kids — you just need to engineer some fun diversions along the way

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“Give it back, Tom!”

“Don’t bait your sister!”

“For heaven’s sake, just be nice to each other for five minutes!”

Just a few of the commands I find myself issuing, with increasing shrillness, on an average journey with the kids. Usually, I’m drowned out almost immediately by my three-year-old daughter’s ear-ravaging response to whatever fresh torment her older brother has devised for her. “But… but… but Tom hurt me! Waaaah!” The exchange that follows may as well be scripted. Tom is instructed to apologise, fails to comprehend that he might have done anything wrong, despite the fact he’s holding a clump of his sister’s hair, I promptly give up, beg my wife to ‘do something’, insert my earplugs and carry on down the motorway, hoping to spot a sign for an orphanage next left.

Children not sharing. Children squabbling. Children getting bored. Children seemingly incapable of understanding that we’re yet to invent teleportation and that travelling tends to involve a period of, well, travel. These are the frontline enemies of travelling with kids — hell, they’re the reason why many parents don’t dare venture further than their back gardens for a family holiday. The stress stakes are simply too high.

But this is how kids are. Although it’s occasionally tempting to do so, I can’t believe my children are uniquely evil. I have a theory about why travelling seems to bring out the worst in them. Children thrive on two things: routine and stimulation. Every parent walks a tightrope between the two. Children soak up new sights and experiences like kitchen roll on spilt juice, but what keeps them content and stable is knowing what will happen next, drawing comfort from the predictable. Travel means never knowing what’s around the corner; often, it’s all stimulation, no routine — is it any wonder that sometimes kids become overwhelmed and act up?

It’s easier if you have just one child, of course. Even the most imaginative toddler will struggle to pick a fight with himself (although I’ve seen it happen). ‘One and done’ may be the modern family mantra but I come from the ‘heir and a spare’ camp, as I believe it’s psychologically valuable for a child to have someone they violently detest close to them at all times. In theory, two kids should be able to entertain each other with affectionate sibling chit-chat, but in the back of a car on the traffic-snarled M4, it’s often the preschool equivalent of Cain and Abel with chainsaws.

So how do you keep the peace, ensure they’re entertained, and still have the energy to get your family to where you’re going, without blowing a gasket? First — and this may take a leap of imagination on your part — make the journey an exciting part of the holiday. It’s easy to forget kids live almost entirely in the now; they don’t do patient anticipation. Explaining the glorious holiday paradise you’re headed for, and all the exciting things they’ll see and do when they arrive will get you entirely nowhere if they have to wait nine hours for it to materialise. Instead — whether you’re travelling by train, plane, automobile or all three — think about what you can do to make the journey itself the focus; turn it into a game. (But exercise caution: ‘Let’s see how many red cars we can spot’ might defuse the situation for one trip but when they’re still playing it a year later, it can become rather tiresome.)

Talk to them as much as possible — you can have some astonishing and hilarious conversations. It’s amazing what pops into a child’s head when they’re strapped down for hours on end. Instigate a staggered rewards system for good behaviour; keep a stash of distractions in the form of new small toys or magazines to deploy at critical moments (but, crucially, try not to reach into the treat bag mid-tantrum. You don’t want them to think that the best way to get their mitts on the latest issue of Peppa Pig is to shriek their lungs out).

And if all the above fails? Well, what do you think they invented iPads for?

Of course, it’s not just about keeping them happy/distracted/sedated; you have to keep your head together too. Arrivals and homecomings can be ruined if you turn up harassed and borderline infanticidal. The only advice I can give on that score is this: the things that make travelling with kids so challenging — their restless curiosity, their blank-canvas exuberance, the up-and-down intensity of their sibling relationships — are also the things that can make it so rewarding. There are times when I’ve been travelling with Tom and Alex, seen them agog with wide-eyed wonder at some exotic sight or giggling with irrepressible glee as they hurl themselves into a new experience, and I’ve thought, ‘Wow. This really makes the journey worth it. (But I’m still dreading the return trip.)’

 

Published in the Spring 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)