I haven’t been at it long, but already, parenthood has taught me a lot. It forces me to practice patience, prioritize someone’s needs over my own, and be more willing to go with the flow. But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned has come as a result of traveling with my child. It’s a lesson I probably should have learned years ago but was too stubborn to give in.
The secret to having a non-stressful family trip of any length is: expect less.
By lowering your expectations, you’re giving your family more room to succeed. Setting the bar too high is a sure fire way to fail. Set everyone up for success by expecting less from the get-go. Figure out the A-list, B-list, and C-list of items on your Must list. The A-list contains the things that you must see/eat/do/experience during your trip to feel satisfied; this list should consist of the fewest items (certainly no more than one big thing per day). The B-list are things that you really want to see/eat/do/experience, and you’d be sad if you didn’t get to do at least a couple of them, but you won’t be devastated if you can’t do the whole list. Your C-list contains stretch goals: things that you’d absolutely love to do if time/money/energy/moods/planets all align to allow them to happen but it’s totes not a big deal if you don’t even look at the list during the trip.
Less is more
Let me give you an example: Maybe you’re planning a trip to Chicago with a 2 year old. You have a week. You have many friends in town you need to visit. You have an 8 hour drive on either end, and will be working some of the weekdays. What do you absolutely want to try to see/do/eat while in town? For us, visiting friends became the numero uno priority, followed by park/beach time (since we were staying within a 15 minute walk of the lake!), the Lincoln Park Zoo (free!), Maggie Daley park (amazing playground!), exploring the nearby neighborhoods by walking, and riding the metro (a personal challenge I needed to do to feel accomplished). We missed a lot (as detailed in this blog) because we had to prioritize and compromise, and our trip was slightly derailed by a trip to the ER and Skyler’s bout of pneumonia. But, we both felt good about the trip and didnt feel like we’d missed out on anything — because we went in expecting less than we would have traveling sans child, and we came out feeling satisfied.
I learned this way of thinking — making three-tiered lists when problem-solving or planning — by working with my parents for 15 years at their small business. We used this method when project planning and writing job postings: what are the Must Haves (for a project to be considered complete or for a job candidate’s baseline skills), the Would Be Cool Ifs (for a project to include if time/money allow for it or for a candidate to possess to excel in the role), and the Utopia Vision Wishes (for a project in an ideal world or the perfectly tailored candidate’s skills). As long as the Must Have list was fulfilled, we’d be good. Everyone would be happy. Anything from the B or C lists would be a bonus!
Justin and I use this method when house hunting or day dreaming about house renovations, and even if we don’t explicitly make labeled columns and lists every time, we always identify the Must Haves early in the planning stages of any trip. These lists may change from time to time, and the capacity of the A-list will grow as your kids get older, so it’s important to make a new list for each and every trip. This exercise really helps ensure that everyone gets to do something that they specifically want to, and helps keep your expectations for the trip in check.
This is a lesson I keep learning over and over again: over-planning ≠ satisfaction. Over-planning = high expectations which lead to anticipation, and if the build up is too hyped, then the thing itself may ultimately prove disappointing. By planning LESS, you’ll enjoy the trip MORE. Planning too much not just leads to high expectations for the one planning but can make things feel forced for your travel companions. Going to London when you’re single and free in your twenties is going to be vastly different than when you return with your own family 15 years later; so even if you may want to give your family the same experiences you had and try to recreate some magic from a previous trip, any attempt at forcing the fun will fail and NO ONE will not have as much fun as you had hoped or expected.
Avec peu, on fait de grandes choses
Another example: I have loved Paris and everything French for most of my life but when I took my husband to Paris I mentally prepared for him to hate it. As much as I wanted him to fall in love with the city’s charms, he was coming to the city at a very different time in his life and in very different circumstances than I did. So when we were deciding what to do for the short time we had allotted in Paris, we made our lists… and the A-list might surprise you. It did not contain a single tourist attraction — and why should it? Justin didn’t grow up studying the language or learning French history like I did. He had no context for many of the historical sites or pieces of art. But he has a deep appreciation for good food, good wine, architecture, and wandering walkable towns to see what we might see. And Paris delivers on all fronts.
So our Must Have list included:
- showing him around the 5th, my old neighborhood from when I studied abroad
- eating escargot
- eating at least one street crepe
- wandering the streets and letting ourselves get lost
- find a cocktail bar (this was 2016, before craft cocktails hit Europe
- buy French kids books for our hypothetical future child (again, this was 2016)
- eat a baguette while walking along the river
Our B-list included only one museum (and we weren’t picky — it ended up being the Louvre because no one was there that day!), day drinking in a park or on a bridge (we didnt have time), a park (again, did not care which one, and we hit a couple along our wanderings), and going inside Notre Dame (we love visiting old churches for the architecture and art). We didn’t even touch anything on the C-list (Montmarte, Butte chaumont, riding the subway, buying art from a river vendor, le champs de mars to see the Eiffel Tower). But we had a GLORIOUS lovely time! We didnt feel disappointed by anything because we actually got done everything we wanted to do. Anything else would have been icing on the cake.
On the hunt for a little fun
Most recently, we took a little family getaway to Huntsville. I had some free Marriott nights that were going to expire soon so we picked a nearby place we’d never been and, right at the top of our A-list, it had to have a hotel with a pool. We stayed at the Element by Westin in northern Huntsville, conveniently (if boringly) connected to an outdoor shopping center with myriad food options and plenty to entertain a small child post-dinner pre-bedtime.
The hotel’s location was also only a few minutes away from the second item (after “hotel with pool”) on our A-list: the Space Center. To maximize our time, we decided to do the space center on Sunday, after checking out and before driving home. We planned to take an extra long lunch on Friday to drive down and finish up the work day from our room before going somewhere nearby for dinner. So that left Saturday for one more A-list item: seeing downtown. When planning for this little two-night trip, I ignored all of my inclinations to google “must see” or “must do” attractions because every single one of them would have been on the C-list and this two day trip just wasnt going to have time for the C-list.
I knew this, because I know my audience, and my audience includes a 3.5 year old who loves exercising his autonomy, voicing his (loud) opinions, and refusing to nap or eat when we think that he should. We really needed to be nimble, able to pivot on a dime should we accidentally trigger a meltdown or ignore the warning signs before it’s too late.
Any time that we have ignored the message our son was communicating or set our expectations too high without leaving room for that necessary flexibility, we’ve been disappointed and the experience has ended with everyone far more stressed, exhausted, and disappointed than we would have been had we expected less from the situation.
So, #sorrynotsorry Huntsville. We may not have done your town justice, but we did enjoy ourselves while there and that’s really all that matters. Alas, no botanical gardens or Brahan Spring Park splash pad for us. We also abandoned our attempt at completing the Lucky Duck scavenger hunt downtown; it was just way too hot to wander aimlessly around an unfamiliar town figuring out clues. If there had been a predetermined path for us to follow and the scavenger hunt was bingo-card style, that would have been more doable for us. Instead, we skipped that B-list item and focused on the A-list:
- have lunch and walk around downtown (with open containers, no less! check!)
- swim at the hotel to beat the heat (check! and our kid even braved the pool steps! #progress)
- find a place to walk to dinner both nights (staying by a shopping center, check & check!)
- sleep in (check, check!)
- visit the Space center (check!)
As a result, we had a lovely time and enjoyed many small pleasures: sharing macarons, laughing as Skyler tried to strip down in the splash pad, riding the little train around the shopping center, snuggling in the hotel bed watching The Office, letting Skyler “open” all of the “magic doors” and push all of the elevator buttons, schooling some older kids on the rules of Marco Polo, and eating some crazy tacos.
Pre-child Ashley would have planned for us to go out and do something Friday night, a fully mapped-walkabout downtown and dinner/night time plans, and a much more comprehensive visit at the space center. But parental Ashley was satisfied with the amount that we did.
What have YOU learned by traveling with kids? How has your travel style changed post-children compared to your pre-child life? Have you ever overloaded your A-list and been disappointed by a trip because you didn’t get to do everything you wanted? How do you avoid disappointment while traveling?