Cathy Brown picks apart the ‘common sense’ of family travel.

WHEN IT COMES to travel with kids, by popular account I do everything wrong. I’ve been called irresponsible, crazy, foolish, naïve. Yet I happen to have for kids three of the most resilient, relaxed, and curious travelers I know, so I say screw all the naysayers because I must be doing something right.

The following are some ‘common sense’ approaches to traveling with kids — but while they may be common, the sense part is definitely up for debate.

Here we are now, entertain us…

Chances are, your child’s day-to-day life is over-managed and over-planned. They wake up by either you or an alarm clock to go to school, where they must adhere to rigid schedules, then they go to sports or other activities at scheduled times, all while trying to fit in mealtimes, homework, playdates, and a sensible amount of sleep. Most are exhausted mini-machines by the time they’re 9.

So you take them on vacation to hopefully rest up, enjoy life, and chill a little — by holding the vacation to an over-packed, ‘efficient’ itinerary the Swiss would be proud of. I mean, you’re not just going to have fun…you’re going to pack the MOST amount of fun in as possible! You’ve consulted websites, blogs, forums, and guidebooks, and you’re determined to fill every moment with some sort of activity. You might only visit this place once in your life, right?

Be honest — what really happens? The vacation rolls by in a blur. Everyone gets cranky. You leave more exhausted than when you came. Chances are you saw all the same generic crap every other uninspired tourist sees. And your kids will remember nothing of it down the road because they really didn’t engage. Way to go, Superparents. Money and time well spent.

Photo: AndrewEick

I say have a framework. Know where you’ll arrive, have accommodations set up, and know ahead of time how to get there from the airport or the bus station. Know when you’ll leave (although if you have the flexibility to keep that part open, by all means do so). If your child is interested in a certain thing, be it dinosaurs or dance, see online if there’s anything at your destination that has anything to do with that.

Now here comes the hard part for some of you. Chill out and go with the flow. Your child sleeps in until 10am the first day and you feel the entire morning is wasted? Think of it as the first time in a long time that they can get caught up on sleep, and think of how much more alert and happy they’ll be to now actually take things in. And sorry to burst your bubble, but if your kid needs you planning in advance how to entertain him all day, you may want to reflect on that for a while. Kids are curious by nature and can be happy with very little. Think of when they were two years old — a couple of sticks and some mud and they were in their glory. If they’ve strayed too far from that mindset, congratulations, you’ve probably messed with their inherent curiosity about the world somewhere along the way.

Fight to get it back. Wander. Get lost. Have the freedom in your schedule to get invited into people’s houses to dinner, and actually go. Feed the pigeons in the park for three hours if your kids are digging it. Wander aimlessly through stores and try on funny hats. Collect rocks. Ride the city bus just for kicks and see if you end up anywhere interesting. Play at the playground and ask local kids where they go for fun. Let your kids decide what they want to do, and your vacation will be spent watching your child actually enjoy life and engage in new surroundings.

Some of my kids’ most cherished vacation memories? Diverting security and sneaking up into the bell tower of a church in Peru for the most amazing view imaginable. Randomly getting invited to go milk cows in the Andes. Hitching a military truck on a dare (yes, they stopped and gave them a ride). Taking our taxi driver, whom they befriended, to a soccer game. None of these options ever showed up in Lonely Planet, people. It’s called spontaneity. Kids do it well.

Stranger danger!

It’s your job as a parent to keep your kid safe, right? Agreed. But no one ever said you should keep them sheltered. What’s the best way to raise intolerant, fearful children? By never letting them out of a very controlled bubble filled with people just like you.

You go to a foreign country, yet you stay in the resort where the people speak English to you and feed you the same food you eat when back home? But your kid has an umbrella in his drink and there are some cartoons on the TV in Spanish, so everything feels so festive and exotic, I know. Oh, my — where do I start here…

My kids have been tucked in with lullabies by Costa Ricans, been taught trapeze by Argentine circus folk.

My kids know not to be stupid. They will not be lured into vans by candy (well, I’m 98% sure when it comes to my youngest). They will not give out their personal information to strangers. They will not walk down the streets of Buenos Aires with their iPod clipped to their sleeve and an expensive camera around their neck. But they’re also open to meeting new people and not seeing every stranger as an inherent thief / child molester / terrorist.

We have opened our home through Couchsurfing to more than 50 people from 35 countries over the years — and in doing so my kids feel they have friends in every part of the world…and they do. They’ve been tucked in with lullabies by Costa Ricans, been taught trapeze by Argentine circus folk, learned macramé from a Belgian, taught guitar by a Lithuanian monk, got breakfast in bed with crepes from a French chef, and biked a bit with a Spaniard who was biking the world.

When my middle child overheard someone making a stereotype about Israelis, she responded by comparing that judgment with her own real-life observations, and had the wisdom and experience to not blindly accept a stereotype. My ten-year-old wrote an essay for school about how she misses being able to hitchhike with me in Patagonia “because there people see strangers as friends that they just haven’t met yet, and they aren’t afraid to reach out and connect with people on a real level. In the US it seems like everyone is afraid of everyone, and that gets in the way of their living.”

Let your children meet indigenous people, wealthy people, people living on the streets, people speaking funny languages, people in turbans, toothless people who you’re repulsed by…and let them see for themselves that they have more in common with these people than they may think. A shared smile or meal can be the click that keeps your child as open-minded and unconditional as you’d love him to be in theory. It’s okay. Relax. You may even make some new friends in the meantime.

Whatever you do, don’t touch.

You know them. Okay, you may even be one. You know, the Sanitizer Nazis — the people who run around with hand sanitizer bottles clipped to their purse, their keychain, their child’s backpack. The people who won’t let their child jump in puddles barefoot (the bacteria!), pet stray dogs (the ringworm!), or eat anything even remotely authentic outside of the US (the dysentery!).

Get over yourself. Yes, I have drawn a line (swimming in the murky Amazon River right where we went fishing for piranha, for example, got nixed. I didn’t care how hot my kids were or how many local kids were swimming there). And yes, two of my kids have had ringworm. It didn’t bother them, it was fixed within a couple of days with herbal medicine, and I’d let them snuggle up to stray pets again and again. The compassion they receive from those encounters lasts way longer than the ringworm.

Yes, my kids have gotten lice abroad. But you know what? My sister’s kids have all gotten lice before (no, not from my kids), and she lives in an upscale neighborhood in the US, runs around with Clorox wipes everywhere she goes, and does laundry 12 times a day.

But somehow it’s worse when my kids get lice abroad, as though it were because we traveled off the ‘safe’ path? And fine, my kids have gotten upset stomachs. Is it the end of the world? Nope. We address it quickly with some remedies I keep on hand. And trust me, it will not stop us from eating street food, ever.

Basically, my kids don’t get the Disney-fied version of travel. They get the real deal. They get to touch, taste, smell, get up close and personal with the entire experience. Unless it puts them in serious harm, I say go for it. They have fun and become adaptable, tough, resilient, and non-whiny…while other kids never get to leave their bubble and freak out the first time anything goes awry. Let me guess…they were led around on those doggie-leash harnesses through the airport when they were younger, too, huh?

Family travel = Florida. Duh.

You have the opportunity to travel. Which is it going to be? Orlando? Oooh, maybe get crazy this year and mix it up with an all-inclusive at Myrtle Beach (between the golf, the spa, and the nanny services, you may never even have to see the kids much! NOW you’re vacationing!).

I urge you to think outside the box. Your kids can handle it even if you can’t. While plane tickets to travel outside the US may cost more, if you try you can probably make your entire vacation cost less than Disney when you take into consideration lower costs of food and accommodations elsewhere. Make up for the difference by taking public transportation instead of taxis. Housesit or Couchsurf for a free roof over your head and the chance to meet great people (they even have a section for families).

Camp on the beach in El Salvador. Stay on a self-sustainable farm in Bulgaria and learn natural construction. Ride donkeys through the mountains of Mexico. I guarantee you these are the memories your kids will be telling all of their friends about, not the statue in the park that you dragged them to for the required ‘cultural’ experience.