As we are preparing for our yearly vacation, and I am excitedly telling friends and acquaintances about our plans to see the beautiful Portugal, many react with comments and questions such as:
- Wait, but there’s nothing there for the kids to do!
- But won’t the kids be bored there?
- Too bad. There’s so much to see there. You probably won’t be able to go everywhere with the kids.
- Don’t forget to upload games on your tablets – believe me you’ll need it for your sanity!
Those conversations happen every year. I try to explain that:
- Looking at beautiful sights and exploring are prefect activities for young curious minds
- The kids will be super excited and enthusiastic and yes, sometimes bored too – which is also totally fine.
- We will be able to go everywhere with the kids (I mean, we are not planning to frequent seedy places too often).
- We do not own any tablets.
But yet, I am usually met with a skeptical look.
Don’t get me wrong. I do understand how difficult it is nowadays to cater to the kids who were born in the age of fast-paced life full of immediate gratification opportunities and nonstop entertainment. Their days are often filled with extra-curricular activities, every click of the mouse on social media or a game delivers a burst of gratifying dopamine, and they expect to get a participation reward for… well, for participating.
So what can we do to allow our kids to develop an appreciation of their environment and an ability to enjoy the here-and-now?
1. Take a moment before you introduce a highly entertaining activity to the child.
Reflect – what is the long-term goal that you want to achieve here? It is important to separate your values from your own immediate gratification.
Sometimes, when we bring our baby – still in a stroller - to a shopping mall, buy her candy and balloons, introduce her to fast-food restaurants, and happily place her on those mall toy pony rides, the pure joy on the child’s face makes our hearts melt. We feel on top of the world. This is only natural. All we want is for our child to be happy. And we feel like such great moms and dads – even if just for a few minutes.
The reality is, however, that what makes our child squeal with delights, may not necessarily be good for him or her in the long run.
Ask yourself, what do I want my child to learn here? If your immediate feeling is in line with your long-term goals and values – then you can happily proceed. If not – you have a chance to remedy the situation before it is too late.
2. Start early.
The older the child gets, the more difficult it becomes to take her or him away from electronics and to teach them appreciate and enjoy non-highly-stimulating activities such as going on nature walks, playing board games, and listening to classical music.
It is difficult to stop the habits that have already developed. It is way easier to prevent them from developing in the first place.
Does your baby or young child need to watch that TV program? Does she or he really need to watch TV at all?
Are you sure you want to introduce them to electronic games? Or can you introduce them to board games that you can all enjoy as a family?
Do you cook a separate meal for a child, or do you cook a meal for the whole family, so that the child can gradually be introduced to a wide variety of foods?
Are you sure you really need to spend your weekends at an amusement park?
The earlier you start, the more natural and straightforward the process will be.
3. Don’t parent out of fear.
When I give those suggestions (and many other suggestions on different topics) to parents that come to my sessions, the frequent response is fear. Fear of the child being bored. Fear of tantrums. Fear of feeling bad about oneself as a parent. Fear of judgement. Fear of making a mistake.
Whatever you do – parenting out of fear does not work. Make a decision about what you consider to be in your child’s best interest right now, and stick to it. (And give yourself permission to reconsider – as long as it’s not out of fear).
4. Make it fun
Kids are very curious by nature and are usually happy to learn about new stuff (that is, if they are not glued to a screen, in which case, unfortunately, you’ve got a tough competition).
Travelling is such an amazing educational opportunity – whether it’s travelling to another country, camping, or a hike at a beautiful location an hour away from home.
Talk about your upcoming trip beforehand:
- Let them study and draw the maps
- Take lots of library books and let the child read to prepare
- Explore history, architecture, culture, and cuisine.
- Watch videos of the country or city you will be visiting
- Practice words and phrases in a different language if you are traveling abroad.
- Hold trivia contests about your destination at dinner time.
- Assign the child a task that she or he will be responsible for during the trip. An older kid could be the official family photographer. A younger kid may be responsible for making sure there is always enough bottled water to carry along. Every kid can carry his or her own backpack with snacks, drinks, and notes that they prepared for the trip.
- Another idea is to get the child to be an expert in one field (learning the words and phrases in foreign language; reading up on medieval hill towns or other interesting facts; identifying the names and ingredients of the country’s cuisine, etc.)
- Buy cute little notebooks so that kids can journal daily during the trip.
5. It’s not too late
Even if your child is not very enthusiastic because of his or her temperament or because he or she is already used to highly-stimulating activities, you can try and gradually start involving him or her in mindful day-to-day activities.
It is very important to identify what interests your child, and to start from the things that he or she is likely to enjoy the most. Following are some ideas:
- Cooking or baking together
- Short walks (and if you engage in conversation that is interesting to your child and the walk becomes longer – more power to you)
- Playing a board game
- Developing an interest or a hobby together and reading up on it and discussing it
As we are preparing for our trip, our kids spend their evenings reading about Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and Henry the Explorer. They identify Portugal districts and their main towns. They anticipate trying Portugese foods, and giggle nervously at the thought of trying snails and barnacles . They learn basic Portugese phrases and put together a kit of activities to take to long car rides (magnetic chess, word search, and journals).
Those preparations are not less important than the trips themselves. They teach the kids patience, open-mindedness, and cooperation. They create memories and sense of connectedness that will last for the life-time.
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Anna Prudovski is a Psychologist and the Clinical Director of Turning Point Psychological Services. She has a special interest in treating anxiety disorders and OCD, as well as working with parents.
Anna lives with her husband and children in Vaughan, Ontario. When she is not treating patients, supervising clinicians, teaching CBT, and attending professional workshops, Anna enjoys practicing yoga, going on hikes with her family, traveling, studying Ayurveda, and spending time with friends. Her favorite pastime is reading.