Why I no longer distract my kids when we travel

By Andrea Hannah

I have this yellow backpack.

It stretches the length of my torso and puffs out at the top like a bloated sun. I used to stuff it until the sides bulged with everything I thought I’d need on my solo journeys. In Europe, it was long, cotton skirts that would sweep against the tiles of the Louvre and the Sistine Chapel. In Africa, it was mosquito repellant, malaria medication, and a flimsy photograph of my soon-to-be husband. It’s carried boots and books, soaps and socks, and despite being crushed in subway doors and overhead compartments, the backpack has continued to survive.

Last year, on a trip to Washington D.C. with my two young children, it was crammed with Legos, talking stuffed animals, and dolls with cherry cheeks that my daughter had not touched in over a year. My things—my necessities—got demoted to a separate bag altogether.

And still, I carried it as if it were sacred, careful not to bump into the riot of tourists swarming into every crevice of The Mall. I pulled the Legos out of the secret side pocket while we ate lo mein in Chinatown. I tried to entice my daughter with a talking stuffed toy while we waited in line at the Lincoln Memorial, and I even went for the slightly creepy doll in the back pocket when she started screaming on the lawn at the Washington Monument. She slapped it away before hurling her tiny, sweaty body onto the grass.

Traveling with kids is not easy. Heck, living with kids in a constricted, constructed household is not easy. What I’d forgotten, and what I’d loved most about adventuring, was the way my backpack had made me feel unabashedly present. By packing only what I needed, I couldn’t divert my attention from that quite space between heartbeats, where I could hear myself think. I wasn’t distracted from what was right in front of me by choices like which pair of shoes to wear, or which book to read, because I had brought the bare minimum. Only the most important choices remained: which path to take, which map to follow (or not), which city or country in which to keep in my heart.

But I hadn’t given my kids the same opportunity to be present. By stuffing my beloved backpack with distractions for them, I was trying to control their adventure, their journey. When they are young, we are the ones who fill those overnight bags and backpacks with what we think is important to them. We shove Legos and dolls in their faces when they aren’t experiencing a place in the same way we are. Or worse: in the way we expect them to. Rather than allowing ourselves to feel frustrated or disappointed in their personal interpretations—often expressed as screaming or moaning about how “boring” everything is—we tighten our jaws and pull something else out of our bag of tricks.

And while it makes sense to bring along age-appropriate entertainment when we’re dragging our kids to museums and memorials and The Mall, we also need to ask ourselves why we’re putting them through that in the first place. I have a sneaking suspicion this tendency to want to shape, control, bend our child’s sense of the world has to do with our own fear of missing out on something important. I imagine the urge to dictate their days only grows stronger as the stakes—in travel and life—are raised, as they fight for autonomy and reject the maps we’ve carefully drawn.

I’ve since reclaimed my yellow backpack. On a recent camping trip, I carefully folded my own clothes into the pockets, my wallet and toothbrush into the secret zippered compartment at the back. My children had their own backpacks filled with their own, carefully selected essentials. There were no Legos. No stuffed animals. No creepy dolls to be swatted away. They chose not to bring any toys at all.

It was freaking hard. They bickered, with my husband and me and each other. My daughter, bored and wandering aimlessly around the campsite, decided to take up eating dirt. My son, miraculously, found two long-forgotten Legos some other kid had left marinating in the soil, probably packed by well-meaning parents. But the point was, they weren’t his Legos, and they became part of the delight and surprise of the journey. He discovered them while he was wandering, wondering, digging into the dirt with a twig. He uncovered a small, unexpected delight.

If I want to raise pioneers in this world, I have to be prepared to let them get lost, just as I have lost and found myself again and again as I’ve zigzagged across the Equator. I owe them that privilege, and I owe the world whatever treasures they unearth in their wanderings. I have to let go of what I want for them so they can fill their own backpacks with stones and sticks and the experiences they deem important enough to carry with them.

Andrea Hannah is an author, creative writing teacher, and mom to her mini-adventurers, Sam and Violet. You can follow her shenanigans on Instagram: @andeehannah. 

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