I got my 3-year-old daughter to quietly tour St. Peter's Basilica in Rome by counting angels and promising pizza for dinner. I got my 5-year-old son to politely sit through the dinner by drawing angels and promising a new toy soldier. I coaxed both through a long walk when Mommy got lost by promising gelato all around.
If someone ever wrote a truly honest book about parenting, it would be called "The Art of the Deal." And if someone wrote an honest book about traveling with children, it would be called "The Art of the Deal Goes on the Road."
Earlier in the trip, my brother, who is childless, suggested that such bribery, though often effective in the short term, might be counterproductive in the long run. First of all, I told him, I don't consider it bribery. I consider it a lesson in basic physics: If you quit whining, darting into the crowd and eating whole butter pats then you will be rewarded. The idea that a child under age 6, heck, under age 26, would consider his parents' good opinion a reward is absurd. Gelato, on the other hand, means "well done" in any language.
Second of all, we're on vacation.Which doesn't mean we don't discipline. With all those fellow plane passengers already irritated by the two-hour wait, the no-nonsense matrons behind us in line at the Medici tombs? Oh, we discipline, we just discipline differently — that is, portably and publicly, which affects both form and content.
When you go on a trip, you leave most of your possessions at home. These include many tools in the parental behavior-modification kit: your child's room, the television, the upcoming play dates and most of the toys. So in terms of encouraging your child to "make good choices" you are limited in predicting, and enforcing, the outcome of bad choices. A "time out" in the middle of a campground or at the Tower of London just does not have the same effect. You can't send anyone to his or her room if you're all sharing one and the revoking of television or play date privileges is rendered useless unless television and meeting up with friends was actually part of the program.
I suppose you could threaten to take away some particularly kid-friendly part of the itinerary, but most of us are probably not prepared to skip the Chicago Children's Museum or Bomarzo, Italy's Monster Park, for anything short of a felony, so it's best to not even mention it.
You are also restricted by time. No matter the actual length, any vacation is too brief to squander whole hours, let alone days, hanging back at the hotel just to prove to a 7-year-old that when Mommy says stop pinching your sister, she means it. So you have to develop a more active, on-the-go attitude that accommodates the laxity of general rules — look, Daddy's eating all the chocolate-covered digestive biscuits again — with the realization that other people, the ones behind you in the museum or at the next table, are on vacation too.
We have learned, for instance, we must reserve the right to yank. This means never paying an entrance fee we cannot afford to lose when it becomes clear the kids are not going to settle down and enjoy the museum or cathedral or historic point of interest no matter how fiercely we hiss at them or what we bribe them with. For reasons I still don't understand, my husband thought we'd do OK in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Thank heavens there is a back patio that fronts the Grand Canal because after Fiona attempted to climb the third sculpture in the sculpture garden, that is where the kids stayed while Richard and I took turns negotiating the very, very small and very, very quiet galleries. (Danny Mac did, however, appreciate the Magritte he glimpsed as we hustled him out.)
We do know that there are certain places that are off limits No Matter What. Museums without mummies or suits of armor are safe only as long as the "Let's find the dog" game holds their interest, which isn't very long. My husband got one good look inside the Belleek Pottery factory in Donegal, Ireland, and took 1-year-old Fiona and 3-year-old Danny firmly by the hand — and directly next door to the tea shop.
Likewise, any formal tour that lasts more than 20 minutes — 30 if it's on a double-decker bus — is probably not a good idea. Unlike trips in your own car, you can't pull over the tour bus if they don't Stop Fighting This Minute. And who wants to use that semi-hysterical, last-ditch listen-to-me-or-else tone of voice in public? Not me.
Of course, we eat only in restaurants that have menus you can color or really large outdoor dining areas. (Although sometimes you can get away with dining at a nice place if you're eating at 5 o'clock and you're willing to do it in shifts.)
Prevention is, of course, the best defense, and this often comes in the form of crayons. (In fact, most travel with children is pretty much directly underwritten by Crayola.) I read in a travel book that parents should encourage their children to sketch what they saw; envisioning flash-carded super-babies being forced to copy the Mona Lisa, I dismissed the idea until we were stuck in a Tuscan train station for an hour. All the snacks were gone, we had run out of Advil, and I discovered that the sketching thing works.
Prevention also leads to a few rules for the adults as well: Except in the case of actual peril, one remonstrating adult voice is enough — two and you are now officially more disruptive than the child. Also, a family-strikes policy — how many warnings a child gets before being physically removed from the area — must be agreed upon in advance, so you don't have the unfortunate spectacle of parents fighting over what to do to stop the children from fighting.
My husband and I also start talking to the kids about the importance of not kicking the seat in front of you months before any plane ride, although electroshock would probably be more effective.
The good news is that no matter where you go, people live there. So you are not the only person in town who ever had to persuade her child not to drop Daddy's sunglasses over the bridge or to get down from that statue's back, I mean it, right now.
And if you go to the right places, you'll occasionally experience divine intervention. Before we went to Rome, my brother told me we could skip the Sistine Chapel but we had to take the kids to the church of the bones — Santa Maria della Concezione — in which the crypt contains tableaux created from the ancient bones of hundreds of Capuchin monks. It is not nearly as scary as it sounds, and the kids loved it so much they, of course, tried to climb the metal grates that protected the scenes. Before I could even open my mouth, a deep solemn voice from above intoned, "Children, children, keep your hands to yourselves."
Although my husband and I quickly realized the monk who was collecting the suggested donations at the entrance had both a clear view of the crypt and an intercom, my kids still think it was God. We have no plans of disabusing them of this notion.
I mean, whatever works.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times