Sunday, November 20, 2011

5 travel & life lessons I learned from my kids

November 20th is the United Nations' Universal Children's Day, instituted to promote the ideals and objectives of The UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child. The best version of this declaration is the one in child-friendly language. (Unicef has it in many different languages other than English.)

This declaration is a powerful statement, and reading through it reminds me how privileged and fortunate my own kids are compared to many children across the world; children who face many problems, challenges and out-right abuses every day:

Article 7 - You have the right to a name, and this should be officially recognized by the government. You have the right to a nationality (to belong to a country).

Article 8 - You have the right to an identity – an official record of who you are. No one should take this away from you.

Article 27 - You have the right to food, clothing, a safe place to live and to have your basic needs met. You should not be disadvantaged so that you can't do many of the things other kids can do.

Article 37 - No one is allowed to punish you in a cruel or harmful way.

Article 38 - You have the right to protection and freedom from war. Children under 15 cannot be forced to go into the army or take part in war. 

Obviously, one major aim of this declaration is to provide rights that will protect children from horrors like famine, war, abuse, neglect, and disease. But in a broader sense, the declaration is also about how we, the adults, should respect children, and treat them as individuals with their own rights and interests.

Some articles in the declaration remind me of things I have learned from my children since they came into my life. Because, as much as I try to teach them things (and hopefully occasionally succeed), they have also taught me so much about myself, about life, about the world, and about traveling.

Article 12 - You have the right to give your opinion, and for adults to listen and take it seriously. 
Sometimes my kids' opinions seem to mostly consist of "we should eat candy and ice cream and never have to go to bed". But listening to my kids, and taking the time to try to understand the feelings they express in words and actions, often does help make life in general, and trips in particular, better.

This can be as easy as making time for child-friendly beaches in Maui, rather than the beaches with waves too big for them to enjoy. Or making sure that they are enjoying the activities of the day, and that we're not just driving from one "must-see" sight to another, whether those sights are fun for kids or not. Or choosing take-out pizza for dinner rather than seafood at a fancy restaurant, just because the kids will enjoy the family-time more when they can move around and talk a little more freely. (And hey, there can be seafood on that pizza!)

Article 13 - You have the right to find out things and share what you think with others, by talking, drawing, writing or in any other way unless it harms or offends other people. 
To me, this is not just about allowing kids to talk, draw and write. It's also about paying attention to what they talk about and what they draw and write. I find that listening to my kids when they talk about our trips, and listening to the ideas and thoughts they express when they draw and color, is a great way to truly connect with them, instead of just being the sergeant barking orders (though sometimes I am that too!).

Talking, drawing and writing are such basic forms of expression that I think we sometimes forget them, or don't value them enough. When I first started flying with my kids, I brought a lot of toys along on flights. However, I soon realized that at least for my kids, this was not really needed. What they mainly did to pass the time and entertain themselves on our trips was drawing and coloring with markers or crayons, watching movies on board, watching planes at the airport, and talking about what was going on. This realization also made our hand luggage a lot lighter.

Article 17 - You have the right to get information that is important to your well-being, from radio, newspaper, books, computers and other sources. Adults should make sure that the information you are getting is not harmful, and help you find and understand the information you need.
Over the years I have found that my kids handle challenges a lot better if they have some information about what is going to happen. As an adult, it's sometimes easy to forget that a lot of the stuff I already know and take for granted, is brand new information to my kids.

For example, the first few times I flew with my son, he was sometimes very, very frightened of being on the airplane: every noise scared him, he panicked when asked to put on his seat belt, and even checking our luggage got him agitated. Then I realized that part of the problem was that he didn't understand what was happening, or know what was going to happen next. What was making that noise in the plane? What would happen to our suitcases: would we ever see them again? Why did he need to wear that seat belt? And so on. This was when I realized how important preparation is to help kids better handle adventures like long plane trips.

So, with my son I read a lot of books about airplanes and airports, and before every trip I would talk with him about what would happen, step by step, and in some detail: we'd go to the airport, check in our luggage (and get it back at our destination!), we would go through security (with possible lineups), we would find our gate, we would board the plane, and so on. I still do this with my kids, and I find it helps reduce anxiety and stress for them and me.

Article 23 - You have the right to special education and care if you have a disability, as well as all the rights in this Convention, so that you can live a full life.
I don't think I fully understood how important this right is before my son was born. My son has some special needs, though not everyone that meets him realizes this right away. He is social, loving, funny, loves to laugh and goof around. He also has issues with speech, problems concentrating (especially in busy situations), and doesn't always react to or interpret the world exactly the way other kids do.

Before he was born, I don't really considered what it meant to have "special needs". I was ignorant, and pretty clueless about the subject. Now I realize that "special needs" really does mean exactly that: special needs. That is, a person who needs more individualized help or a slightly different environment, or a somewhat adjusted approach to learning, living and coping than some other kids. It does not mean that a child should be pitied, or babied, or treated as incapable of learning new things or doing anything for themselves. Kids with special needs have a lot of abilities and talents and potential. They often just need some extra support and understanding from those around them to be able to reach that potential.

My son, who was once such a fearful traveler, is now a seasoned globe-trotter who helps me with the suitcases at check-in, puts his own seat belt on, and handles security lineups with ease. He's taught me a lot about the value of preparation, empathy, patience, and paying attention to details when I travel, and for that I am grateful.

Article 31 - You have the right to play and rest.
Play is not an optional extra for kids: it's their work, and their education. It's how they grow, it's how they learn, and it's how they cope with life. When I travel with my kids, a lot of time is spent doing things that are very regimented, and definitely not play: they have to do things in a certain way, at a certain time, or else we won't get to the gate on time, get on board the plane, or reach our destination.

They handle it well by now, but I always find that it really helps if they are allowed to take play-breaks at some point during our travel time. Running around a deserted gate-area for a bit, goofing around in an airport's play area, singing silly songs while waiting in line: all these bits and pieces of play help them recharge their batteries and relax.

As for rest, I know as well as any parent that a tired child is usually an unhappy child. Finding time for both rest and play when traveling can really help make things go easier on your trip.

Final words on the Declaration on the Rights of the Child

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