Travelling with children can be an enormously rewarding experience – opening up your kids to new experiences is crucial for personal growth, after all – but of course it’s not without its challenges.
It can be even more challenging for parents with only one kid. All relationships are put to the test when on the road, and the unique dynamic of ‘only child’ families – one in which the child has to constantly define their place in a world of mostly adults – can find itself even more fraught when tensions arise in a hotel room or an airport lounge.
As both a frequent traveller since infancy and an only child, I discovered this the hard way. My globe-trotting parents wanted the three of us to travel as a family, but while they were avid skiers, I found the idea of repeatedly going up and down a mountain in the freezing cold a nightmare. At home, if my parents wanted to go somewhere boring like the opera (cue pre-teen eye roll), at least I could arrange a sleepover at a friend’s house – but when on vacation they’d never let me sit alone in a hotel room all night, so I’d spend a miserable evening bored to death by Bizet.
As an adult I’m now grateful for all my childhood jaunts (well, except for the skiing), so if you’re planning a trip with your own solo child, here are some tried and tested tips.
Foster their independence
Kids who grow up without siblings are generally quite precocious for their age, often because they spend so much time in an adult-oriented home. Take advantage of their relative maturity by letting them learn to make their own choices and deal with new situations, cultures and people while travelling. (You’ll need to decide what’s appropriate given their age and the location, of course.)
Give them some money and let them go into a shop (while you wait outside) to buy their own souvenirs, some sweets or a picnic lunch; or if they’re old enough, let them hit the shopping centre while you wander through the museum next door – or vice versa – and meet out front at a pre-arranged time. Once I was old enough to be entrusted to my own devices, while my parents skied away the hours on our winter trips, I’d spend the afternoon indoors at the resort’s video arcade.
Introduce a new language
Children’s growing brains are naturally good at picking up new languages – much more so than those of adults. If you’re going to a non-Anglophone country, start working on basic language lessons with your kids in the weeks before departure. They’ll be able to look forward to using their new skills ‘in the field’ – and you may even find yourself depending on them for translations. While you’re there, hit up a bookshop for kids’ books and comics so they can hone their skills.
Let them meet other kids
Before you leave, do some research into venues where local kids like to gather, such as nearby playgrounds, amusement parks, day camps, after-school activities or child-friendly festivals that might be on while you’re there. Besides staving off their potential feelings of isolation, letting your child meet and play with kids from other cities or countries is a terrific experience that can help them learn a lot about the destination’s culture directly from their local counterparts.
Split up for the day
Kids’ interests often align with the interests of one parent in particular - my father and I, for example, love seeing wildlife or visiting history or science museums, while my mother would rather hit up an art gallery, have lunch at a trendy restaurant and window shop through upscale boutiques. If you’re off to a destination with lots of different options, schedule in some ‘duo days’, where the child can go with one parent at a time to do something more specific to their tastes – while the other parent then has a free day to follow their own pursuits.
Bring along a friend
If your kid has no siblings, let them choose a stand-in – ask their best friend’s parents if their child can join you on the road. Besides letting you take real advantage of all those ‘two adult, two children’ family-discount passes, having a friend along will take the pressure off you and your spouse to continually engage with your child – who also gets to have some quality time with a peer.
One of the best family trips I ever had was a jaunt down to an all-inclusive Caribbean resort – not because I love the beach (I don’t), but because I was allowed to invite my best friend. Not only did I have a lot more fun with her giggling over cute lifeguards than tagging along with my folks, but both sets of parents got to spend some time together themselves as well.
Give them their space
Only children grow up learning how to keep themselves occupied – it’s just part of the territory – and as a result many come to need regular alone time. Don’t forget to pack things that your kid can use to get away from the grown-ups for a bit: books or an e-reader, or perhaps a tablet loaded with music and movies. Get them an inexpensive digital camera and buy them a blank travel journal, then encourage them to take photos and draw and write in their journal so they can record their own experiences on the trip – it’s a wonderful souvenir for later years, too.