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The Father of All Vacations

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By Paul Banas   Print
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This article appears in BayAreaParent in June 2009.



Despite all the press on “stay-cations,” a recent Jiffy Lube survey says that 88% of Americans will still take a vacation this summer. While traveling alone used to be the provenance of the beleaguered mom, more and more often, it may be dad who is alone taking the airplane, train, or Greyhound bus.   Some dads enjoy taking one-on-one adventures with their kids, some visiting the same place year after year as a ritual of growing up. Others just need to get from Point A to Point B to meet Mom coming from her business trip at Point C. On these trips is Dad the  “beleaguered” traveler?  or do his caveman skills and lizard brain give him different coping skills for travel?

I talked to over twenty dads and their opinions were all over the spectrum, with some even doubting any difference styles between the sexes. However, some observations stood out. 

First of all, dads luck out just by being different. Everyone thinks we’re clueless so they give us extra help on plane, sit with our kids, mix formula…all kinds of stuff that they would never do for those expert-looking moms. As Cliff Edelman, a marketing exec who often travels with his 18 month-old daughter, recounts,  “I have had great experiences flying with her, mostly because people think of it as such a novelty that Dad has baby alone…People have let me ahead in security lines and for coffee, flight attendants have gone out of their way to assist as we board and deplane, and I have received so many interesting comments. For many, their first reaction is that because I’m the dad, I really don’t know what I’m doing.”

My experience is similar. I once traveled with a five month old and four year old from San Francisco to New York. Everyone treated me as if I had accomplished the most heroic effort of my life and I certainly didn’t play down my travails when I met my wife at the other end.

Whatever the travel style, the first rule of thumb for planning any family adventure is to figure out what will work for both dad and the kids. Having kids should not hold you back from doing the things you love to do. However, travel experts suggest that family trips, especially if only one parent is available should be limited to vacations that don’t involve a lot of logistical concerns.  The more time you have to focus on each other rather than learning to read a subway map and in a foreign language, the better off you’ll be. Traditional destinations are popular for a reason since a lot of the details are arranged to take the stress out of having a fun time.

For the single dad, travel can be a time to really connect with kids he doesn’t see often enough. Travel specialists, in this case, recommend active holidays that create more lasting memories and stronger bonds in families that don’t get to spend enough time together.

Based on my unscientific research, travel appears to phase dads less than with moms. “I'm less concerned than she is about them getting cold/hot/wet/hungry. I mean: I am of course concerned, but less concerned,” says San Francisco-based Rabbi Alexander Seinfield. And I agree. I often let the kids go out the door without a jacket or let them skip lunch if they aren’t hungry. Especially when we’re traveling, it’s just not worth the fight given the other stress points of travel.  As another dad said, “I’m more willing to go to a restaurant that will make our little boy happy, even though it might not be a restaurant we’ll tell our friends about when we get home.”

Dads often plan more active adventures, and stuff that just plain looks fun. While my wife and I love museums and galleries, I know my kids, and I always scan listings for things that we will enjoy together. I know that they are going to enjoy a museum about magic or space aliens more than an art gallery and plan accordingly. This is why God created “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” museums and put them on every Fisherman’s Wharf-like tourist area in America. In almost all cases, it’s dad who is willing to go on the scariest rides at the amusement park. As Tim Leffel, author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, explains, “Dads are better at becoming kids again themselves while on vacation.”

I often advise friends traveling with kids to make time for doing stuff “we didn’t come all this way to do,” and by that I mean hanging out at a playground, even though you could be seeing yet another attraction. Kids have their own personalities and needs and wants and you ignore these at your own peril. On one memorable trip we took through northern Italy by car, our three year-old announced on Day Two that she didn’t want to get in the car again. Surrounded by Tuscan villas and sun-dappled eateries, we spent the next few days sitting at the pool. 

What areas are challenges for dads?  Many dads mentioned that they either have problems with their patience, or do all they can to “stay patient.” San Francisco dad, Rick Matcovich, advises to “not get too attached to a timetable and be willing to stop more than you want…whatever keeps the peace.” Dads do seem to lose their patience about different things than moms, quite often related to their own notions of time and productivity.

Dads often fall prey to the temptations of the Blackberry.  Steven Addis, a Piedmont dad, advises to turn it off.  “Kids know when you’re distracted, so get the business calls and emails done after bedtime.”

The other most often mentioned concern is how to handle bathroom visits with little girls. Little girls up to age two barely have any awareness of where they are going. By age three, they start to make “observations” and asking questions about what they see. Dads then develop coping strategies. Some men scout out empty restrooms so their daughters won’t see men standing at urinals. Others push their kids in quickly to get into a stall as fast as possible. 

By age four or five, most dads feel uncomfortable taking their daughter into a men’s room in a crowded area. This can be a two-part problem. Dad feels worried about leaving his daughter in busy rest room, and often the young girl feels insecure going in without help. In this case, some experts recommend sending the girl into the women’s room alone, equipped with a “potty whistle” in case she needs attention. Some dads ask a woman going in at the same time to keep an eye on her.  Dads have to use their own judgment on how far to push kids weighing the risks of letting them out of their site for a few minutes. Luckily family restrooms are becoming more common in traffic places like airports and stadiums. The larger problem then becomes how dad can find a restroom while leaving his kids outside.

Many dads I talked to said that traveling with dads requires more planning .  While dads might like to think they are more easy-going at facing what happens during the day, they find that it’s important to know “what comes next.” The plan is meant to change but kids always want to know what is happening and you can’t entirely go with the flow with them. Additionally, with small kids of any age, and not just babies, you need to carry a full arsenal of supplies wherever you go . Ron Sebahar, a San Francisco dad, says he has a ready-prepared backpack filled with water, sunscreen, books, band-aids, granola bars, and other supplies whenever he is out with his daughter. “Inevitably, you find yourself waiting with free time or in need of some medicinal items. So, it never leaves my presence.”  

Dads have risen to the challenge of traveling with kids, handling tough situations with grit, determination, and a full diaper bag.  We have tasted the future and there’s no going back. Some families even split up the vacations, with each parenting taking a child and each parent/child couple doing what they most want to do together. Some dads find that vacation more relaxing. As one dad put it, “traveling with my kids without my wife is easier because I don’t have to fight with her every half an hour about how to do something new.” However, for most, a trip alone with the kids, while a manageable experience, isn’t as fun as having the whole family together to share the good times and the memories.
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