As a parent, and as a teacher, I look at all the information on rising case rates with the delta variant, and I worry – is going back to in-person school a reasonable choice at this time? I think the answer depends on a large number of factors. I’m going to walk you through questions to consider, using three examples: my current home of Kirkland Washington (in King County), and my home town of Cheyenne Wyoming (in Laramie County) and Dallas Texas. All numbers current from the week 8/16-20/21.
Reducing Community Spread: the more people in the community that have some immunity through vaccination and/or previous infection, the better, because that means fewer people in the community who will catch and transmit the virus.
Risk Reduction: what is being done in the community / school to reduce children’s chance of catching coronavirus?
It’s worth noting at the top that the American Academy of Pediatrics has urged a return to in-person schooling, saying “the benefits of in-person school outweigh the risks in almost all circumstances.”
What are the current infection rates?
So, first, let’s look at: how common is coronavirus in the community – this shows how likely it is that you could be exposed. In King County, over the past 7 days, there were 180 cases per 100,000 or ~1.8 per 1000 in 7 days. In Laramie County, they report 508 cases in the last 14 days in a county of ~90,000 people, so the equivalent of ~2.8 per 1000 people in 7 days. In Dallas, they’re currently reporting 1000+ cases a day, the equivalent of 2.7 per 1000.
How contagious is coronavirus?
The original COVID-19 strain had an R0 of around 2 – if there wasn’t any immunity in the people an infected person came in contact with, each sick person could get two other people sick (who then infect four people and so on).
The Delta variant is much more contagious. If there’s no immunity, one sick person can infect 5 or more other people, who then infect 25 or more people and so on.
With Delta, if there was no immunity and no attempts at prevention, the spread would be very rapid. Thankfully, we can gain some immunity through vaccination or some immunity through previous infection with COVID, and we can reduce risks with practices like masking, distancing, and ventilation.
What percent are vaccinated?
The best protection against COVID is the vaccine. In King County, WA, 71% of the total population has received at least one dose. (On the Eastside of Seattle, WA, vaccination rates are high: amongst people over 12 years old, 91.7% have received at least one shot. And amongst our elders – the most vulnerable to COVID – over 95% are fully vaccinated.) In Cheyenne, 35.4% of the total population is fully vaccinated. In Dallas, 54% one dose, 38% fully.
Vaccines do not completely prevent infection. But they significantly reduce the risk.
If someone does get a breakthrough infection, the illness will be much milder, and they’re much less likely to be hospitalized or die. (In the U.S., there have been ~8000 fully vaccinated people who have been hospitalized or died, but that is a small number amongst the 166 million people who have been fully vaccinated. With Delta, the numbers are increasing, but still the chance of severe illness or death is lower amongst the vaccinated.)
What percent have a previous COVID infection?
If someone has already had COVID, they may have immunity against it. (One study found that 92% had immunity 6 months after infection.) It’s recommended that those who have had it also add the layer of vaccination. Amongst people with previous infection, those with no vaccination were 2.5 times more likely to get re-infected than those who had also been vaccinated.
In King County, there have been ~127,000 confirmed cases. That’s about 4% of the population. In Laramie County, there have been 9832 confirmed cases. That’s about 10% of the population. In Dallas County, 287,000 or 11% of population.
Look at what is being done in your community and in the child’s school to reduce the risk of transmission. Think about layers of protection – covering coughs, masks, hand-washing, increased ventilation / outdoor activities, and social distancing. (Here are recommendations from the AAP – American Academy of Pediatrics.)
In the parent-child classes that I teach and at my son’s school, we are: requiring vaccines for all adults in the classroom, requiring masks indoors for everyone over the age of 5 and recommending for age 2 – 5, creating routines for frequent handwashing, increasing ventilation and the amount of time spent outdoors, splitting kids into cohorts or setting up rotation between activities to increase social distance. We also live in a community where a large percentage of people are masking everywhere they go, so I know our children have less community exposure in many places. I am feeling fairly confident about our protocols.
I would feel much less confident in Cheyenne. Their school district website does not mention COVID vaccines or describe any protocols other than saying they will decide on August 20 whether or not they’ll be requiring masking. I’ll also say that as we’ve been around Cheyenne this week, few people are wearing masks. And in Texas, there are battles between school districts, courts, and the governor about whether schools will be allowed to require masks and a lot of political and popular rhetoric about masks as an imposition on personal freedom.
What if a child gets COVID?
So, I can look at how likely it is my child might catch COVID and what all steps are being taken to reduce the risk, but I also have to ask what the impact would be if these steps did not prevent infection.
For most children, COVID is a mild infection with cough, fever, and body aches, or no symptoms at all. (More about symptoms.)
For some children, it can be severe, leading to severe illness (including MIS-C), hospitalization or death. Children who are obese, have diabetes or have chronic lung disease are at higher risk. Black and Latino children are also at higher risk.
Let’s take a moment to compare COVID risk to risks that we considered normal in past years. Let’s look at flu which has an R0 of 0.9 – 2. In 2019, when we weren’t doing much to prevent flu beyond typical school hygiene, there were an estimated 12 million cases of the flu in our 75 million children age 0 – 17. So, 16% of children had the flu. There 254 deaths, so a 5 in 100,000 chance of death after contracting flu.
Between February 2020 and May 2021 (source), when many schools across the country were shut down and we were taking many steps to prevent COVID transmission but there were no vaccines, there were an estimated 26 million COVID infections in children age 0 to 17. (There have been 3.7 millionconfirmed cases, but the CDC estimates that we’re missing lots of cases of kids who are asymptomatic or barely sick so don’t get tested.) There were 332 deaths. That’s a 1 in 100,000 chance of death after contracting COVID. The majority of those deaths were in children with other health conditions.
In academic year 20-21, when adults were at higher risk and couldn’t be vaccinated, many schools chose to stay closed. This year, when any adult who chooses to be vaccinated can be, it was looking like an easy decision to have schools be open. There was the risk that more children would catch COVID than caught it last year, and likely more than catch the flu in a typical year, but it also appeared that COVID was milder for many children than flu. If we were talking the original strain, then personally, as a teacher and as a parent, I would feel quite confident with school resuming in my community with our vaccination rates, masking habits and the protocols in place. (I would not feel nearly as confident in Cheyenne or Dallas.)
However, Delta variant complicates things. It is far more contagious than the original. It also appears that Delta may be riskier for kids than the original strain, leading to more cases of severe illness. So, there’s a lot of uncertainty right now. So, then I have to balance the coronavirus risk with all the other factors.
Benefits of In-Person Schooling
The American Academy of Pediatrics says: “Schools provide more than just academics to children and adolescents. In addition to reading, writing and math, students learn social and emotional skills, get exercise, and have access to mental health and other support services. For many families, schools are where kids get healthy meals, access to the internet, and other vital services… Families, schools, and communities can work together to help ensure students can safely return to and remain physically together in school this fall.”
The final factor for each parent to consider is what are the benefits of in-person schooling and whether they outweigh the possible COVID risks. What are your learning goals for your child. What does your child most need at this time to move forward in their learning and development?
Last year, my kid was quite successful at online schooling. As a child with ADHD and autism, he actually did better in many ways at home than he does in the classroom with his peers. Emotionally, he was more stable, and academically, he was solidly on track. But, I feel like he needs to get back in the classroom with peers. I have confidence about my child’s academic skills in any setting, but he needs to figure out social interaction, impulse control and emotional regulation in interaction with others. And he needs to do that this year – his last year in elementary school before hitting middle school.
Last year, I taught children ages 2 – 7 online. And they did far better than I could have imagined in engaging with the activities, learning the concepts, and even in connecting with the teachers and the other children. But I also feel like it’s time to get them back in the classroom with other children. In a typical year, my programs are play-based. The majority of class-time has children choosing their activities and having lots of one-on-one interactions with other kids and the teachers. We only spend a third of class time in a structured teacher-led format. We do some great stuff in that structured time, but it’s the play-based portions of the class where the most learning takes place. Our online classes were all structured teacher-led learning. (We, of course, encouraged parents to do lots of hands-on projects at home with their children. But that’s different than the free choice, child-led way we do it at class.)
I believe children are remarkably resilient. I believe adults are incredibly adaptable when pushed to be. I’m so proud of everything we did last year, and I think our kids are all pretty much on track despite all the learning disruption. And yet, I think the time has come to return to in-person learning. Yes, the COVID risks scare me. But for me personally – again, in my community with the vaccination rates, masking and protocols, I feel that returning to the class is the right answer.
Your choice for your family in your community with your local protocols may be different. I think, as always, every parent needs to decide what’s best for their child, taking into account the best information available.
Playdates have always been a powerful way to help children build social skills. In 2021, as we’re coming out of COVID, playdates are especially useful for helping your child make up for lost time on social development. Getting together with other families for small group playdates can allow you to manage COVID risks better, and those one-on-one or small group playdates are the single best environment for your child to learn social skills! Learn how parents can help to plan and have successful playdates.
The Benefits of Playdates
Many parents focus on the importance of academic skills for children, but relationship skills and emotional literacy are perhaps even more important for your child’s long-term happiness. Your child will learn some social skills at preschool or school, and in extracurricular classes they attend. But even if those teachers are trying to prioritize social-emotional learning, they also have to stay somewhat on task for teaching the alphabet and numbers, or how to do a somersault, or how to play an instrument, or whatever other learning goals you have for your child in that program. The social interaction in a structured class just can’t replace the essential social skill building that happens in one-on-one or small-group free play with peers.
So, when planning your child’s activities, make sure to leave plenty of room for free, unstructured play with other children. Opportunities include: play-based preschool, lots of time on playgrounds in the park, nanny shares or small home-based daycares, time with cousins or neighbor kids, and playdates. When children are allowed to just play together, without too much intervention from parents, they learn:
Bids for Connection: How to invite another child to play, asking to join someone’s play, how to notice that someone else is inviting them and how to join in. (This is primarily non-verbal bids for younger children, like when they hand a toy to another child, or take a toy from another child.)
Sharing and taking turns, advocating for themselves, making space for other’s needs.
Collaboration: coming to an agreement on what game to play, and what the rules are.
Teamwork – working together on a common goal, and re-negotiating what the goal is when conflict arises.
Empathy and social cues: how can you tell if they other child is having fun, or when they’re not having fun, how you can be sensitive to that and adjust your play.
Emotional regulation: how to stay calm when things don’t go as you wished.
At a playdate, children can work on all these skills, as they engage in whatever activity captures their attention – playing with toys, building with blocks, pretend play, playing in the playground, or digging in the sandbox.
How to Set Up a Playdate
First, find the family. You may meet possible playdate partners at preschool or school, in a class, at the park, in your neighborhood, or you may find them on social media. For younger children, like under 3, they’ll play with almost anyone and parents typically stay for the playdate, so I look for parents that I feel like I’d like to spend an hour with. That usually works out, but if the children are radically different temperaments – a super rambunctious child and a calm and meek child – it may end up not being a good long-term match.
For older children, definitely 5 and up, you need to pick kids that your kid likes – someone with a similar temperament and similar interests. Keep your eye out for who your child is connecting with, volunteer in their classroom to observe for this, or ask their teacher.
Test the waters: start a conversation with the parent to feel out whether this seems possible, and if so, issue the invitation. I live in the Seattle area, where we have a cultural phenomenon known as “the Seattle Freeze” where many people find that it’s hard to develop connections and that they get rejections and they give up. I would encourage you not to take any rejections personally – they might just be really busy, or might be shy, or new to navigating parenting just like you are. Try to feel out – are the interested in the idea in general and they were just turning down the exact details you proposed, or are they really just not interested? If they’re not interested, just move on to another family.
Other parents may reach out to you – sometimes it’s obvious, like they say “want to do a playdate?” but often they may be just testing the water and make slow approaches – tune into those… if someone regularly chats with you at preschool drop-off time, maybe they’re working up toward an invitation. It’s helpful to learn about Gottman’s idea of “bids for connection” – if someone invites you to do something, and you just say “sorry, I’m busy on Wednesdays”, that can feel like a turn against. Instead, first turn toward, and then work out logistics. “I’d love to get the kids together! Wednesdays don’t work for me – what else could we make work?”
Planning a Playdate – Tips for Success
Lots of people advise that it works better for children to do one-on-one playdates first. So, if that works for you, great! If it feels easier for you socially to have a few families get together, that’s OK too – it’s just more people’s schedules to negotiate.
Keep playdates short! For toddlers, start with 45 minutes to an hour. For preschool, an hour is plenty. Frequent short playdates with pleasant endings are better for building friendships than infrequent, long, and cranky ones. Schedule for a time of day when both children are at their best, not when one is heading toward naptime grumpiness.
Choose a location mindfully. Many parents may feel more comfortable if your first get-togethers are in a public place rather than at one of your homes. But… also take your child’s temperament into account. Shy or anxious children may do best on their own familiar turf. If you choose a public place, be sure to choose somewhere that the children can play freely, since that’s the whole point! Choosing to meet at a coffee shop or restaurant can make it hard for the children to connect. Choose a place where there won’t be tons of other kids there – that can make it hard for your child to actually connect with the child you planned the playdate with.
Discuss expectations in advance with the other parent. First, be clear on whether the parent will drop off or stay – my assumption is that for children under 4, the parent stays and for children over 6, it’s usually drop-off, but there’s a gray area in between and other parents might have other assumptions. So, be clear! Talk about illness rules – if anyone has signs of illness you’ll re-schedule the playdate. (During COVID times, also be sure you have similar expectations about vaccination status, masking and indoors / outdoors.) Figure out what the ground rules are and how you’d like to handle discipline issues that arise. With casual acquaintances, I’ve tended to say “if the kids are having a conflict, we’ll step in and I’ll handle my child and you’ll handle yours.” So, if the discipline issues can be handled with simple positive discipline techniques like distraction or substitution, I’ll do that, but if more is needed, I leave that to the other parent.
But I’ve also had other families where we’ve agreed that we’re on “sibling and cousin rules” together – which means we’re accepting the fact that our kids might squabble and we’ll try to let them work it out on their own so they get that practice with problem-solving and conflict resolution. But that if it hits the point where an adult intervenes, we trust any of the adults to step in and handle it.
Activities for Playdates
Plan playdate activities that are engaging, are collaborative (like building a fort or playing with blocks), not competitive. If there are especially cool toys, try to have two of them so the children don’t have to fight over them. It can help to have toys with many pieces (Lego) rather than single items (trikes). If your child has a hard time sharing their possessions, you could put away their most treasured toys on the day of the playdate to minimize conflict, or you may be better off having the playdate elsewhere on neutral territory.
Have an activity idea so that if the children aren’t doing well, you have a new distraction to try: “hey – who wants to blow bubbles!” or “shall we make cookies?”
Snacks? Snacks can be a great option for shifting the mood – if kids are squabbling over a toy, sitting down for a snack together can help. But make sure you talked with the other parent in advance about what the snack plan was, and what kind of snacks work for their kid and what doesn’t (e.g. no sugar, or avoid allergens.)
Plan an ending. It’s good to think about how you’ll signal that playtime is coming to an end. Maybe that’s with a snack, or a story, or maybe just a heads up that “we’ve only got five more minutes together – what do you want to be sure to do before we’re done?
For the first few playdates, expect to be very hands-on, helping the children learn how to play with each other. As they become more independent, you can fade back. If your child is autistic or has issues with sensory processing, you may need to remain close by for longer. (I still have to keep an eye on 10 year old who is autistic, and can escalate quickly.)
What if it’s not going well?
If they start to have a conflict, don’t feel like you have to intervene the moment it begins. Small disagreements often work themselves out, and children learn through the process. So, try sitting back and seeing what happens. Sometimes, things will start to go south, and they may need help negotiating a compromise. Rather than telling them they have to share, it may be more helpful to say let’s take turns – you can have it for one more minute, then it’s their turn.
If the children are heading toward hitting or biting, step in immediately. State firmly what it not OK, and tell them what to do instead.
It may help you to think in a flow chart mode, like this discipline flow chart. You’ve tried to prevent problems with good planning. If something starts, but it’s not a big deal – pick your battle and sit this one out, or tell them what TO DO. If it starts escalating, I do an “if/then” – “if you keep fighting over the toy, then I’ll have to put it away for today. So, let’s say that A gets it for two minutes then it will be B’s turn. B, what would you like to do while A takes their turn?” Praise good interaction as soon as you see it.
When it comes to playdates with small children, it helps to go in with low expectations, and celebrate success however big or small it is. If the first playdate fails – at least you tried! And it doesn’t mean every playdate with that child will fail – we all just have rough days sometimes. So, just think “well, they’re learning new skills and they got to practice today some things that don’t work well. That’s a learning opportunity.” And you know what skills you can work on at home to help give them a better chance of success next time.
Traveling with young children can be challenging! But there are many things you can do to help it go more smoothly. Here’s the TL; DR, with links to more details below.
Cultivate Flexibility: Even when not on vacation, use flexible routines to help your child learn to adapt to change.
Plan Carefully: Think about your child’s basic needs for sleep, meals, down time. Can you schedule travel times to be compatible? Can you choose lodging that’s a good fit? Is there another adult who could travel with you – that’s more fun, plus an extra set of hands.
Prepare Your Child: If they know what to expect and what’s expected of them, it will be much easier for them to behave well.
Packing for the Trip: Pack light so you’re not juggling lots of heavy suitcases and cranky children. Strategize ahead of time how you’ll carry everything.
Pack a Carry-On Bag of items you’ll need easy access to. Include: snacks, a water bottle, extra clothes.
Activities to Keep Kids Busy while traveling include: reading materials, activity books, art supplies or drawing tools, painter’s tape, assorted small toys, a tablet/phone with headphones, and a parent with ideas for fun games to play while sitting still.
On your travel day, dress in comfortable clothes, allow lots of extra time, and try to model calm, patience and flexibility.
However, you want to be sure to build flexibility into the routines, and be careful not to be too rigid. For example, if your child will only go to sleep in their bed, with their fluffy comforter, and these twelve stuffed animals surrounding them, that will make bedtime on vacation very challenging! I try to create portable rituals. For example, my son likes listening to music at bedtime – we use a Pandora playlist that is available on all our devices and even offline so we can have it anywhere (as long as a device has battery life left.) Although my daughter loved being surrounded by stuffed animals, we practiced having her choose just one on some nights so that on trips that would be a familiar situation.
Also, practice skills at home that your child may someday need on a trip. Take rides on your local bus. Go to the mall to learn to ride an escalator. Eat at restaurants. Use porta-potties. Go places where they have to wait in line with you for something. Try a small local water slide before a trip to a huge water park. Before going camping, first try using the sleeping bag in the house. Then try camping in a tent in the backyard. Don’t try all these sorts of things for the first time while you’re on a big holiday trip you invested a lot of money into!
During coronavirus, your child may not have had many outings in the world, so they may need extra practice at things like staying at the table in a restaurant, or sitting in a car seat for a long time.
Planning the Trip
In my personal experience – your mileage may vary – vacations with young children have to be primarily planned around the children’s needs first, and it is easiest for me to think about it as “I’m taking my child on a vacation and will adapt as needed to make sure they enjoy it” rather than getting caught in a trap of “this is MY vacation, and I need it to be exactly what I want it to be.” Around when my kids reach age 6 or 7, that shifts, and their vacation is also totally my vacation and equally enjoyable for us both.
So, think about your child’s napping needs. Think about how much stimulation they can take in before they melt down. Think about their food and mealtime needs. Their attention spans. What time of day they are most flexible and willing to do anything. Do they do well in the car seat for long trips? If you first attend to making sure your child’s bodily needs are met, then it’s easier to plan in fun activities and have them be successful.
For example, if booking a flight, will you be more successful if you travel mid-day than if you have an early flight you have to drag your child out of bed, or if you have a late evening flight that is past their bedtime? (On the other hand, for road trips, we often plan our driving for early morning, nap time or after bedtime so our child will sleep in the car…)
When choosing lodging, having a kitchenette may give you more flexibility for meals; having a washer/dryer can be helpful; having a hotel “suite” with a living room may make evenings more manageable as you can put little ones down to sleep in one room while adults relax in another room. Also, consider airbnb or VRBO instead of hotel rooms. It’s not always a good match, but I personally like sharing walls with as few people as possible when I’m traveling with a baby who might cry in the middle of the night. (I also preferred it when traveling at the peak of coronavirus as there’s fewer people sharing the same spaces than at a hotel.) And they may have an outdoor area where your child can play.
Many parents choose to travel to the same place over and over in those early years so they know how everything works there and they don’t have to keep figuring new things out for every summer – plus, you can have fun traditions like taking pictures of your child in the same place and see how much they’ve grown. You can save the more adventurous travel for when they’re older (or when you get an opportunity to travel on your own without kids!) When I was growing up, in a family with 4 kids spanning 10 years, we traveled in a motorhome, so that we could have lots of familiarity surrounding us as we ventured to new places.
You can choose cheap vacation destinations for young kids. Pick any small town with a cheap hotel, a playground, a lake or stream to wade in and throw rocks in, trees to climb, places to go for long walks, and a library to drop into for some story-time. Your child will be perfectly content. I also find this makes decision making easy… when there’s only a few restaurants in town, you don’t have to debate where to go… you just say “I guess on Tuesday night we’ll have Mexican and Wednesday night we’ll go to the soda fountain.”
You can save the exciting destinations for when they’re older and will appreciate them. We went to the world famous San Diego Zoo when my oldest was two. He spent the day being fascinated by the manhole covers in the sidewalk. Luckily, my husband and I thought the zoo was great!
Consider traveling with family members or adult friends. When my older kids were in elementary school and middle school, they weren’t that excited about visiting Grandma and Grandpa in Wyoming, but were very excited to MEET Grandma and Grandpa in San Diego or at the Grand Canyon or whatever. It was a fun vacation for everyone. When my youngest was little, my sister-in-law was our ” vacation nanny.” We’d meet at our destination, and that meant there was one more grown-up to help with the baby, but also meant that we could leave one grown-up with the napping child while the other two went to a tequila tasting.
If you’re planning to visit attractions, purchase your tickets in advance online if possible. It can be cheaper, and also means you won’t be disappointed by something being sold out when you get there.
Prepare Your Child
Tell your child what to expect and what’s expected of them. Sometimes I see parents scolding their children saying “would you just behave??” And I wonder – does your child know what that means? Seriously – if your young child is in a new environment, how can you expect them to intuit what the rules are there?
So, talk to them about what the plans are for the trip. Pay particular attention to explaining things they might be experiencing for the first time (or in a new way… if they were there as a toddler one year ago, then it will be a whole different experience as a preschooler!) Think ahead where the trickiest parts of the trip will likely be, when you’re trying to attend to adult issues on adult timelines and may not have your full attention available to explain things to them… think about getting through airport security or about setting up a tent or transferring from one train to another. Walk through those tricky parts in detail.
Lots of “travel with toddlers” tips start with a big list of all the things to pack and talk about how important it is to have everything you’re used to having with you when you’re traveling.
That is NOT my approach. I believe in traveling light because some of my most miserable moments of travel have been about trying to schlep too much luggage, abandoning valuable items while chasing children, and struggling through a bus door with suitcases hanging off both shoulders.
Before you start thinking about what to bring, first ask yourself: Realistically, how much can you carry while tending to children? I saw one suggestion which was “don’t pack more bags than you have hands”, but even that can be problematic if your hands are likely to be carrying a child who is tired and cranky.
I find roller bags can be tricky to pull when you’ve got a toddler by the hand, so backpacks can be easier since they leave your hands free. Some parents recommend having 3 – 6 year olds start being responsible for their own bags, and that’s great… but make sure you’ve also planned for how you can add their bag to your load when that backfires. Some parents love traveling with a stroller (often loading it with the luggage while they hold their child). Others find it’s just one more thing to schlep. (A mom I know who travels solo with kids highly recommends a low cost travel stroller.) Some parents use a toddler harness with a leash to make sure their child doesn’t escape them at an inopportune moment. If I’m flying in the winter, I either leave extra space in suitcases so I can shove our coats in before we check the bags, or if we’re doing carry-ons, I bring a plastic or cloth bag I can shove all the coat in to keep them together in the overhead. In the summer or on spring break escapes, I always have plastic bags for wet swimsuits that didn’t dry before it was time to pack.
Regarding car seats and airplanes: my preference if I’m traveling with a child under one is to check the carseat and wear the baby. For one to four year olds, it’s nice to have the carseat on the plane because that can keep them contained for more of the flight rather than wanting to run up and down the aisles. If you have not purchased a seat for a toddler, and it turns out that there is not an extra available, you can gate check the carseat.
It is a pain to carry carseats through airports. Make a plan for how to carry it easily – can you put it in a bag to carry it? Strap it to a suitcase? Here’s info from the FAA about how to use a car seat or a CARES harness on a plane. https://www.faa.gov/travelers/fly_children/
For bigger equipment, like carseats, strollers, and cribs / pack-n-plays, you may be able to borrow one or rent one at your destination. It’s not likely to be the newest or nicest one, but should be serviceable. I’ve known some grandparents to purchase needed items at a consignment store, and then when the children go home, sell it back to the same store.
Food: My oldest child was a flexible eater, who was happy to eat almost anything anywhere. My youngest is super picky. So, on all trips, I have a stash of snacks in the suitcase that I know for sure that he will eat. Otherwise, we don’t pack a lot of food for trips because I don’t want to schlep it and I don’t want to spend my vacation time cooking and cleaning. So, we often just hit a store when we get there and get simple things like cereal, cheese, crackers, fruit, veggies and dip. And we eat one meal out a day for nutritional variety and as one of the “events” of the day.
When I’m packing, my approach is to pack the minimum I think I’ll need. After that, I ask myself – “if I don’t have that, what will that mean?” For example, I now always bring a few Tylenol and a few allergy meds on every trip because of multiple holidays where we had to abandon plans to search out meds and then pay ridiculous prices for a large bottle when we only needed one. And Tylenol is small, so that’s an easy decision to make! For other things I’ve thought: “if it turns out I need another sweatshirt, I can always buy one in a gift shop.” When packing, I have that willingness to buy items if I end up needing them, and it actually has turned out that I’ve almost never really needed anything beyond that minimum that I had packed.
I involve the children in choosing a few comfort items to bring along (like a small stuffed animal), but I also make sure they know that we won’t have as many toys there as we do at home, and that’s OK, because we’re sure to find new and interesting things to do there. (This lack of distractions from home can actually help you be more present and more open to discovery on your trip.)
Packing the Carry On
Whether we’re traveling by plane, train, or automobile, we always have a “carry-on” bag packed with the items that need to be easy to access. I’ll sometimes even pack one for going to a restaurant or to grandma’s house where my child may be expected to stay in one place and quietly play.
I don’t like a bag with a lot of pockets where I need to put things away “just right” for them to fit. I like a tote bag or messenger bag I can shove things into quickly. I use a lot of ziplock bags to organize things in the bag – the extra clothes are in one baggy, the electronics in a baggy, the snacks in a baggy… then it’s easy for me to reach down, and pull out the bag for what I need without rummaging through everything. Also, when I had multiple small children I had separate toy bags for each.
Here are some suggestions to get you thinking about what your child needs in their carry-on:
pacifiers or teething toys – have extra in case one gets lost or dirty
wipes and diapers – have more diapers than you expect to need
have some napkins or wet wipes handy for clean-ups
extra clothes for the child, and maybe for the parent (I have a friend who swears that every time she went on a plane from her children’s birth to age 10, they ended up spilling a drink on her.)
smartphone or tablet loaded with interesting content (make sure it’s fully charged!!) plus headphones your child is willing to wear
snacks – think about things that don’t make a lot of crumbs (like muffins!) or are hard to re-seal and will get goo everywhere (like yogurt tubes). I personally prefer large items they take bites of (chewy granola bars or protein bars, string cheese, fruit strips, applesauce packets) to lots of little bits that get dropped (goldfish crackers, pretzels). But other parents swear by the trick of getting a pill organizer or “snackle box” and filling each section with tiny snacks like Cheerios, raisins, nuts, M&M’s to keep the child occupied for a long time with opening sections and eating little bits.
a sippy cup for water (if you’re traveling by plane, fill it after security)
for plane rides: the pressure changes during takeoff and landing can be really hard on a baby or child’s ears, causing a lot of discomfort and leading them to cry a lot. For a baby, plan to nurse or give a bottle during these times. For an older child, have them chew gum, suck on a lollipop, or use a sippy cup with a straw to relieve the pressure on their ears
toys / activities to keep them entertained (see below)
a plastic bag – for trash, for wet clothes, for an “I don’t have time to re-pack these things properly so I’ll just shove them in here for now bag)
Whatever you as a grown-up need to survive the trip. For me, honestly, when traveling with small children all I bring on a plane is a bottle of water and something to read – with no real expectation of getting much reading done while keeping the child happy
Keeping Them Entertained
Whether you’re on a road trip, on a bus, train, or plane, or in a restaurant with hangry folks who are all up past their normal bedtime, there will be times on a trip where you just need your child to sit still, and play quietly.
Some entertainment options that work well:
Screens. Tablet or phone with books, movies, or apps loaded and ready to go. Yep… no matter your usual attitude toward screen time, this may be a great time for it. Normally I advocate for passive toys to encourage kids to be active, but here, we actually want a passive child so occupying their attention with the screen can be helpful.
Reading materials: I like magazines so we can recycle them when my child finishes them and we don’t have to carry everything with us for the whole trip.
Puzzle books / activity books: I would take a trip to a bookstore or Lakeshore Learning before a trip and get workbooks.
Art supplies / drawing toys: You could pack a small pad of paper and a bundle of colored pencils or markers. These are great for art, but also for all sorts of paper-pencil games like Hangman, Dots, Tic Tac Toe, etc. I also like small white boards and magna-doodle toys – where the drawing stylus is attached by a string and can’t be dropped, and paint with water books, and Wikki Stix.
For toddlers and preschoolers: masking tape / painters tape or post-it notes are so fun to stick down, pull up again, stick down again, and so on. You can make roads to drive their cars around, or draw pictures to stick around them. For older children, I like the removeable, reusable sticker books. (Don’t use regular stickers or you’ll be scraping them off everywhere the child could reach!)
For road trips: I love audiobooks and podcasts – it’s a great way to have a shared experience with kids – especially tweens and teens – it gives you something to talk about at the next meal as you reflect on what you heard in the story. I also like singalongs – put on the Beatles and singalong, or sing every camp song you know. (I have great memories from childhood of traveling in the RV, belting out camp songs!)
Assorted small toys – you know how random inexpensive toys enter your life from time to time? I’m talking birthday party favors, Happy Meal toys, good behavior rewards from the dentist, and so on. Things that aren’t great toys, but do provide short-term entertainment? Toy cars, plastic animals, and so on… Pull those out for trips. Some parents wrap them up like gifts or as rewards for good behavior, because opening them also keeps the child occupied a little longer, but I don’t like dealing with the mess of the wrapping paper. (Note: save a few toys for the trip home.)
don’t bring anything that is irreplaceable. (Remember how at the start of this article I talked about teaching your child flexibility? If they are utterly reliant on a single comfort item that is irreplaceable and that gets lost or damaged, that can be devastating. Encouraging your child to rotate between multiple comfort items – if possible – gives you more flexibility. And you can leave the irreplaceable one-of-a-kind item at home, and bring the generic, easily replaced item along.)
don’t bring expensive or valued items you feel you must bring home with you (I like the freedom of feeling like if I want to, I can leave anything behind and it will be OK – I rarely do, but I like that I could)
don’t bring things that are really messy (paint! play-dough, stickers with backings you remove) or really loud (instruments, electronic toys)
avoid items with lots of little pieces where if you drop / lose some pieces it will create great frustration (puzzles, Lego sets where they want to follow the instructions precisely, games with irreplaceable pieces)
If you can check in online, print baggage tags online, get your maps ahead of time, or any other preparation, do so! The less you have to juggle on the road while juggling kids, the better. Dress everyone in comfy clothes, with layers to adjust for too much heat or too much air conditioning, and shoes that are easy to get on and off.
Allow LOTS of extra time. More than you think you’ll need! If you get somewhere early, you can always walk around to burn off some kid energy, or play I spy, or whatever, and you won’t be nearly as stressed when inevitable long lines or delays crop up.
The calmer you stay, the calmer your kid will be. If you’re extremely anxious about your baby crying on the plane, they’ll pick up on that anxiety, and be more likely to cry on the plane!
Teach your kid about “Opportuni-pee.” That means when we have a convenient opportunity to make a bathroom stop, we use it, even if we don’t HAVE to pee right then. Not just before you get on a plane or get on the road, but even at the fair or amusement park – when anyone needs to use the restroom, we all take our turn so it will be longer till we all have to stop again.
Be flexible, be nice to people, have fun… model for your child all the best traveler behavior you can think of! My partner calls this Vacation Mode – if you’re actively relaxed and having a good time, it helps those around you do the same.
At Your Destination
In the packing section, I mentioned we don’t bring a lot of toys, other than a comfort item and the distractions in the carry-on. When parents have a lot of attention to give to kids, it’s easy to improvise play activities. When you’re in a new environment, there’s lots of new things to discover and explore.
Some of my favorite vacation memories: fireflies in a midwest campground after dark, collecting a rainbow of colorful rocks in Australia, stacking plastic cups from the airplane with my toddler son, building driftwood cabins on a beach, making “sock bunnies” when we forgot to bring my daughter’s stuffed animal, stacking flat rocks into tall towers, facepaint from a gift shop, cutting out models of the planets from a cheez-it box when my two year old child was obsessed with the solar system, playing whatever board games we find at vacation homes – including the 80’s classic Mall Madness, and making improvised nature art with my toddler when my teen was sleeping in late.
For summer 2021, you may have questions about the safety of traveling with unvaccinated children. I gathered resources and questions to consider in this post.
Affiliate links: Note that some of the links in this post will take you to product descriptions on Amazon. If you order anything on Amazon after clicking on these links, I do receive a small referral bonus, at no cost to you.
There is no one right way to parent. We all make compromises each day that juggle the concrete short-term needs of the day with long-term goals for our child, balanced with our child’s temperament and our own. Having a vocabulary for talking about our parenting style can help us make more intentional choices that can guide us, over time, to becoming the type of parent that we want to be.
Let’s start with a quiz. For each spectrum, there will be two statements representing two different parenting approaches. If the one on the left describes you perfectly, make a mark on the left end of the spectrum (yellow). If the one on the right is exactly what you would say, make a mark on the right end. If you’re somewhere in between, mark somewhere in between, wherever feels right.
What is your approach to parenting a 6 month old baby?
Parent-Led. Parents create structure by scheduling feedings and naps. They may leave a baby to “cry it out” so the baby learns to self-soothe.
Attachment-Style. Parents watch for baby’s cues to decide when to feed or to settle to sleep. Parents always respond to crying.
What is your approach to early learning? (for a 2 – 5 year old)
Structured learning. Parents buy educational toys, sign a child up for classes, and when they play, the parent works to find ways to teach new ideas.
Child-Led. They have a variety of toys, go out on adventures to see what child discovers / decides to do. When they play, parent follows child’s lead
What is your approach to supervising at the playground? (for a 5 – 8 year old)
Close Supervision. Parents help children on the swings, remind them about rules, encourage them to try all the activities and play nicely with others.
Free Range. Parents sit back and let child explore – it’s OK to climb up the slide. If kids squabble, parents allow them to sort it out on their own.
What is your approach to school and extracurriculars (for a middle schooler)
The Director. To get good at anything you have to work hard. Kids don’t want to work hard, so parents have to push, make choices for them.
Unschooled. Parents trust their child’s choices about what to do, when to eat and sleep. Children learn what they’re passionate about.
What do your answers say about your parenting style?
Parenting styles are often talked about as three categories. If you tended to make marks in the yellow zones, you may be an authoritarian style parent. If you tended to mark blue, you may be permissive. If you were always in between, that’s called authoritative (or balanced).
Parenting Style and Choice
One way to think about parenting style is how you handle choices. A permissive parent offers a wide range of options and lets the child make the choices. An authoritative parent offers fewer options and tries to educate and persuade the child about how to make the best choice. An authoritarian parent offers few choices, generally dictating what will be done.
The permissive parent may value independence and imagination, and believe that if they allow the child to follow their passions, they can trust them to do their best. The authoritative parent may value hard work and smart decision-making that balances short term desires with long-term goals. The authoritarian parent may value obedience, and believe that learning to follow the rules and doing their best at their assigned tasks is the path to success.
Balancing Expectations and Choices
Parents are generally attempting to prioritize their child’s long-term well-being and success, and feel that they have wisdom and perspective that helps them to know what’s best for the child. Children generally prioritize their own happiness in the moment, and don’t worry much about the long-term. So, part of parenting style lies in how we negotiate that conflict.
Parents who have high expectations for their child’s success (however the family defines success, whether that’s in academics, athletics, financial, support for the family, etc.) tend to want more control over their child’s choices, so lean authoritarian or authoritative. Permissive parents may place more emphasis on the child’s happiness than on their accomplishments.
Authoritarian parents believe they know what is best for their child, are not responsive to a child’s individual desires, and apply the same rules in all situations. Authoritative and permissive parents are more responsive to the child as an individual, and also adapt to the situation. (For example, if the child has had a rough week, the parent may let them skip an assigned chore.)
Questions to Reflect On:
What style of parent do you WANT to be?
What type of parent are you on a rough day?
Are you the same style as your parenting partner? Or different? How is that going?
Are you the same style of parent that YOUR parents were? Or are you very different? Why?
As a parent, you’ve likely seen countless cautions about the potential dangers of screen time for young children, and you’re exposed to continuous marketing of screen content for children. You know the American Academy of Pediatrics says children 18 – 24 months can begin exploring screen content with their parent, and children 2 – 5 should be limited to 1 hour a day, but you know 10 month olds who are proficient at swiping through photos of themselves on a phone. It can be hard to make sense of it all. Instead of the “just say no” approach to screens, let’s try a more nuanced approach:
We argue that this long-held focus on the quantity of digital media use is now obsolete, and that parents should instead ask themselves and their children questions about screen context (where, when and how digital media are accessed), content (what is being watched or used), and connections (whether and how relationships are facilitated or impeded).
– The Media Policy Project
Connection – Are Relationships Facilitated or Impeded?
Screens can disconnect us from each other. In natural communication, we have a series of “serve and returns” – you say something, I respond. I ask a question, you answer. Screens can interrupt that. We’ve all experienced a time when someone glancing at their phone, or the TV that is on “in the background”, pulls our attention away from a conversation we’re in the middle of.
If parents are using a screen, we may not notice a child’s bids for our attention, which can lead to attention seeking behavior, risk-taking, and potentially injury. (This TED Talk video illustrates that nicely while it talks about how parent-child connections build the brain.) When a child is using a screen, they can seem zoned out and a parent may get very frustrated, feeling like they’re not being listened to. For all of us, we can get very irritable when someone else interrupts our screen use, and there can be a “withdrawal period” where it’s hard for us to disconnect from the screen and re-connect to others.
On the other hand, screens can help us to connect. Long-distance, video chats have been a key way for kids to connect to family and friends who are distanced, whether geographically or due to COVID. There are ways we can enhance the connection – peekaboo, puppet shows, guessing games, reading stories, show and tell, drawing together… And screens can connect us with others right at home if we use them together. Co-watching shows and co-playing games can be fun for both participants, can be an enjoyable shared experience to talk about later, can lead us into great conversations about complex topics that might not come up otherwise, or extend the screen experience into real world experiences (like watching a show about science, then doing a hands-on experiment together).
Goal: Decrease times when screens disconnect your family, increase connection during screen use.
Context – Where, When, How?
Co-watching with our child any time they’re watching would be optimal. But let’s be realistic. One of the biggest reasons parents use screen time is to keep kids busy while we do something else! Screens are the easiest way to take a demanding child and keep them passive, stationary, and entertained. And sometimes, we just need that break. Just be intentional and don’t overuse it. Be mindful about unconscious screen time – the TV that’s on all the time, continuous social media check-ins, the Candy Crush… A question to ask yourself… if I didn’t have the screen option, what would we do otherwise?
Consider screen time limits and curfews. Consider screen-free times (like mealtime, family time). Some families have screen free time one hour per day, one full day each week, one week each year.
Set rules for where screens can be used – many experts recommend children only use screens where parents can overhear / see what the child is watching. Consider screen free places (like dining table, bedrooms). Some families have screens in low traffic areas of the house – out of sight, out of mind.
Some families say screen time has to be earned – the child has to complete chores to earn it. Some offer a standard amount each day, but it’s a privilege that the child can lose as a punishment. These can both be viable strategies, but be careful not to make screens too special – a forbidden fruit.
Goal: Whatever rules you set for where, when, how and how much, be sure they are rules you can stick to and enforce consistently. If you let them cheat it some days, they’ll ask to cheat it every day!
Content – What is Being Watched?
All screen use is not equal. For example, social time on screens, like Skype/Facetime calls to family aren’t really “screen time” – they’re social time where the screen is the mechanism that connects us, and don’t need to be limited as other screen use does. (Although you should still practice good screen hygiene – keep screens 18 – 24” from face, use blue shade in the evening, use good posture during calls, take breaks to rest your body and your eyes, and spend time outside in nature each day.)
There’s lots of great educational content for kids. Don’t feel like your kids have to use screens to learn what they need to learn in life. If there are other things they could be doing in the moment – like finger painting or playing in a playground – do that! But, if there are times they’ll be using a screen anyway, choose content that helps them to learn new ideas (like science shows), or experience things they can’t experience at home (like wildlife shows), or drill them in things that are best learned by rote practice (like learning the alphabet or basic math skills).
When choosing content for entertainment time – whether that’s social entertainment for the whole family, or solo entertainment for the child – there’s a wide range in quality, developmental appropriateness and questionable content in children’s media. Read reviews and seek out recommendations for the best content. A fabulous resource is www.commonsensemedia.org.
Try to minimize addictive content. Many screen time activities have lots of reward moments, where your brain is flooded with dopamines, and you want to keep using to get more of the feel-good chemicals. For example, many apps and video games are designed to keep you playing forever: every time you clear one level, another presents itself and you want to keep on playing. Many video apps will auto-play one video after another. Choose slower-paced, calmer items that you “consume” one at a time, without that same addictive reward process, and without ads that make a child crave more.
Goal: choose age appropriate, educational or entertaining content that matches your family’s values and priorities.
Tips for Reducing Screen Time Battles
Plan your screen time – agree ahead of time on when it will start, when it will end, and what you will do together after screen time. Ask them what reminders they need about the plan – for example, do they want to set a timer they can see? Then stick to the plan!
When you’re nearing the end of screen time, instead of giving warnings that you’re about to take the screen away, give reminders that “when you end screen time well, then we get to…”
Instead of just yanking the screen away in the middle of whatever they’re doing, try “joining them” on screen – watching what they’re watching and talking about it, and seeing when a good endpoint is coming (the end of an episode, the completion of a level). Then gradually transition them off.