One of the things we learned the hard way was this: kids can get culture shock! I’m not sure if this sounds obvious to you, but I tend to think of kids as living in a state of more or less perpetual culture shock, so the idea that taking them to a new country might be discernibly different to them, under the circumstances, was a little out of the box to me. At least, the degree to which they can ramp up from their usual background level of wigging completely the wig out was unexpected – I thought we were pretty much already at ten, but it turns out my kids have one of those Spinal Tap dials which goes all the way up to eleven.
It’s not that fun to live at eleven. This is why we rapidly started inserting a period of cultural acclimatisation into our itineraries. Sure, you can read picture books and what have you before the trip, but a three-year-old doesn’t really grasp the difference between your infodump on India and that movie by Pixar about monsters. I have high hopes for the primary school years on that one, but in the meantime what works for us are practical ways to soften the landing.
Many of our itineraries start with a long trip by train, long-distance taxi, or tourist vehicle. (Long distance buses may be suitable in some locations, but in other places the experience is too culturally intense to make them suitable for the purpose, and the logistics of bussing kids under the age of reliable toilet training will be too problematic.) The idea is to allow only limited exposure to the local culture for at least the first twenty-four hours, or until they start to feel a bit more settled. Building in an initial day of travel also means always starting the trip somewhere quiet. International airports are often associated with hustle-bustle cities, which can be a little overwhelming at times.
It’s imperative, of course, not to use this leg to let them soak up a movie via your favourite portable device. Not that the judicious use of smart phone games or other transport-friendly activities is completely out of the question, but the idea is to encourage familiarity with the new stuff they see around them. Long periods of total immersion in electronic entertainment is unlikely to achieve this. Try an old-fashioned game of spotto instead, or a drawing activity based on the scenery rushing by.
Other tricks for slow acclimatisation include the city sightseeing bus (or equivalent flexible day tour – such as the tuk tuk tour of Battambang), going up tall things and looking around, or spending the first day at the hotel pool, except for a couple of quick walks around the block. Theme parks or “touristy” places often have a relatively low culture shock value as well, and can provide a gentler introduction to wherever you are.
Structuring expeditions into games or using certain props can also help a lot. The game of spotto has already been mentioned, as has the idea of a drawing activity, but other ideas are I Spy, scavenger hunts, or junior photography. Props such as strollers, sunglasses, or the earphones of your portable music device provide a sense of security or distance which can help keep youngsters from feeling overwhelmed. And if everything is still a bit much, it might be time to use the portable device to provide a short break.
We also had to rethink the wisdom of the short break. It’s tempting to assume that kids will cope better with a short holiday than a long one, but we found anything under a week gave them a sort of traveller’s whiplash. Generally speaking, things seem to go better with a more extended schedule.