Delinquent Itinerants: A Guide To Discipline for Young Travellers

So! So. I’m going to open this can of worms.

How do we react when the kids behave poorly on holiday? And when I say “we” I mean you, I’m just trying not to sound all confrontational about it. Feel free to chip in if you don’t have kids of your own, by the way. It takes a planeload to fly a toddler and all that.

In my rose-tinted fantasy world centred around me, everyone on this aircraft is about to help me fly with my toddler.

In my rose-tinted fantasy world, everyone on this aircraft is about to help me fly with my toddler.

Last year I wrote up what I’d learned about preventing unsociable behaviour in our children when travelling (and I promised a segment on three to five year olds before I realised that: a) I can’t think of any travel-related thing common to all three to five year olds, unless it’s that their parents sometimes fantasise about packing themselves on a one-way trip to Anywhere But Here; and b) I’d already covered all my “triggers” and didn’t really have anything to add).

The truth is we’ve learned a lot in the past five years. The other truth, clearly, is that we still have our incidents and if it’s difficult to know how to respond at home, it’s even more challenging when we’re somewhere else.

How Much More Challenging Is It To Discipline Kids On Holiday?

Let x be how challenging everyone thinks it is to discipline kids, when they don’t have any. (Or when they mostly let their spouse raise them, or when they manage, somehow, to forget – like that woman at the supermarket who claimed to have raised seven children who NEVER EVER CRIED and probably wondered why I didn’t look at her with humility and admiration, but with the kind of faint horror reserved for those who say things which are both strange and sinister.)

Did she keep them under the stairs?

Did she keep them under the stairs? Source: Oh My Gore

Let x^{g} approximate how challenging it actually is to discipline your children, on a normal day.

Adjust x^{g} by factor h – the additional challenge of disciplining your children on a day when they’re grappling with unusual expectations.

Let k be your level of uncertainty over how your children will be expected to behave within your host environment.

Let j be your confidence that your reaction will be deemed publicly acceptable in whatever place you happen to have gone to.

Let l be your ability to smooth onlookers with brief explanations and reassurances that the situation is absolutely under control, despite the reality.

Let m be your ability to predict and direct the interventions of strangers, and n be your child’s ability to predict and feel comfortable with the interventions of strangers.

P's general policy is to assume that kindly strangers are actually evil witches or disguised terrorists.

Like the TSA, P’s general policy is to assume that kindly strangers are actually disguised terrorists or evil witches.

Let o be the number of disciplinary tools you use at home, and p/o be the proportion left available to you when you leave home.

Finally, let q be your ability to perform disciplinary actions on an average day, when you are fully rested; totally undistracted by hunts (in a foreign language) for food, accommodation, and toilets; not suffering from any form of culture shock; removed from aspirations of long-distance trains or flights which are going to leave without you if you don’t hurry up; blissfully free of interruptions from hawkers trying to sell you knock-off designer handbags and soft drinks; and not at all concerned about being a good ambassador for your entire nation – where q-r-s-t-u-v-w is your ability (z) to perform disciplinary actions when faced with each of these things, respectively.

Multiply it all by the universal irritability constant (\Omega).

Y (the difficulty of disciplining your children on holiday) can now be shown as:

y=\Omega\frac{(p/o)x^{gh} - mn(j-l-o-q-r-s-t-u-v-w)}{k}

…or in plain English: it’s complicated. But it doesn’t have to be!

Not what I meant.

Not what I meant.

The Ain’t Misbehaving Series is all about improving h and z – setting the itinerary to minimise confusion and keep everyone within a reasonable radius of their comfort zone. When everyone copes well, of course life is easier – when it comes to prevention, and also when it comes to cure. This post, then, is what I’ve learned about the other bits of the equation.

Reducing Uncertainty and Building Confidence

In South-East Asia they use two hands to pass objects. In Japan nobody blows their nose in public. In the USA there is this whole confusing “tipping” stuff and in France – well. I never did work them out. But you know what’s true everywhere I’ve been? Two year olds will act like two year olds.

It takes years (up to nineteen, according to Sue Slaght) to civilise a new human, and with the exception of deluded people in supermarkets and those who come from societies where you practically have to show DNA or court-certified proof of entitlement to say a simple hello to anyone under fifteen, everyone understands this.

It's not really a coincidence that alcohol is available wherever children are bred.

It’s not really a coincidence that alcohol is available wherever children are bred.

This is good news! The pressure is not on your child’s actions (k). No: it’s on your reactions (j through everything else).

But you can take heart anyway, because even on the number sixty-seven bus – the one which runs past your own front door – you’ll find that in a completely uninvited poll of two almost-identical elderly gentlemen, the first thinks you’re being too harsh, and the second thinks you’re being too soft. And that’s the good news because screw it, you can’t please everyone, even at home. (It occurs to me I suck at good news.)

My point is that cultures differ in how they raise their children but they all have them and they often disagree amongst themselves anyway and then people everywhere turn out largely functional at the end (except for the occasional oddball who has nothing better to do than make ridiculous statements to new parents at the supermarket).

That said, I find a quick cross-cultural look into parenting practices at our intended destination can be both edifying and confidence-building. At best, I can anticipate, interpret and work with the responses of locals, and direct my children’s responses appropriately. At the least, I end up less confused about when we’re offending people and why.

For example, in this case I am aware that my "funky librarian" look is offensive to librarians and to funk.

For example, I’m probably offending librarians by calling this my “funky librarian” look, but if I read up about librarians, I’d know for sure.

The Portable Toolkit – Building A Technique You Can Use Confidently And Consistently, Wherever You Are

Someone once told me to read none of the parenting books or all of them, and I immediately set about option two. Many volumes later, I have learnt only that most experts advise consistency, although even that may just be a ploy to sell sequels. Assuming it’s true, though, the best technique is the one you can, will, and do use anywhere, any time – both at home and abroad.

Update: Expatlingo has uncovered the one area where consistency may fail: when creative ploys help distract children from irrational problems. Overusing the “distract-and-confuse” tactic can weaken it. (See her comment below for examples of the distract/confuse tactic in play.) Meanwhile, Renlingshuiyue of Knocking On China’s Door throws out one of our most common tactics: jumping on the spot. Like a drill seargent (“Drop and give me twenty!”). It’s probably something to do with endorphins or brain waves but it seems to act as a reset and it’s totally portable. (End update.)

For this reason, travelling parents might consider avoiding techniques which are highly controversial or sometimes illegal, such as hitting or smacking. Now, my point here is not that smacking is bad (we can debate that separately, or not – I vote not) –  my point is that smacking doesn’t travel well, so if you’re planning to travel with your kids, you may want to build up a different sort of toolkit.

I’ll also mention yelling, not because it’s uniquely controversial or at all illegal (although it is widely frowned-upon), but because it’s loud and will draw more attention to whatever inevitably-controversial methods you’re using – and your misbehaving child can draw enough attention all by themselves.

Possibly by yelling.

Possibly by yelling. But we get away with it better when it’s only him doing it.

So let’s imagine you’ve followed my advice (as opposed to my example) and chosen a plan of action which excludes smacking and yelling, and doesn’t rely on immediate access to anything you can’t carry with you in a suitcase. You’ll want to start using it straight away, because consistency. Then you’ll want to keep using it, despite the fact everyone is staring at you like a freak. About which:

Smoothing Onlookers Despite Language Barriers

Wherever a child plays up in public, there are three types of onlookers. There are those who offer to help. There are those who stare or complain. And there are those who ignore the whole thing politely.

When people ignore me politely I simply ignore them back and we all get along.

In this picture, A is doing an excellent impression of the Englishman my drunken friend was extremely drunken at on the London underground back over a decade ago. Nobody does polite ignorance like the quintessential Londoner. Bless them.

In this picture, A is doing an excellent impression of the Englishman my drunken friend accosted on the London underground back over a decade ago. Nobody does polite ignorance like the quintessential Londoner, and perhaps more people should try.

Others invite response. If I can accept an offer of help quickly, effectively, and without unduly burdening anyone, I do, and not just for my own convenience. I believe people complain not because a child is annoying them, but because a child is annoying them and they feel there is nothing they can do about it. Encouraging the person who feels they can do something, whether it’s clapping to entertain a fussy baby, standing in the way of a determined runner, or holding the door/stowing the bags of the overloaded parent, is win-win-win – for me, for the helper, and for the attitude towards parents and children throughout society in general.

Update: Free But Fun Vilma has been able to swap favours with other parents so everyone helps each other out – even though they may be strangers.

On the other hand, unless there’s a common language, you could be stuck all day trying to mime, “Well, maybe you could hold my place in the queue for a second or two so I can have a go at finding my husband and asking him to fetch an extra nappy while he’s off tracking down the sliced apples?” If I judge that my efforts would be more productively directed towards dealing with the matter in peace and quiet, I decline offers of help and deter staring using the most effective technique I’ve learned so far.

Deterring Starers and Kind, but Useless Offers of Help – In Any Language

Step One: hold your palms together in front of your face in prayer position. (You can use a single hand if you only have one free because you’re holding a child, or taking a selfie.)

Step One

Step One

Step Two: bring your hand(s) to the side of your face, by your ear.

Step Two.

Step Two.

Step Three: tilt your head slightly and close your eyes.

Step Three.

Step Three.

Step Four: Pat your child soothingly, as if you are putting them to sleep right now.

Congratulations. You have just communicated, “Thanks for trying to help, but there’s not much you can do. We are onto it, though!” without a single piece of mutually-comprehensible vocab. Hopefully at least 70% of bystanders have now smiled sympathetically, shrugged, and wandered off. The fact that the actual problem revolves around a promised museum visit which is not going to happen due to a planning error and not tiredness at all is hardly relevant.

Warning: It’s also easy to communicate “he’s hungry”, but before you attempt this you should be aware that approximately 93%* of those offering to help disgruntled children (at least in Asia) are carrying sugary treats, and up to 67%** of those treats contain artificial colourings and flavourings, usually red. I like to stick with “tired”.

Dealing With Complainers

Usually, I deal with these people by plastering a smile on my face as I move away. If I can’t, Plan B often involves ignoring them like a polite Londoner (hint! a tent made of broadsheet newspaper provides both visual and auditory screening!).

Update: Bakeritalia suggests using corners as the quiet place to whisk off to – they’re everywhere. Of course, you don’t have to wait for stares or complaints before using this tip. And Thrifty Travel Mama finds herself avoiding eye contact under most circumstances.

If I can communicate easily or I’m forced to respond more directly, I try to start by reminding myself that the person has a problem which they are trying to solve, and it’s just that they’re not good at either a) generating solutions or b) expressing themselves politely. And I remind myself that this is no reason to be impolite or fail to generate a solution – or to give in to a solution which is not mutually reasonable. And then I usually balls it all up.

Crazy panorama.

It is actually kind of hard to come up with relevant photos for this post.

In my fantasies, I either gush sarcastically about their “offer of help” and give them five different jobs which would make all our lives easier OR I peer at a spot just above their lip whilst indicating with my hand and saying, “You’ve got something on your face…” and when they drop their scowl in exchange for an embarrassed look I say, “That’s better! All gone!” and whisk everyone away before they work out what’s happened.

But in real life, I usually go with Plan A (move away) or Plan B (ignore) or plan D (balls it all up).

I Would Prefer To Learn From Your Mistakes

Over the past nearly-six years we’ve been through trials and errors. But in future, I’d prefer to learn from your mistakes. Do you have comments, criticisms, advice, or stories? Are you game to share them with us all or would you prefer to contact me privately? I will pay you! No, I won’t pay you, but I’ll appreciate you fiercely and do a roundup, or something.

I’m serious. Go!

*I made the exact figure up, but I’m close.

**Probably not that close.

This post was shared as part of Travel Tips Tuesday at Suitcases and Sippy Cups – who also have a guide to travel-training your kids a-la your first grade teacher.