Modern kids are connected and looking for new thrills. But slowing things down when you travel could be exactly what you and your family need
Family holidays were nothing if not predictable when I was a kid. On Boxing Day my dad would hook up our caravan to one of his work trucks and tow it for eight hours to South West Rocks on the north coast of New South Wales. This was well before the days of health and safety so my and my sisters would ride in the shallow tray on the back of the truck, clinging on and hoping we wouldn't be bounced out on to the Pacific Highway rushing by below us.
We had a pitch at the Horseshoe Bay caravan park that we would return to each year. It was in the front row, on the brow overlooking the bay, so that my sisters and I could be in the water within moments of my mum saying our breakfast was settled enough for us to go.
She didn't see us again until we were hungry.
I don't know what my parents did over those six weeks, but us kids had a lot of fun. We'd swim, surf, fish, climb and explore until sunset, collapsing into our bunk beds until we woke up the next morning and started all over again. Without realising it I picked up skills that would, or at least could, prove useful in later life. Risk assessment. Rudimentary first aid. How to get a story straight when things went wrong.
I live in the UK now where a lot of those skills are less useful. (I haven't had much call for my ability to evade pissed off black snakes). But chatting to my English friends, they enjoyed similar kinds of summer holidays, albeit soggier, in places like Devon and Cornwall or even France. While listening to their reminiscences, one thing struck me: there is a freedom that comes with staying in one place for a long time.
It sounds counter-intuitive, especially in this age of gadgets and connectivity. We are convinced that our children have the attention spans of gnats and that they need to have every second filled with something new and flashy. Each day has to offer new sights and sounds, to dazzle and distract. If it ebbs, even for a second, we fret that they'll become bored and, god forbid, we'll have to do something to entertain them. (It's meant to be our holiday too!)
The thing is, I don't remember being bored as a kid. I'm sure I was. There are only so many times you can go yabbying before even the act of sucking small creatures out of wet sand and using them as bait becomes mundane and every day as well. But my parents let the boredom take hold long enough for it to serve its true purpose. It became a catalyst for creative thinking and problem solving. We were bored. What were we going to do about it?
Staying in the one place gives parents the freedom to give their children more freedom. Over time they figured out the places that were safe for us to go and those that weren't. We were told to swim between the flags, stay away from the breakwater wall and take extra care crossing the road in front of the pie shop because the boy racers from Kempsey tore around the corner there without really looking.
This seems to hold true with more exotic destinations too. A friend of mine took his young family to Goa a few years ago. They rented a house near a beach and just lived there for a month. They swam, they kitesurfed and they relaxed in hammocks strung between palm trees. And after a week or so he felt comfortable enough for his kids to run errands, to visit their favourite samosa stand or sweet stall. When they walked into town as a family, it was the kids that got the greetings and salutations, not them.
The greatest challenge in staying still with kids is staying still ourselves. Never mind the kids getting bored, what about us? We're even more connected – when was the last time you went away and didn't check your email or social media? – and just as addicted to the buzz of constant engagement.
I rang my mother and asked her what she did when we were off being feral all those years ago and she said, 'Nothing, really.' I said she must have done something, and after a minute of reflection she said that her and dad would wander out to the point between Horse Shoe Bay and Trail Bay Beach most afternoons to see if they could spot dolphins.
'We didn't always see them,' she said. 'But it was nice to just sit there and watch the ocean with your father.'It was probably the only time in the year they got to themselves.
Main image: Family on a beach at sunset (Shutterstock.com)