09/09/2013 02:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Traveling With Kids: Let Them Guide, a Little

I am not going to sugar coat the challenges of family travel. It is not always pretty and it is definitely not easy. Some days are exhilarating and others are extraordinarily frustrating. After all, traveling solo can be hard work, so traveling as a family can create even greater challenges. Parents bicker, kids throw tantrums, everyone is hungry and tired; none of the family members wants to squat over a filthy toilet; no one has energy to hike seven miles to the top of a mountain.

Yet we do it.

Not only because each journey helps cement the family bond, but also because ultimately the trip makes our kids into global citizens. They value the planet as their playground. On a map our kids see humans instead of borders; they engage in rich cultural experiences that shape the ways they view the world; and most importantly they are ready to jump in and help a neighbor or a stranger in need.


But this type of parenting through travel requires a leap of faith, if you will. Yep, I am forking over gobs of cash to introduce a world to my kids that they will likely not remember (don't get me started on how annoying it is that my son Kai remembers approximately zero percent of our Thailand trip we took when he was two). And yes, I am sacrificing my comfort and sanity and luxury, and grown up exploring and...


But I like to travel with my kids. I like seeing them try sushi at the Tsukiji Fish Market. I love watching Japanese teens snap pictures with my two-year-old blond boy. It's fun to watch Kai negotiate the subway map with Eddie, or jump up and down over seeing his first JR bullet train. Most of all, I can't get enough of experiencing the world at large through my children's eyes.

So in order to salvage an ounce of sanity, each day I tailor at least one activity for my kids. Usually I let them pick between a couple options: playing baseball at a park or hiking up to see snow monkeys? Hitting up the Osaka Aquarium or spending an hour playing virtual reality video games? This works. Until it doesn't. I mean, if your kids are anything like mine, one activity per day just isn't enough.


So the real fun starts when I let them guide for a day.

Here's an example: My six-year-old, Kai, is obsessed with baseball. He studies the sports page and can rattle off stats and plays like my dad. So when we were in Japan this summer, he wanted, no, he needed, to attend a professional baseball game.

This was after his egg sandwich breakfast, his virtual reality video game extravaganza, his visit to Tokyo Decks Beach, and a sushi lunch. But, we promised him a Kai day, and we delivered.

So in spite of the thick clouds threatening to rain down on us, we followed the crowds to the Tokyo Yakult Swallows stadium. Even though we were an hour early, we were actually too late to find four seats together in the bleachers. Stricken, we wandered around until some random lady came chasing us; she grabbed my husband's hand and led us to four seats she had saved, handed Kai a couple baseball cards and a few Yakult yogurt treats and went on her way.

Of course the second Eddie leaves with little Nikko to grab some food, the clouds explode in a fierce show of summer rain. And of course, my little baseball fan will not move. The harder the rain fell, the more I tried to sway Kai into going down into the stadium's bowels to wait inside. Our Seat Finding Angel came over and draped a tarp over our heads, then handed me a giant plastic bag for our backpack. And despite the fact that the field was covered, thunder was booming around us, and more than half of the fans had retreated to cover, Kai would not budge.

Well, eventually, I had to take the reigns from my son the tour guide and deliver him from the deluge -- I am a parent above all else -- until the drums started pounding, the players took to the field, and the ump yelled, "Play Ball."


The game itself was a lesson in Japanese culture. For a collection of people who are silent on trains, they sure know how to let loose.

When their team is up, they sing songs in unison to cheer their players on, and in fact, the Hiroshima Carp fans (the Swallows' opponents) even had choreographed movements, which they pulled off to perfection. But get this: When the opposing team is at bat, no matter how much their team is losing, the fans are silent. And they stay enthusiastic even if their team is down by 12, which the Swallows were, tapping together their mini-bats, singing loudly, and even when someone hits a home run, holding up these tiny umbrellas (which our Seat Finding Angel brought over for us to use) and chanting their odes to the players.

This is not something I would have done before having kids. Nor would I have taken a cooking class to learn how to make a Pokemon bento box lunch (more on that later).

But like all lessons my children have forced upon me, I was open to experiencing the world through their eyes. And it was fun! And educational. Sure we weren't spending our day at Asakusa's shrine, or temple hopping in Kyoto, but let's be honest here, that isn't always fun. Instead we were celebrating Japanese culture in an authentic way, which is exactly why I started traveling in the first place.

For more on traveling with kids, visit Planet Playground.