What was I thinking? I
decided to take my 11-year-old daughter, Eleanor, to
Rome for a week. It was her first time abroad, and the
first time we’d be traveling together without
the rest of the family. I was going to broaden her mind
by exposing her to European culture and real food. Just
the two of us. Everything about it spelled disaster.
The rare pleasures and frequent miseries associated
with raising children are compounded—I’d
say geometrically—when you travel with them. For
one thing, kids are lazy, and my kind of tourism requires
a lot of walking. Kids also have terrible taste. If
it were up to them, all roads would lead to Disney World
or a Best Western with room service, a heated pool,
and easy access to a mall. Forget eating in decent restaurants:
The only things that will pass their lips are French
fries and buttered pasta.
The worst thing is that while you’re traveling,
your hands are tied. It’s tough disciplining kids
under the best of circumstances, but no parent likes
to have an audience of uncomprehending foreigners watch
while he screams at a small child. It looks bad.
Most families avoid these problems by skipping ambitious
destinations and settling for a self-contained beach
resort, where the food may be lousy but the kids can
run amok. Or they throw in the towel and go to Disney
World. But what if you want to really travel? Like a
real outdoor adventure in the Rockies, or four-star
meals, fine museums, and historic architecture in a
European capital? Parenting guides offer the usual suggestions:
Use public transit. Ask hotels to arrange for baby-sitters.
Choose kid-friendly restaurants. It all works, but I
have found that the best way to handle children is not
to cater to their needs at all. Instead, overwhelm them.
When it comes to children, less is not more. More is
Modern children are overstimulated anyway—by
television, video games, music, movies—so the
best way to get their attention is to overload their
imaginations. Take them to visually dramatic places
like Montana, historically resonant places like London
and Washington, D.C., wildly foreign places like Rome
or Beijing. The real world offers something TV can’t:
authenticity. And kids crave authenticity. When my children
first toured the real White House, they were blown away.
They’d seen it a hundred times on TV, but now
they were inside the ultimate MTV crib. When they first
saw Paradise Valley in Montana, the spectacular landscape
reminded them of a movie, but it was a movie they could
drive through, ride horses across, and river-raft down.
In Rome, on that fateful
father-daughter adventure, I did my best to overwhelm
Eleanor. We avoided American-style hotels and American-style
restaurants. Before she knew what was happening, I had
her up early, sneakers laced, to explore the Forum and
the Colosseum (grander than any movie set). We examined
the skeletons of 4,000 Capuchin monks in the crypt of
a church on the Via Veneto, and climbed through the
vast excavation site of Nero’s Domus Aurea. Art
museums bored her, of course, but we didn’t have
to go to many, since all Rome is an art museum.
Eleanor surprised me. She seemed genuinely affected
by the antiquity around her, and she reveled in the
buzzing street life, the liberated Roman teenagers zipping
around on Vespas. She walked for miles, never complaining,
because if we didn’t walk, she might have missed
something. We took long, leisurely lunch breaks at exquisite
small restaurants, where I filled her with spicy pastas,
rich desserts, and gelato. It worked. She began to have
strong opinions about Borromini’s architecture,
and didn’t once ask to go to the McDonald’s
she spotted across from the Pantheon. Halfway through
the trip, we were sitting at an outdoor table eating
bucatini all’amatriciana. “You don’t
do the things that regular tourists do,” she said.
“You do things that Romans do.” She was
wrong, of course. We were the perfect tourists. But
I loved her for thinking it.