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  The secret to traveling with kids, says a globe-trotting dad, is to overwhelm them with something TV can’t give them: authenticity.  

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 more.

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.

From the Fall 2003 edition of the New York Family Guide
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