Taking My Kids Where They Don’t ‘Belong’ is One of My Favorite Things
I’m pretty well-practiced in the travel category of taking my kids places I shouldn’t, and I think they're better off for it.
Here’s a hot tip for knowing you are the first person to bring a child to the hotel you’ve just checked into: If the general manager sees your baby and asks, “He doesn’t cry, does he?” I know this because in August I brought the first child to ever stay at the recently opened, ultra-hip Life House hotel on Nantucket and those exact words were uttered to me.
Now, I’m pretty well-practiced in the travel category of taking my kids places I shouldn’t. And yet, the response of the house manager—as they are called at Life House—gave me pause: Just maybe this time I had taken my schlep-my-children-everywhere-I-go philosophy a bit too far. The combination of the vertiginous stairs, exquisite collection of crystal glassware, and a clientele where not one person looked over the age of 28 made me momentarily wistful for one of those cookie-cutter child-friendly hotels where you can order chicken fingers any time of the day.
The rest of my family was not as rattled. My 2-and-half-year-old daughter thought the stairs were the greatest. She relished the numerous opportunities to conquer the challenge. I, meanwhile, lost a few years off my life witnessing this learning experience. Did we get a few dirty looks from fellow patrons? Of course. But did we have a great time? Absolutely.
What I realized after three days of staying at this impossibly trendy, pint-size, leopard-carpeted hotel was that it was nice to bring my children to adult turf, especially after months of quarantining with the blessed little ones. These days my kids come everywhere, partly out of necessity and partly because I want them to.
A few weeks ago, I took my kids to the 5 p.m. drive-in showing of A Bronx Tale at Juicy Lucy BBQ in Staten Island. When we were pulling into the parking lot, the attendant said, “You know we have Disney movies, right?” I did know that. But I was there to research a story on a quick deadline. Luckily, my son is too young to pick up on the movie’s profanity and my daughter was too entranced by a massive ice cream sundae to have noticed the mafia violence. (In any event, I made some deposits into their “therapy funds.”) While there were no other young children in attendance, both kids seemed right at home amidst copious amount of fried food and sugar.
Keep in mind that other societies and cultures don’t have such a stark distinction between child-friendly and adult-friendly. It’s a very American construct. Sara Zeske, author of Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, told me that when she lived in Berlin she used to take her young children—including her 3-year-old daughter—to beer gardens. “In Berlin they have a little toddler area with some sand. Americans would be horrified. But they had non-alcoholic slushies and balloons for the kids. German society, especially Berlin, makes everyday life more adaptable to kids,” Zeske said.
In May of last year, I took my then-16-month-old daughter to Greece for six days. If you’re wondering what’s more intense than a trans-Atlantic flight with a toddler who doesn’t have her own seat, try two trans-Atlantic flights, one leg of which has a connection. I used the word “fun” when I pitched the idea of coming to my mom. Some might say that was a misnomer or misleading, but it was one of the best weeks of my life. Do I remember that my daughter didn’t sleep for 12 hours coming home from Frankfurt? Yes. But the snapshot of the trip in my mind—the one that makes me want to do it all over again but this time with her younger brother—is thinking about how much fun she had splashing in the Mediterranean, eating copious amounts of olives, and having a once-in-a-life bonding experience with her mother and grandmother.
I could just as easily regale you with tales of meltdowns and temper tantrums and bodily fluids. I can already hear my friend Natasha telling me: “See, this is why you shouldn’t take your kids to these places.” In the category of ‘parents, don’t try this if you value your sanity,’ there was the family trip in December to Wyoming with my brother and sister-in-law and their two kids. Suffice it to say we weathered a 14-hour travel day, including five hours driving on icy roads, with three children under 5 while I was six months pregnant. The most common responses elicited: “Why would you do that?” and “Are you crazy?”
“Yes” to the latter. To the former, because that’s the only way to get to Brush Creek Ranch in Saratoga, Wyoming, one of the most beautiful landscapes in the country. In a textbook case of taking your kids places you shouldn’t, we had dinner one night with two toddlers and a 4-year-old at the Cheyenne Club, an upscale dining establishment with sheepskin rugs, a prix fixe menu, and no other kids in sight. Naturally, there was no children’s menu, so my daughter ate an entire dinner consisting of ketchup packets. My niece got altitude sickness of the volcanic variety. Would we do it again? I don’t know. Did everyone survive and do we now laugh about it endlessly? Yes.
At their core, these experiences are about bridging the gap between living in kiddie land and the world of grown-ups. I’m a strong believer that the adult world is more interesting—and not just for the adults. It’s where children can try new foods, experiences, and expand their horizons. It’s also the universe they will eventually inhabit. That’s not to say kids shouldn’t have their own orbits free from adult restrictions and expectations. But learning to exist in both is good for everyone.
I asked Zeske why she has toted her children everywhere, including taking her 9- and 12-year-old to the symphony in Berlin, which she conceded was a bit premature. “You want your kids to explore and have a sense of adventure. If you never push their limits, they aren’t going to understand that.” (She draws the line, though, at taking them to nightclubs.)
The deeper psychology holding many parents back from taking kids places they “shouldn’t” has more to do with the fear of what other people will think of our parenting, says Zeske. She is exactly right. I have certainly cringed thinking what other people are saying about me at restaurants, on airplanes, and at hotels. I still remember the titanic meltdown my daughter had a café in Vienna—it was so epic I can still vividly recall it 18 months later and I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire city has declared us both persona non grata. Look, I get it that some adults don’t want kids, especially those who throw tantrums, in their space. And these types of incidents might be particularly irritating to people who have chosen not to have kids. Perhaps this is little consolation, but I’m sure the Vienna cafe debacle helped affirm many people’s life decision to remain child-free. So you’re welcome.
But as Zeske points out, “Kids have a right to exist. Everyone was a kid once. And we can’t expect them to act like adults.” In previous generations, particularly among the upper class, there was the ethos that children should stay at home. My grandmother, who had full-time live in help, said she never took my dad or aunt anywhere when they were young.
Yet she flipped the script with her grandchildren. When I was 12, my grandparents took me to visit their friends in Zurich. One evening the friends hosted an adults-only dinner. I was incredulous and incensed because, of course, I thought of myself as mature enough to attend. Twenty-five years later, I still remember peering out the window looking down at the adults socializing wishing that I could be there.
Maybe that enduring memory is what motivates me to bring the adult world to my children, and vice versa. Or maybe life’s just too short to skip a juicy travel opportunity just because there are little people in tow. Either way, in our era of preciously rare in-person experiences and outside-the-home pleasure-seeking, my list of off-limits places for kids, already small, is shrinking fast.