Traveling with exceptional children

By Kathy Kuhl

The young businesswoman walked by me at San Diego airport last month. She paused, turned, looked at the baby in my arms, beamed, and said, “She’s absolutely perfect.”

I thanked her, but felt compelled to add, “She cried all the way from New York.”

“She’s beautiful,” the woman said, smiled again, and went on her way.

Why do we dwell on the worst parts of travel with kids? How do we get through this better?

Travel with kids can be tough. Even if your car doesn’t break down or you can afford to fly, everyone stays healthy, and you don’t lose Blankie or Bear, it is stressful. Kids often don’t bear difficulty and loss of routine as well as adults.

As New Orleans’ Saints tight end Benjamin Watson posted recently, when we travel with our kids, we forget to be thankful. After he and his wife got their four kids under the age of seven through TSA and onto a plane, Watson admitted that he was ungrateful and “a bit perturbed that his kids were acting like… kids.”

And that’s with ordinary kids. For us with children with challenges, there’s more stress. Our kids may have sensory issues or autistic tendencies that make it hard cope with the noise and vibrations of travel. Our family rarely drove more than three hours any day, because our son with AD/HD couldn’t tolerate long drives. Food sensitivities complicate travel, too. If your child needs protein, or gluten-free, or amine-free, and you’ve run out, what do you do?

In Benjamin Watson’s case, it took a stranger to remind him his kids are a blessing. A flight attendant told him it was “so great to see a big family,” and explained how he and his wife were childless after twenty years. Ouch. Yes, our children are blessings to thank God for.

On a really rough day, we can be tempted to doubt that this child actually is a blessing. But a second’s thought about an accident, and your gut will show how much you love your challenging child. And you see a second blessing to give thanks for: safe travel.

Travel with kids is tough because is shows we aren’t really in charge. Though we save, plan, pack, drive, and schlep, things go awry. Travel exposes our limitations and our character. Mommy can’t always make it better. When I cannot, will I remember not to snipe at my husband and chew out my kids?

In a book on prayer, Paul Miller tells the story of his first speaking trip with his daughter Kim, who has autism. Wanting to give his wife a break, Miller hadn’t realized how hard the weekend would be. Kim didn’t have a book to read on the plane, didn’t want TSA to scan her speech computer, and didn’t want to turn off her CD player when the plane was taking off. Each disappointment moved her closer to meltdown, her low-pitched whine announced. Her dad was helpless and embarrassed.

But speaking at his conference, Miller saw the hidden good. Speaking, he was the center of attention. The humbling travel experience reminded Miller he was traveling to serve God and to give his wife a weekend off, not to build his pride.

Most of us aren’t traveling with kids to speak at conferences, but it still helps us to remember why we go. Not to show how competent we are as parents, but perhaps to give our children time with family, get our children special help, or show them beautiful, historic, or fun places or experiences.

On the road or at home, we are responsible for our behavior and attitudes, and for trying our best with our children, but not for the reactions of others. If a child melts down on a plane and our seatmates are obnoxious, we can sympathize with their discomfort. We can apologize to them for forgetting to pack the teddy bear/medication/special food. We can learn from our mistakes. But we can’t parachute out of that airliner (much as we might wish to), and we aren’t responsible if others decide to be nasty. Responding civilly, we can be a great example to our kids.

Finally, keep looking for what you can enjoy. Last month, I sat behind a man his grandsons on their first flight. From the first rush of take-off, to the shrinking objects below, the six-year-old by the window was thrilled. “I thought it would be great, but this is really great!” he said, over and over and over. We strangers sitting behind him couldn’t help grinning. Kids can help us see pleasures in a trip that we might otherwise miss.

Enjoy the journey, as best you can. Then, enjoy home.

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