When my family and I landed in Hawaii and trudged into the Four Seasons Oahu, we were bedraggled and jetlagged. I was bracing myself for the sort of quasi-vacation that moms often endure, full of nagging (on my end) and whining (on theirs). True, I was also expecting delightful things like fruit plates and room service and mimosas at breakfast—but let’s be honest, those luxuries are often more fun when you’re away from your children.
At least, that was the old ideal for parents. The new ideal is not time away from your children, but time spent with relaxed, well-behaved children. An impossibility? Not anymore. Smart luxury travel companies like the Four Seasons know exactly how to cater to traveling parents: by giving kids a little slice of luxury, too.
The worst sort of traveling
Traveling with kids is terrible. It’s so bad, in fact, that one of Britain’s leading child psychologists, Oliver James, recommends doing it as infrequently as possible. Children are creatures of habit, he says, and they don’t want to be dragged from site to exotic site. They just want ice cream on the beach. The same beach. Every year.
And it’s not just kids that are bad with travel. We parents aren’t great at it, either. In 2009, my husband and I—then childless—went to Pakistan. The trip was easy; I didn’t worry at all despite the fact that our hosts insisted we be accompanied at all times by armed guards. Fast-forward to 2011, after the birth of my first daughter, and I could barely handle the hour-and-a-half drive from Los Angeles to Palm Springs.
Now that daughter number two has entered the world, my husband and I are even worse at traveling. Forget focusing on our own experiences or recreation; our attention is thoroughly preoccupied with kid-centric worries. Will they have enough snacks? What if they get tired? Cranky? What if they need to jump or run around or to tell someone about their favorite cartoons, and an adult reacts to them—oh, the horror—less than indulgently?
The power of kid-centric service
As parents, we think of our kids’ behavior in terms of phases. “She’s going through a whiny phase right now,” we sigh, or “He’s just in a clingy phase these days.” We tend to think less of how their immediate context affects them—how sometimes a phase is not simply a phase, but a reaction to circumstance. I know I thought this way, too, until I woke up in the lap of luxury in Oahu and realized that these new circumstances had transformed my kids’ behavior completely.
This hotel is new, pristine, and open-air, with entire sections of wall that fold back to let in the ocean breezes. But the ocean access and the gorgeous beaches paled in comparison to the very best service they offer. It’s called their Kids Club, it’s staffed with exuberant young people who love children, and believe it or not, it’s totally free.
At the risk of her future employer googling this article, now is the time for me to admit that my four year old is not always a happy camper. Sometimes, the world disappoints her. Maybe she is wearing the wrong color shirt. Maybe her sister’s Shirley Temple glass has more ice cubes than hers. She was, I assumed, in her whiny phase. But suddenly, a few days into our vacation, I realized that the whining hadn’t just abated—it had completely disappeared. And it wasn’t just my four year old who was happier; my older daughter was transformed as well.
When they admired the koi fish, a friendly staff member offered fish pellets so they could feed them. When my six year old arrived at Kids Club to discover she had missed a crafting session she had set her heart on, the friendly young woman pulled out all the materials and paints so that my daughter could make it up. When my daughter yearned desperately for a blueberry muffin fifteen minutes after the buffet had closed, a server tracked one down for her. They didn’t have to whine anymore. Everything came easily to them.
Basking in the glow of all this attention, my children were transformed into perfect cherubs. The trip went off without a single tantrum, the only exception being when we intrepidly chose to explore the surrounding islands and left the hotel for a day.
On vacation, I too was pampered. I was no longer worried about anyone making the beds, because the housekeeping staff did that twice daily. They washed any dishes we left in the sink of the kitchenette, neatly folded every piece of clothing left about, hung wet bathing suits out to dry, and replenished an enormous fruit bowl that sat front and center in our living room. As a result, half of my reasons for nagging my children or getting stressed were suddenly gone. I noticed myself smiling indulgently when my children frolicked around the hotel lobby. Amid white sand and turndown service, it was much easier for me to be a relaxed and accessible parent—and my children blossomed when they received that sort of positive attention from me.
The lesson for me became clear. When my children acted out, perhaps the problem wasn’t always that they were going through a phase: whiny, clingy, teething, fussy, difficult, “terrible twos,” and so on. Bad behavior wasn’t something I just had to tolerate or sit through. We all think that we’re a product of experience and genetics, but who we are is also a product of where we are and how we are being treated at that particular moment. If my kids were being whiny, maybe all they needed was a change of context to shift their mood.
Bringing it all back home
Of course it’s easy to feel happy and relaxed on vacation, especially when my family’s every need was met with indulgence. What I found, to my surprise, was that along with a great tan and sandy shoes, some lasting lessons also traveled home with me from my trip. Here are my three top takeaways from my time at the Four Seasons.
Say yes! When we walked into the Kids Club to find that that crafting session had just ended, I was on the verge of a, “well that’s life, you need to be on time if you want to get what you want” speech. That was when the receptionist offered to pull out all the craft materials, instantly brightening my daughters’ moods. We spend so much of our parenting time being focused on lesson teaching (i.e. if I let my child eat dessert for breakfast, what am I really teaching her?) but maybe saying yes once in a while isn’t so bad. As adults, we are fond of reminding ourselves to focus on self-care: skip that morning meeting once in a while, take a mental health day and go to the cinema… But for some reason, we don’t apply the same rule to our children. Maybe it’s not so bad to indulge them a little. Life teaches enough lessons anyway.
Redirect their attention. When my kids were busy throwing pebbles at the koi fish and the manager headed over to us, I expected a polite lecture. Instead she opened up her hands to reveal pellets of fish food. She taught the kids how to feed the fish and cautioned them against giving any specific fish too much. It’s easy to say no. It’s harder to find a way to redirect the children’s energy into something positive and engaging. If only I had a five star hotel manager following me around giving me tips all the time!
Indulge yourself. When I stopped being stressed, so did my kids. In the lap of luxury where our beds were made, our clothes were folded, dishes washed, and food prepared, I had nothing to stress me out, and it was easy to be a kind and attentive parent. I can’t recreate this at home, but I can remember that sometimes when it feels like the kids can’t do anything right, maybe it actually is me, and not them. It’s amazing what a massage or manicure or even five minutes sitting alone on the porch deep breathing can do. When I’m not stressed, I can be a better parent.