Webinar: Tips for PCSing with Kids
by Lizann Lightfoot - May 23rd, 2022
Our Guest: Michelle Bowler, the “Waiting Warrior”
We have four kids, and have done six moves, with all ages up to age 9. I’ve been a military spouse for 10 years, and when I started it felt like there weren’t great resources to turn to and see how people truly do this life. I wanted to ask people questions, so I started a podcast. It got me through a lot of doors to talk to amazing people, and now I have over 100 episodes, plus a workbook to help couples through deployment, and a retreat to help with Reintegration. It’s fun because it’s a topic I’m passionate about!
What age range have you found easiest or most challenging when you have moved?
Our first move with kids we had a toddler and a 6-month old. Then we had a 3, 1.5 year old and I was pregnant, then we had 4, 3, 1. Then we had 5, 4, 2 and pregnant, and we just moved in December for a quick assignment and will move again in June. So now my oldest is 9 and youngest is 3.
The hardest age probably depends on the kid’s personality. I think the hardest will be the next one with our 3-year-old, because our next move is across the country with 40+ hours of driving. She won’t understand what is going on, and will just have to be in the car for a long time.
With the older kids we can explain where we are going, and they can be distracted a little more. For me, the younger ones are the more challenging age.
For your upcoming move, what are you doing now to prepare the kids?
Logistically, we like to start as soon as we have orders. As soon as we know it’s coming up, we want to share with them so they aren’t caught off guard. We try to let them know far in advance. We cast a map onto our TV to look at where we live and where we are going. It has helped our kids to talk about where we have lived before or visited family in different parts of the country, so they know how long the drive will be.
We reference the drive in terms of “movies” as a unit of time. So we tell them this upcoming move will be about 20 movies, so we will make a list for the trip.
We have a big countdown calendar with the date circled in red, so they can see when it is coming.
Emotionally, we like to create as much continuity as possible, so simple habits continue throughout the move. Right now, Dad reads the Harry Potter books to them several nights a week at bedtime. So we can keep doing this in the hotel or at a friend’s house, and as soon as we arrive at the new place. We also watch episodic shows together as a family. This helps them feel like we are still doing normal family routines, and we don’t want them to feel like everything is changing.
On Packing and Moving Days, what are your strategies with the kids?
If I have a nursing child, yes I’ll just wear them all day. Definitely invest in a good baby carrier that won’t hurt your back! But I also believe in getting help, requesting help, and getting childcare when you need it. I have done it both ways, and it is definitely better when they aren’t around.
Watching a house get packed up is not fun for kids. They want to climb on boxes and ask the movers endless questions! On the last move, we had them out of the house with neighbors all day. I had pizza delivered to their house. And then I had long-time friends watch our kids overnight so my husband and I could drive the U-Haul and one vehicle to the next place, and he got a cheap flight back to bring the kids and the other car.
My stress level is 10 times higher when they are around because your brain can’t focus on the move.
What is one thing you’ve learned that you will do differently with kids on your next move?
This time, we will build more time into our schedule to say goodbyes. Last time, it felt too rushed and snuck up on me. All of a sudden, we were moving in a few days and it was our last time seeing friends, so we just said goodbye and sent kids to bed. So this time, it’s built into our PCS binder, and we are going to have some of the moms meet at a park and just relax one more time.
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or a big brunch, but it’s good to find what works for you. Some people organize final coffee dates, or collect little scrapbook messages for the kids. I take lots of pictures and make an album on my phone, so when they are missing friends they can scroll through that album. That’s something easy I know I can handle.
How do you handle long car rides with the kids during a PCS?
It seems our PCS moves have always been quick, so we have never had a long time to travel before his report date. This time, we have 10 days from his course graduation to his report date. There are a few places we have visited before, and we will build in a few destination vacation events along the way. Some people make it a huge vacation, but we haven’t been able to do that.
I start weeks in advance, getting toys from the Dollar Tree, and wrap them up in advance, and we hand out a few each day so they have something new and fun to play with every few hours, and if it breaks after a few hours it isn’t anything to worry about.
For all road trips, I get a car seat tray table covered in fabric for each kid. It has pouches to hold their water bottle or toys, and some pouches for coloring supplies or notebooks. So they can do some art and craft activities along the way.
I have actually practiced throwing baggies behind me, so I can toss bags of snacks to the older kids sitting in the middle seat, and they can help distribute them. I package everything in small quantities, so we can hand out lots of snacks.
Tessa: If we don’t have the timeline to stay in one location for a few nights, we will get out of the car every few hours. I research parks and places to stop along the way, so we can all get out and stretch our legs and take a break.
When traveling with kids, what lodging works best during a PCS move?
We have a whole system for sleeping in a hotel, because hotels can be very chaotic for kids and parents. And kids don’t settle down quickly in hotel rooms. We try to be prepared to have a small room with one large bed, in case we don’t have enough space.
We bring cot-sized air mattresses, so we can lay some kids on the floor between the wall and the bed. Everyone has a stuffed animal and blanket stuffed into their pillowcase, and they are responsible for that. They know we are rotating who sleeps where every night.
There is an app that has bedtime stories or sleep meditation stories that can help everyone settle to sleep.
Tessa: We always just pack one duffle bag per day, so we can have one change of clothes for each person all in the same bag, so you just need that overnight bag in the hotel instead of lugging suitcases.
Michelle: I use packing cubes to fit several of my girls’ clothes into one packing cube (because they are small and their clothes don’t take up much space.) So I grab that and a toiletry bag so we won’t have as much to carry.
Lizann: We usually just pack a few outfits per person: one to wear, one in the overnight bag, and one in the laundry. So I bring fabric laundry bags and have to do a load of laundry almost every night in hotels. As everyone changes for bed, they throw all their clothes into the fabric hamper so we can keep everything together.
What words of advice do you have for a first PCS with children?
Ask and accept the help! People always say, “let me know if you need any help!” and you can’t think of anything at the time. Keep a list in your phone of specific ways that people could clean things or times they could watch the kids. Then it’s easier to make that request.
In the car, if you can anticipate their needs, you won’t be as flustered in the moment. Kids are kids and are going to have needs. Try to cover every base, with snacks, toys, different entertainment options, and an emergency kit for spills.
It goes a long way to remember that your kids are children with undeveloped brains. When they have a bad attitude or a temper tantrum or they’re all bugging each other, don’t ask WHY they are doing that. Instead tell yourself, “of course they’re doing that!” This helps me stay calm and remember that they are kids, and I’m the parent, and I have to coach them through being in a car and making this huge transition. This attitude helps me stay in a better place.
What does your family do for meals during the PCS move?
We always eat breakfast at the hotel (if available) or we get simple muffins and snacks for breakfast. For lunch, we do dollar menu fast food along the way. For dinner, we try to go to Walmart or Krogers and get something that is portable or easy to reheat at the hotel.
We don’t like to travel with a cooler, because I sometimes forget ice and then the food goes bad. So we go to the store every day, and it’s a little cheaper than eating out every night. We do get PCS per diem, so we eat at restaurants a few times along the way, and let the kids pick something they like. But we sometimes share a big restaurant meal because our kids are young and don’t all need their own meal yet.
You can go to a store and with one pan can cook a frozen bag of pasta, or you can have protein shakes for lunch. We do bring a portable bullet blender, so you can grab milk and fruit from the hotel buffet to make a shake. You can also grab rotisserie chicken to feed the family.
Lizann: We don’t typically get a kitchenette in the hotel unless we are staying more than one night. I bring a few kitchen essentials with me: an Instant Pot, a baking sheet, a frying pan, etc. We sometimes use it in the hotel, but we also use it to house-camp when we first check into housing and don’t have any household goods yet. That way, we can cook what we are used to eating and eat it on paper plates the first few days in empty housing. We learned that our kids don’t do well with two fast-food meals in a day, so the more meals we can cook, not only is it saving money, but it also is better for their digestive and emotional health.
The Rapid Fire Round!
What was your toughest moment PCSing with kids?
When my kid threw up half in the car at 9 PM at night because we were stranded somewhere fixing the overheating car. It was a long, miserable day and we couldn’t get everyone to sleep in the hotel because it was a gross night.
What is your go-to item to bring in the car on long trips?
A trash-grabber thing to reach behind me and extend my grip! They tell me to clip, and it helps me get the favorite toy they dropped.
Funniest PCS story with kids?
We were moving across the country and stopped in Amarillo Texas, and my 3-year-old thought it was so funny that we stayed in a city called Amarillo! She kept chanting the name in a silly song, “”I’m gonna sleep in Amarillo, and I’m gonna ride the armadillo!” She still brings it up years later!
Where can we find the Waiting Warrior online?
There’s www.TheWaitingWarrior.com, and also Instagram @theWaitingWarrior. We like to talk about all aspects of military life, and you can visit the podcast to hear all our episodes!