Travel with Young Children
We’ve been traveling with our kids since they were born. It simply made sense. Both my wife and I grew up traveling, and we studied abroad in college, and we felt like we benefited greatly from having seen the world outside of our home states.
It’s easy to travel with kids under nine months. They don’t move much or do much! So early on we parented the same as at home, but did it in New York City or Hawaii or Ireland or Greece instead – pretty much anywhere we wanted to go. Then it got a little challenging between 9 months and 21 months or so, since 12-hour plane flights aren’t fun with a child who would rather walk than sit, but we didn’t let that stop us. It was fun to keep seeing the world, and exposing the kids to new sights, sounds, smells and tastes while we were at it.
And sure enough, as the kids grew older, we could see the benefits of traveling. Our kids were becoming who they were because of every trip, and every experience, and every meal. And we changed our travels accordingly. Instead of simply going where we (the parents) wanted to go, we asked the kids where they wanted to go. We started splitting up and taking the kids on one-on-one trips. And we planned activities everywhere that exposed the kids to new things while also feeding into what they enjoyed.
As the kids started school, we shifted most of our trips to school breaks, but we’ve never hesitated to take the kids out of school for a week or two to reach destinations farther away. If the kids are in Africa on safari, they can easily keep up with their classes (long flights are amazing for school work!), but they’re also learning about different cultures and animals and building on what they’ve learned in school. So for us travel isn’t an expense; it’s an investment that we’ve prioritized. And there’s a real return.
The Benefits of Traveling
Our kids have always studied Spanish in school, for several years took Mandarin as well, and are now learning French. But if you’ve studied languages in school and then haven’t used them afterwards, you know what happens: you quickly forget most of what you learned. At least once a year we visit a Spanish-speaking country with the kids. They hear Spanish spoken in cities. They hear it in restaurants and our hotels. And we expect the kids to interact in Spanish – to order their meals, to ask questions, and to attempt conversations with other kids. If there’s a word that they don’t know, we look it up. I’ll guarantee you they remember those on-the-fly words better than vocabulary words studied for a test in school.
But we go to a lot of non-Spanish-speaking countries as well, and although it’s usually easy to get by in English, we don’t let the kids do that. We want them to understand basic Italian. In Kenya or Tanzania if you’re speaking 100% English you’re a tourist. If you’re trying to use at least a little Swahili, you’re all of a sudden interacting with locals on another level, and you’re integrating yourself into the culture just a little bit, which makes travels more satisfying. And I love that at home the kids will throw out Thank You in a dozen languages, or ask for eggs in Danish, or say Good Morning in Greek. Such a great complement to the kids’ school education, and something that will serve them well when traveling (really cool experiences can come from closer interactions) but also in the workforce.
Our kids have never been picky eaters. They’ve grown up on pesto in Italy, paprika-flavored dishes in Hungary, andouille in New Orleans, Za’atar in the Middle East, and curries in India. Everywhere we go we visit markets, and we seek out the local specialties and then take cooking classes to learn to make our favorites. And when we get home the kids help cook, incorporating the flavors they’ve discovered. An average week for us could include a Greek night, a Mexican night, a Moroccan night and an Indian night, with everything made from scratch. I never spent time in the kitchen growing up, so I love that my kids are developing this lifelong skill!
European meals, in addition to introducing our kids to new foods, are also an amazing way to teach kids patience! It’s not unusual for us to have two-hour or even three-hour lunches and dinners. Sometimes there’s a beach or park nearby to play between courses or when we’re waiting for the check, but most of the time the kids sit with us and make conversation and occupy themselves. The same is true with train rides and flights. Travel’s not instantaneous! That’s part of the fun. We don’t want to raise kids who require immediate gratification, or who can’t be patient working with others in school.
Growing up I had a lot of independence. I walked to and from elementary school and to the resort hotel half a mile away. I had a lot of friends within walking distance as well. My kids have a different reality, given that where we live there’s nothing within easy walking distance. So travel is their chance to explore and to make their own decisions. It’s easy to trust them at resorts and on cruises, but if we’re in a small village somewhere, or even in a mid-sized city like Florence, and the kids more or less know their way around, we’ll let them head out without us. It’s a great chance for them to make their own decisions and to learn to navigate – a major benefit of traveling! They’re only at home another few years before they head off to college. Through our travels we’re expecting them, at that point, to be 100% confident that they can navigate a campus, a town, an international airport or a European train station.
The Benefits of Traveling – A More Complete World View and Respect for Others
This is an amazing planet, and an incredibly diverse one. We want our kids to meet as many people as possible, and to see the beauty in other cultures, but we also want them to see how people live and what problems they face. At some point in my kids’ lives, and possibly many times in their lives, they will face a choice between doing what’s right and doing what’s profitable. They’ll be able to make decisions that can help people. And hopefully their trips through the slums of Mumbai, and the conversations with African goat herders, and their encounters with Filipino kids on the playground in Hong Kong will shape those decisions.
Feeding their Passions
My kids have all discovered things that they love, and are legitimately talented at, through travel. A passion for playing soccer, and an obsession with international soccer? It started with the Sweden/Norway game we attended when traveling through Oslo several years ago. A serious talent for sketching? It began with a drawing workshop at the British Museum in London. A love of beaches and water, and a talent for swimming? That’s developed over many trips to Hawaii, Greece, Costa Rica and the South Pacific. And on the other side, my youngest daughter loves animals, so we try to either travel to destinations with a high likelihood of animal encounters, like the Galapagos, Kenya/Tanzania and Australia, or we add animal-centered activities to other trips. I’d be very surprised if her eventual career isn’t centered around animals! And our kids have always loved reading, so we seek out bookstores everywhere we travel.
The Benefits of Traveling – Your Turn
I’d love feedback! What benefits of traveling have you noticed? Have your kids had experiences that were literally life-changing?