Last month, Grant Feller of The Telegraph published an article admonishing parents to wait to travel with their children until they’re teens. To do otherwise, he says, is a waste of money, and the only reason anyone would do so is to assuage guilt about expensive vacations, and rack up bragging chits about their little ones’ ability to tick countries off lists before any of their friends.
Feller points his own childhood travels as “supreme indulgences” on the part of his parents, who dragged him along when he was too young to appreciate or remember anything of significance.
If all that wasn’t enough, he says, traveling with kids is distinctly no fun.
“Children are always inconveniently tired, have very little interest in culture, can’t walk longer than 45 minutes without needing sustenance and moan if burgers aren’t on the menu.”
As part of a parenting team that has brought one or more young children along on a number of regional and international trips, I have a different perspective.
No, more than that. I completely disagree.
To give you an idea about our experience: we took our first significant family trip with our then 17-month old son, to Ireland to celebrate his grandparents’ 50th anniversary. Sure, we were anxious about the plane ride, as well as the entire trip, as any young parent might be. But we managed our anxiety and he did fine. And his grandparents appreciated having him along to celebrate.
Since then, we’ve taken our kids on various journeys across the country and internationally. Some trips required significant planning. Others were more spontaneous, brought about by luck of scheduling and last minute business opportunities on which it was easy to tack a family vacation.
Let’s get one thing off the table: we’re not wealthy. We live comfortably enough, and happen to make travel a priority over other things. We love to travel. Being budget conscious, we do so like we do everything else: we take advantage of off-season specials and coach accommodations, and pinch pennies wherever possible.
Along the way we have learned a few things about traveling with children of all ages:
Traveling with young children is not the same as traveling solo or with other adults. This pretty much sums up life with small children versus life without, right? Feller says parents who insist on taking young children are being indulgent, but I’m unclear who is being indulged in his scenario. Maybe wealthier people can travel with a nanny, and will willingly lay down the dough for a four-star restaurant, only to watch their kid turn up his nose at a fancy meal. Many of the rest of us work hard for a smooth travel experience for the whole family, choosing kid-friendly activities and accommodations, scheduling copious time for rest and unstructured play. At the same time, we encourage our kids to be open-minded and flexible. Travel offers plentiful opportunities for both parent and child to practice coping skills.
Travel with children can be more expensive, but not necessarily so. Sometimes we do spend more for convenience. We’re likely to buy reserved seats on a train, over second class, for example, so we can be sure we all sit together.
Your child won’t remember everything about his travels, and that’s okay. We made it a practice to read to our kids every night before bed, pretty much from birth until they told us they wanted to read for themselves. Do they remember every moment of Dr. Seuss or the Berenstain Bears? No. Was there still value in our doing so? Of course.
The same goes with family travel. Teenagers who travel well don’t necessarily spring, fully formed, from kids who’ve been left home their whole lives. Today, the kid we schlepped to Ireland as a baby, and then continued to take with us on our travels, is a teenage exchange student in Denmark, an experience he writes about regularly, and which he pursued because of a hankering for travel and new experiences, brought about in part by the way he was raised.
Kids are often as resilient as we expect them to be, and even then often exceed our expectations. I shared the article with my friend, family travel advocate, and author A.K. Turner, of Vagabonding with Kids. She and her husband have taken their two young girls on extended trips to Mexico, Brazil, and Australia. She was especially taken aback by Fellers’ characterization of child travelers as whiny and inconveniently tired.
“I pictured my then six-year old up all night at Carnival in Brazil or hiking through thick mud in the Amazon,” she said. “Children rally; they rise to the challenge and [travel] is undeniably beneficial to them.”
And Feller’s statement about children having very little interest in culture makes both of us bristle. I think about an afternoon spent with my family at an outdoor restaurant in Amsterdam. Our boys were then 8 and 12-years old. We’d spent the week before that trip reading Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, and the experience of sitting in the shadow of the Westerkerk Tower, on the banks of the same Prinsengracht Canal she would have been able to see from her window, brought home a history lesson for them in a way they remember to this day.
“If your child has ‘very little interest in culture,’” Turner said, “you’re doing something wrong.”
Travel with young children is fundamentally different than travel with teens, true. But to boil those differences down to bragging rights, convenience, or expense misses the point entirely. Family travel helps children of all ages develop empathy and courage, and fosters a fundamental curiosity about the world around them.
What’s the waste in that?
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