Travel With Young Kids Is Not A Waste!

November 15, 2012 in Asia, blog, Education, Inspiration, Thailand, Travelogue

Pai, Thailand- 2012

Last night I made beef stroganoff over rice, with a side of lemony snake beans, crusty bread, salad and kiwi for dessert. This was a banner meal for us in Thailand as coming by good quality beef is a challenge for some reason in this country. You can find the stringy, tough bits for stir-frying, but we don’t bother with that often.

The kids tucked in with gusto. There was an actual, “whoop!” of joy from our resident meat-a-tarian and dinner was a cheerful affair.

Enter Ezra and his rabbit trail brain:

“Hey Mom, do you remember what we had for dinner in Canada that time?”

“Ummm… no. Could you be more specific?”

“You remember, we were camping, it was raining and we had beef stroganoff just like this, dad made it on the camp stove, only there was no rice… and Gabe caught a handful of green snakes and you yelled at him… remember?”

Everyone laughed and the stories of one of the serious contenders for our “worst day ever” of travel were told with gusto.

Here is the thing that’s amazing… that story took place almost six years ago. 

Ezra was four. 

Not only did he remember what we had for dinner, he remembered the whole experience, like it was yesterday, far more clearly than the adults at the table (who have blocked out the trauma, likely) and it came back to him as a happy memory related to a meal served on the opposite side of the world.

Nova Scotia, Canada, 2007 (trip of the above memory)

Of all of our children, Ezra has had the least conventional childhood.

  • He had his feet in the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Hawaiian Pacific before he was seven months old and had split his time between about ten states and two countries before he was a year old.
  • We sold his bed out from under him when he was just five and he’s spent over half of his life on the road.
  • He’s slept in tents, hammocks, youth hostels, the Four Seasons, log cabins, his great-great-great grandfather’s house, in jungles, rain forests, deserts, on volcanos and on night buses like there’s no difference between them.
  • He can get around in Spanish and has a smattering of four or five other languages.
  • He prefers third world markets to department stores, but doesn’t hesitate to haggle with the manager at Walmart if he thinks a price is too high (and has managed to negotiate the price down, mind you!)
  • He’s not particularly hip to ten year old American Boy culture, but he’s right at home with the slightly stoned in Amsterdam, he sees no reason not to sit with the twenty-somethings and discuss chicken bus etiquette and he’s hip to the finer points of overcoming cultural boundaries with a soccer ball.

He and several of his best friends almost got in a fist fight on a NH playground once over a local yokel calling Ez a liar when he mentioned, in passing, an adventure involving camels over Christmas when he was just six.

He remembers everything.

He remembers stuff we don’t remember, and then looks at us like we’re wrong in the head when we don’t know what he’s talking about, until we finally reach way back in the dark recesses and recall some shadow of his retelling of a boat ride on the Rhine and a particular castle he thought was cool, or the song the Dutch were singing as their soccer team made it to the Euro finals the summer we were riding the coast of the North Sea on our bikes.

I’ve heard lots of people argue, in articles and interviews, or in the comments of an online piece, that traveling with young kids is a waste.


The argument goes something like this:

“Why spend the time and the money, they aren’t going to remember it anyway. It’s too much work for something that won’t benefit them. If you wait until they’re older then it will be worthwhile to them, they’ll learn something from it. To travel with young kids is just selfishness on the part of the parents, what kids need is security and routine.”

I can’t speak for all families, or for all kids. I know there are people who don’t want to travel. I know there are people who can’t travel, for one reason or another. I know that there are people who have to travel differently because of their own realities. I can appreciate that.

But I can speak for our family, and families we know who travel, and I can say, with absolute certainty, that travel with young children is not a waste in any sense, it is without question valuable to the child and the parents, and it is the farthest thing from selfish on the part of the parent.


Travel is a benefit to kids

Even babies.

  • Their brain synapses are wide open and they are making connections at lightning speed.
  • The more connections they make with diverse populations and experiences, the better as they build their construct of the world.
  • They learn flexibility.
  • They expand their range of experiences.
  • They develop food tastes beyond their birth region.
  • Language centers are most open in the early years and the more exposure kids have to languages as little ones, the better when they try to learn them later.
  • Travel creates entertainment and diversion for kids in the natural flow of life.
  • They learn how to overcome hard things, bear with difficult things and develop patience in a way that kids who aren’t being stretched by the third world definition of “time” might not.

And even if they never remember one single thing from the trip you took when they were three, who they are is different for having taken it. Every single experience molds us into who we become as adults and that trip becomes part of them.

I have a good friend whose parents took her to Europe once as a child. She doesn’t remember every single thing, but she remembers much. It’s the only real international trip she’s gotten to take in her whole life. She lives on the diversity that trip handed her and it’s changed her perspective on everything, right down to what she does for a living (helping immigrants assimilate to Canadian culture.) She’s one of the most multi-cultural people I know and the fire was lit in childhood on a summer’s trip.

Canada, 2002 (Ez is 6 weeks old)

Travel is a benefit to parents

We’re sold an image of “family life” in the USA and Canada (other first world western places as well) it involves a lot of expensive gadgetry, pre-processed foods, and complicated “methods” of ensuring that every aspect of our progeny’s life is organized for complete physical, psychological and emotional optimization. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to be good parents. I’m just saying the boxed variety of parenthood we’re sold isn’t exactly the corner on the market.

Traveling with young kids is an eye opening experience.

You’ll find that there are other approaches to babyhood that are way outside your box and comfort zone but that seem to work beautifully. You’ll find that childhood has different definitions in different corners of the world. You’ll find your children your biggest asset to cross cultural communication and authentic connections with “locals.”

Seeing the world through the eyes of your child, putting down the guide book to study the trail of leaf cutter ants on a jungle trail at Coba will bring the whole world into perspective and down to child size. You’ll find your sense of wonder again.

Traveling with your kids will cause you to be a different parent at home.

Priorities shift. Necessities are redefined. Family life is renegotiated. You’ll learn things with and through your kids that will change how you approach the task of parenting and the community you come home to.

Mexico, 2010

What Kids Need

Kids do need schedule, and routine, I agree with that. I’m a big believer in schedule and routine for little ones, but that doesn’t have to mean clock watching and meals in the same high chair three times a day.

The real security in the parent-child relationship is found in the relationship itself, not in the measurable externals.

It’s the trust, the joy, the mutual excitement for life, the shared memories and experiences that bond people and provide a secure sphere in which the child can feel free to grow and explore. In our experience, this has very little to do with physical location, or the tangibles around us.

Is it selfish to travel with kids?

Is it selfish to model a passion driven life, to show your kids what it looks like to take risks, live your dreams and have adventures… not in spite of them, mind you, but with them, for them, even? I don’t think so. I think it’s the very best gift you could give your kids. It’s the best gift my parents gave me.

I don’t know what Ezra will be when he grows up.

I wouldn’t even dare to place a wager on that. Whatever man is latent in his bull moose little self is a force to be reckoned with, and he’ll do things I can’t even imagine from where I sit as his gypsy mama. That I would put all of my money on.

If you were to ask him if traveling with kids is a good idea, I don’t think he’d even know how to answer you. It’s not “travel” to him, it’s just his life. His life is just like every other ten year old’s life, it just happens in more places and more languages.

Right now he and Elisha are about two miles away.

They hiked down to the beach to hang out with some little friends for the afternoon. They’re probably doing a little snorkeling and sandcastle building. I’ll get a report in a few hours when we find them at the market and buy dinner from our chicken guy and our spring roll ladies. You read that right, he’s on the loose in Thailand, completely unsupervised with his brother. In a country where he does not speak the language and where he’s the massive minority. He hit the door without so much as a goodbye kiss for his mama.

And right there, that’s where I think the real benefit is for travel with young kids: they don’t see the boundaries.

They don’t see the map lines (although his geography is very good, he’s crossed enough borders!) They just see people. They aren’t afraid of differences. They’re willing to try stuff. They have confidence borne from real success in difficult situations. If he sets another fishhook in his foot, he’ll get the help he needs from our friends at the beach restaurant and he’ll walk home if he has to.

You might be able to argue with me that travel isn’t essential to a childhood, but you’ll never get me to acquiesce that it’s a waste of time. I’m sitting on evidence to the contrary.