Imagine your favorite travel memoirs with children. Hemingway watching the bull fights in Spain with a baby in his lap. Elizabeth Gilbert visiting Italy, Bali, and India with a toddler. Bill Bryson walking the parameter of England not alone, but accompanied by his four children.
“Are we there yet?”
We have a blueprint for The Great Solo Adventure because of the books and movies that depict these stories in vivid detail. Traveling with children, on the other hand, brings to mind babies screaming on flights, pre-holiday frazzled parents, lugging too many things through crowded airports, and bored teenagers in the back of a decidedly uncool minivan.
The reality is much different. There’s a moment that’s burned into my heart forever. It was in Siem Reap; my son was about two years old and he was giggling his way through a temple. The temples are dark inside, a relief from the Southeast Asian heat, and the stone is cool on your feet and hands as you make your way through twisting passageways. My son came to the temple sweeper, a nearly toothless man who worked hunched over his entire day, and they had a brief exchange. In the background someone was lighting incense and, in that moment, the temple felt old, quiet, and sacred.
When traveling with children, the benefit goes in both directions. If I had been there alone a decade earlier, I would have breezed through the ruins like every other tourist before retiring with a well-iced cocktail in my hotel room. Instead, we explored the ruins inch by inch, looking into every room, chasing down my son’s curiosity for the better part of a day. For him, it was a chance to see Cambodia, hear the language, taste the food, and interact with people with a different worldview, life experience, background and culture. It’s an early lesson in differences – shattering any beliefs that everyone acts, talks, and thinks the same way and opening his mind to the reality that the world is full of differences.So many of the things I want to instill in my children can be taught through travel. Click To Tweet
We know that children are highly impressionable in their early years. Studies have shown that children who grow up with a different language or friends who don’t look like them end up becoming adults who have more empathy, and can imagine how other people think and feel even if it’s not their own way. There’s a long tradition of creatives spending years abroad, whether that’s the expat writer or the artist in residency – and maybe exploring and living in another cultures makes you more open to new ideas, or going against conventional wisdom.
What I know, as a mother who has traveled far and wide with her kids, is that our children are remarkably adaptable. They’re perfect travel companions, really – especially compared to my less flexible friends who have lost their temper over long waits or bad service – but even more importantly, so many of the things I want to instill in my children can be taught through travel.
I want my children to be fearless and sometimes they are: They’ll start playing with a group of French-speaking school children without pausing to consider how they’ll communicate. I want them to see life as an adventure, where they have can stay calm in the face of challenges and problem solve to make it better. I see hints of this forming as they can turn an afternoon school supply shopping trip into just as much of an event as a flight to a new country. I want my kids to know that people everywhere are kind – to know firsthand when someone says “those people” or the “them” that in reality they are talking about families just like theirs.
So how do you achieve this? Travel young.
And yes, perhaps it would have ruined those classic books: The Sun Also Rises couldn’t possibly be so booze-soaked; Eat, Pray, Love would have less emotional deep dives and more diaper changes; and Bill Bryson couldn’t be nearly as amusingly curmudgeonly in Notes From a Small Island if he had his four children there to entertain.
But for the rest of us, travel with them as young as you dare, show them whatever parts of the world intrigue you and just know that the transformative nature of travel isn’t just reserved for grown-ups.
This piece first appeared on Signature and is republished with the author’s permission.