Even for young children, travel offers many benefits. They remember more than you realize (researchers at Harvard University have shown that children as young as 17 months retain long-term memories), and exposure to different cultures, languages, and even food can influence young minds for a lifetime.
In an age when screen time is increasingly taking the place of outdoor play, travel is the opposite of digital distraction. It’s teaching your children the art of paying attention, finding the novelty in everything, and treating life as a grand adventure. You might be going to look at old churches or ancient rice paddies, but what you’re really showing your children is that being present in the moment has value. Being present is nearly a lost art in our modern lives and carving out that time when they are young will be one of the most important gifts you can give them—even if you travel no farther than your own backyard.
With practice, patience, and perspective, it’s possible to raise happy travelers.
START THEM YOUNG (PRACTICE)
If you dream of taking more elaborate family vacations like touring the Galapagos or ziplining through Costa Rica when your kids get older, it’s better to start your little ones years beforehand. Kids who grow up traveling tend to be much more laid back, flexible, and ready for adventure. While your child’s age will factor into how much they can do with you, it’s really about practice.
Families that pursue their interests together (think: hiking, surfing, or skiing) all start their kids as young as possible and condition them over time, with love and patience, to the demands of their pursuit. For travel, that’s the ability to stand in line at the immigration desk before getting on a flight, or sleeping on a bumpy bus overnight.
ADVENTURE IS A STATE OF MIND (PATIENCE)
Your children will naturally model your state of mind, whether you realize it or not. It’s not always easy to keep your cool while dealing with the inevitable mishaps that come from navigating to a place you’ve never been before, but to lessen my stress I just pad my time—more time to get to the airport, more time to pack up at the hotel. When that isn’t enough, I just fake it. Over the years it’s gotten easier to be the cool Zen center of my family as I’ve carefully cultivated this attitude. If you’re calm, your children remain calm.
By the way, if this doesn’t work, revert to plan B: snacks, toys and bribes. Works every time.
THEY WILL CHANGE HOW YOU SEE THE WORLD (PERSPECTIVE)
If you’ve traveled before having children, you’ll notice the difference immediately. Instead of being the invisible tourist, you’ll be the family unit. You’ll be invited into people’s homes more often or stopped for a brief conversation on the street. In some ways, your tiny foreigner child is like a local celebrity as you travel overseas, being immensely approachable because he or she is so young, plus being from another part of the world, makes your child an instant novelty. This shift means a different kind of travel experience, one where you’ll likely get to know more of the locals, get directed to more of the best spots, and have more meaningful interactions.
As adults we consume travel from a distance: we arrive, we stand back, we admire, we take a photo, and we move on. Children touch and look, they crawl and explore. They notice the mouse living in the corner or the hidden etching at knee level. They are fully present and absolutely interactive. They make extremely playful tour guides.
THE REST IS SIMPLICITY
For everything else, keep it as simple as possible:
- Start small, pack light, and go easy on yourself.
- Break up long flights to no more than four hours, and if possible, with a hotel stay in between, because well-rested kids travel better.
- Travel with no more than one carry-on and two suitcases for the whole family. You can purchase anything extra when you arrive (if you need it, the locals will need it too), and having less to carry means being less distracted and less stressed, which leads to happier kids.
- Splurge on hotels with a pool.
- Eat locally, always, but only where there’s a crowd. Popular places are unlikely to serve unclean food.
- Diapers and baby food are available everywhere, but stock up if you’re going somewhere remote.
- Pack children’s Tylenol, Benadryl, and anything else you might need (you can find these almost everywhere, but when you need it you don’t want to hunt for a pharmacy overseas).
- For very little ones, baby-proof your hotel room upon arrival by unplugging the phone, clearing the desk, and placing everything up high (try to avoid booking hotel rooms with decorative features like pebbles in the bathroom or ornate vases next to the bed).
Just like being a parent, traveling with kids is a work in progress. You will largely figure out what works best for your kids and your family as you go. But it’s never too soon to start, and you might be surprised at just how much you love it.
Christine Gilbert is the author of Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish. She’s traveled to over 40 countries with her 3- and 6-year-old.