I think most parents have two big concerns about traveling with their kids:
1. What is the right age to do it?
2. How do I get them engaged and interested in foreign places?
Number 1 is fairly straightforward. When they are really little (i.e. not walking yet) it’s easy. Put them in a stroller, or even better, wrap them up in something like this, and just go. If the child is breastfed, even better, for a myriad of reasons – being able to feed and soothe to sleep a fussy child in this way on international flights has saved our sanity many times. Travel with kids might not seem that easy when you’re actually doing it, but later you’ll realize how much easier it was (ah, isn’t all of parenthood like that?).
When they start to walk, the whole world is one big danger zone – especially if they’re energetic, so travel can be challenging, seemingly even more trouble than it’s worth. Certain cities are more stroller-friendly than others (forget Venice with its 400+ bridges, for example). If you don’t have an ambitious list of stuff to see, it can still be okay, and while the toddler years aren’t ideal, they are possible. Once they reach 5 or 6, and more or less know what they like and don’t like, and their meltdowns are cut down to a few a day (meaning <10), consider it pretty smooth sailing. We don’t have teenagers yet ourselves, but from friends who do, we’ve been told that those are the years they want to hang out with their friends and do their own thing. Ironically, this is probably when they have the most to gain by being exposed to how other people live and develop a broader view of the world and their place in it.
Number 2 doesn’t really have an answer. In fact, the question is wrong to begin with.
Here’s the key: when we as adults travel, we try to suspend our “normal” lives to go on holiday or to experience something new. We (hopefully) try to be more tolerant and try things we normally wouldn’t. We’re out of our usual routine and instead going to museums all day long, or shopping and eating out constantly. We drink gin and tonics in the afternoon (my personal favorite), and we try to make sure it’s all worth the enormous amount of money we’re spending. We’re out of our element and whether we’re excited or stressed out, we have an agenda and we don’t like anything to get in our way of following it, even when our agenda is to just relax and do nothing.
Kids don’t operate in this way. When they travel, they still get bored. They still get irritated. They still don’t want to try new things, and most likely, don’t want to spend all day in and out of museums and churches, or shopping and eating out. And at the end of the day, they couldn’t care less what you’re spending and whether you are enjoying yourself or not. To expect that they’ll enjoy themselves simply because they’re on holiday is a set-up for disaster.
Your children are your travel companions. You might have to compromise and do some kid stuff, then your stuff. Or, you might have to forget “your stuff” altogether because let’s face it – kids suck at compromises. Being understanding of this, and taking it really slowly, will help.
Perhaps when they’re older, you’ll return and see the museums you missed. There’s more to traveling than seeing the sites and checking things off your list. Getting kids engaged in travel is really about getting them interested in foreign things.
It’s about keeping them occupied and happy, but DOING IT SOMEWHERE ELSE. Find fun things, and set it against a foreign backdrop. Kids pick up on the subtle differences, and they mimic your attitudes and opinions. They will open their eyes more to the small things that make life different, and less to the amazing fresco on the church ceiling.
If you want your children to be interested in other cultures, you have to share your interest in them yourself. You can start this at home long before you even know where you want to travel. The books you read, the friends you have, the movies you watch – these will all shape your child’s idea of your world’s borders – and whether they stop at the end of your neighborhood and comfort zone, or whether they spread out to places you know nothing about.
We joke that all three of our kids, currently between the ages of 6 and 11, were born with a suitcase in one hand. They were born in Rome, grew up more or less in our hotel, surrounded by different cultures and foreign languages. They started out going to a British international school in Rome, socialized with our Italian and non-Italian friends, spent two years in southeast Asia, and now live in a small town in the region of Umbria just north of Rome, but yet have friends all over the world. Although we live in a place where there is a strong sense of cultural identity, and little understanding of anyone who is “foreign”, they also know on a deep level that others live differently, and that there isn’t a right or wrong, a better and a worse. They know they’re fortunate to have been born where and when they were. Now after lugging them around the world all these years, they are always up for a new adventure. Our oldest daughter often asks us: “Where are we going next?”