When our family travels, we return home with more than souvenirs and photos. Exhilarated by our adventures together, we feel closer and stronger as a family.
These shared travel experiences – the not-so-good as well as the good – have enhanced our lives in many ways. My children may not remember every thing about every trip, but our travels as a whole shape us both as individuals and as a family.
“Travel defines who you are as a family,” says Laura Manske, editor of Family Travel: The Farther You Go, the Closer You Get (Travelers' Tales Guides) and the mother of two children, ages 10 and 14. “The more time you spend with your children, the closer you get.”
Travel allows families to connect in ways not always possible at home, where busy daily routines dominate our lives.
Kids Take on New Roles
“I love to travel with my kids. I don’t have my ‘to-do’ list and it’s a chance for us to cocoon and travel down the rabbit hole,” says Manske.
“You become a tight little unit where you rely on each other. Family roles change, and everyone becomes more of an equal member of the family,” says Wenda O’Reilly, Ph.D., author of The Impressionist Art Book and wife of travel publisher James O’Reilly. The O’Reillys have traveled with their three teenage daughters since the girls were babies.
“When you’re traveling,” Wenda adds, “everyone has a different responsibility than they do at home.” Parents and children study maps, plan itineraries and solve problems together. Working as a team strengthens bonds.
In my experience, siblings usually become better friends. The playing field is leveled, not just between siblings, but among parents and children. It’s wonderful for children to have parents rely on them.
Antonia Komitov, a mother of three, recalls promising her young son to take him snorkeling during a family vacation. Adjusting to breathing through a snorkel tube, she lagged behind her fearless son in the warm Caribbean Sea. “Come on Mommy, what’s the matter?” he said. “Hold my hand.” His courage and concern encouraged her, and she joined him for what proved to be a wonderful adventure.
Responsibility and Independence
The best time to start traveling as a family is when children are young. Adults who didn’t travel as children tend to travel with more fear, says O’Reilly. They might worry about making fools of themselves, or may not be comfortable using telephones or bathrooms that are different from the ones at home.
Young travelers also learn increased responsibility. Even when her children were 4, 6 and 8 years old, O’Reilly gave them real responsibilities. The 8-year-old was the German shepherd of the pack, keeping an eye out for her younger sisters, making sure the group stayed together and was holding hands. When checking out of a hotel room, one of them would be assigned to do a room check, looking for items left behind.
Her girls took responsibility for packing their suitcases at a young age. They learned that “if you don’t pack a sweater, you’re going to be cold,” she says, adding that, with practice, the girls learned to be well-organized.
On a trip to Austria, Marianne Gunther, a mother of two who works for a travel company that organizes trips abroad, encouraged her children to mix with the locals so that they would learn some German and a bit about the Austrian way of life. The children walked to the local post office and used their German to buy stamps, and then bought pastries at the bakery, and her son joined in neighborhood soccer games.
Travel Through Kids’ Eyes
The O’Reillys ask their daughters’ opinions about where to travel and what they would like to do. “We really listen to our kids,” Wenda O’Reilly says. “They learn that what they think matters. They feel empowered.”
The family discusses itineraries and then negotiates. The result: richer trips and seeing destinations through their children’s eyes.
Parents can experience the world all over again traveling with their children, says Manske. Her children are her magnifying glass. “They help me stop and rethink things. They ask ‘Why?’” she says. Consequently, Manske and her children stop to enjoy the smell of a pine forest or to examine paintings on cave walls. You have to be patient, answer questions and give yourself over to them, she says
Cultural Awareness Comes Home
When you take a child out of his or her daily environment, it opens new windows of understanding of the world. On trips within the United States, kids will notice differences – some subtle, some obvious – from state to state, city to city. You can help your kids understand the historical events that shaped American cities, and help them spot evidence of ethnic or cultural influences. But your study of culture can be light, too: Watch for differences in body language, clothing styles and public behavior. For example, do people smile or make eye contact more or less than they do at home? Do pedestrians wait for the “walk” light before venturing out into the street?
Traveling abroad exposes children to different cultures and languages – both spoken and non-verbal.
“Kids learn that the world is not how it is in a suburb in the United States, that people live differently and have different values,” says O’Reilly. In some countries, people often stand closer to each other, use their hands more and might be more assertive – behavior that many Americans don’t understand and might misinterpret, says O’Reilly.
Family mealtimes became more important to Marianne Gunther’s family when they traveled to Europe. Unlike our fast-paced society, Europeans linger over meals, notes Gunther. At home, the Gunthers extend their vacation feeling by inviting friends over for leisurely, European-style meals.
Immersed in foreign cultures, children may learn to appreciate unfamiliar music and cuisine, making them more open-minded to trying new things. They may even gain a broader understanding of human beings and, with encouragement from their parents, may learn tolerance and compassion – and an appreciation for what they have at home.
When children visit non-English speaking countries, they experience being an outsider. When they visit a beautiful but poor country, they see for themselves the depth and consequences of poverty. Back at home, they may demonstrate a better understanding of immigrants and be less likely to judge individuals with accents or other differences.
History comes alive when you travel. Within the United States, you can visit the sites of important moments in American history, and make connections to your kids’ knowledge of geography, literature and government at the same time. If you are headed to Europe, children can walk through centuries-old castles and churches and stand in awe of Roman ruins.
O’Reilly’s girls grew up visiting so many European churches and museums that recently, as teens, they contributed to The Impressionist Art Game, a book and card set to educate families about art.
The O’Reilly children also learned lessons that none of them expected in Austria and Switzerland – such as the value and ease of recycling. Paper, apple cores and coffee grounds are regularly recycled, so that nothing is wasted.
Challenges and Flexibility
If life on the road can occasionally be bumpy, it’s how we bounce back as a family that counts.
The O’Reilly children’s worst fear when they were young was that they would become separated from their parents in a foreign country. The day came when the children boarded a train in England that then left the station without their parents. The station master called ahead to the next station and eventually the family was reunited.
“It all worked out, and the kids lived through their worst fear. But they saw that there are wonderful people in the world. There is always a helping hand,” says O’Reilly.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is to be flexible and not get too upset when plans go awry – think “adventure!” Children take their cues from parents. If you’re cheated by cab drivers and snubbed by waiters, make patience and humor the soupe du jour. If Plan A falls apart, have a Plan B.
On a visit to Italy, we missed a bus for an excursion. We instead browsed through shops, and my son bought a locally handcrafted wooden box he still treasures.
Delays, long waits at airports and mishaps are bound to be part of any trip. Practice patience (you too, Mom and Dad) and beat boredom with a book and a snack or a card game with your kids. Brush up on a foreign language. Give yourself over to loss of control for a change.
Whether your family is taking a camping trip to a neighboring state or sight-seeing abroad, savor the experience.