It might be a bit presumptuous of me to give advice to parents, as I am only half a parent myself – I raised two step-children which, let me assure you, is a very different ballgame than having children of your own. From my 50-year-old perch, this might also sound like the usual “when I was young things used to be better” kind of tale but, looking at the over-parented children I am often in contact with, I am fairly certain they would all benefit from less protection and more exposure to travel. Or life in general.
Young, and not so young parents, often deem travel with young kids too much of a hassle and they comfortably settle for the same vacation routine summer after summer: a trip to the parks, a house by the sea, short jaunts here and there.
My parents are not particularly adventurous and they come from solid middle class stock – yet, for reasons I never asked, once I entered the picture, they decided they would not forgo travel just because I had arrived. I was bundled up and taken along before I can even remember. The first distinct memory of a foreign trip is traipsing the Austrian Alps in itchy woollen pants and hiking boots, age 5, climbing what seemed giant rocks to my little stubby legs. I might have assimilated the first rule of travel right there and then – never complain and learn to adapt.
In the following years, my eyes were open to different sceneries, tastes, smells and customs. While staying with some friends in Rotterdam, I discovered that Dutch houses were built very differently to Italian ones and that, as cute as they looked, the wooden clogs I insisted on buying and wearing, were very uncomfortable. Germans cooked potatoes the best and in Lausanne I tasted my very first handmade chocolates in an old store up a rickety street (and possibly my lifelong addiction to chocolate was born). I touched Communism first hand with multiple trips to the former Yugoslavia, where there were no shops but they served street food in the form of raznjici and cevapcici that I fell in love with. The finicky child who used to complain about dinner at home would have no hesitation trying exotic sounding foods anywhere else.
My father loathed planes so we were often treated to train sleeper cars – and how I loved the starched sheets of the top bunk and being rocked to sleep by the clanging rhythm of the wheels on the tracks. At dawn, I would lift the curtain ever so slightly and, lying on my belly, I would watch the scenery change, the street signs, the license plates, the voices and sounds, the vegetation become foreign and hence magical. Then some cavernous station would welcome us and it was a flurry of luggage and taxis and on to a new adventure.
Even after I started school, at least once a year, my dad would take me on a business trip with him. He would instruct me to inform the teachers I would be absent for a week and to gather the lessons I would miss. He knew that floating down the Seine, learning to eat lobster, following him around like a dog at trade fairs, welcoming my day with a stroll to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, would be more invaluable lessons than another week of algebra.
At fourteen, my parents deemed me ready to face travel on my own, in the form of study abroad sojourns, where I would stay with local families who fed me and boarded me but provided much less supervision than they believed. In return, they got the whole Summer free from me and my teenage drag.
I didn’t know it at the time but all this running around Europe from a tender age left me curious for strange foods, tolerant of different cultures and inure to the mishaps that are apt to happen when we travel. Taking my little self out of my comfort zone early on gave me confidence and took away the fear of the unknown, the different, the untested. I am not sure my parents fully knew what they were doing; I suspect they just wanted to continue their explorations and couldn’t bear a whole string of Summer holidays on the riviera until I, or my sister, came of age. I also learnt to pack light, never ask if we were there yet and to daydream while being transported.
So, pack up your kids and go. Ignore the evil looks when you are boarding a plane with your toddler or baby. Don’t think of all the things that could go wrong – especially nowadays, you can get competent help nearly everywhere. And remember, temper tantrums are much less likely to happen in Bangkok or Rome or Mexico City than on Martha’s Vineyard or Disneyland. And for all the things your kids will hate you for later on in life, taking them places, they will always thank you for.