I’ve spoken with many who would love to travel as a family but worry that it’s just too difficult, perhaps even unfair to their children. Traveling with children certainly does have its challenges, but after two years of travel with my husband Noah and four-year-old daughter Lila, I’ve found the rewards far outweigh any potential disadvantages.
Parent Comes Before Tourist
People love kids, and if you’re lucky enough to be traveling with one, you’ll find whatever magic dust they have rubs off on you. You’ll be the first to board airplanes and buses. You’ll meet people more easily. You’ll be more accepted into communities that might not have accepted you if you arrived solo.
I am convinced Lila was our ambassador with the Kuna Yala in the San Blas Islands of Panama. Lila ran barefoot through the village with the other children while Noah and I chatted with the parents. We were the only ones invited beyond the confines of tourist housing.
Packing Light Requires Imagination
I’ve seen Lila transform rocks into a walkie-talkie and plants into money. She has an invisible friend named Bendy, who, quite frankly, freaks me out because she’s prone to throwing herself out of bus windows. Not to worry, though, Bendy inevitably ends up at our destination.
Packing for children requires a little imagination. You need to keep them entertained on the road. For Lila, I pack a drawing book, magnifying glass to see bugs (she likes bugs), and art supplies. We regularly go on nature walks to collect sticks, sea shells, sponges, and leaves to be used later for art projects.
I’ve also found balloons work well. Blow one up, and you have something to bounce around like a ball. Glue leaves to it, and you have a stuffed animal. Bubbles are also a favorite. Within seconds of opening a bottle, you’ll find yourself surrounded by jumping, laughing kids all vying for a turn to pop the translucent creatures as they float away on the wind.
You wouldn’t invite a friend who hates getting dirty to hike with you through the jungle, and you wouldn’t ask a vegetarian to join you for a hamburger, yet somehow it’s easier to overlook the simple act of asking our children what they prefer.
Of course, a friend will usually tell you straight out what she wants, and then you split up and do different things. With a child, there’s less opportunity to go separate ways and more of a chance she’ll throw herself on the ground, kicking and screaming.
When Lila tantrums, she’s trying to tell me something. Acting out can mean she’s hungry or tired. It can also mean she misses her granny and grandpa or doesn’t want to travel anymore. I do my best to listen.
Children Are Infinitely Adaptable
Kids can handle and do a lot more than we think they can. They don’t need constant monitoring, and they can show far more patience, kindness, and responsibility than we credit them.
Does it make Lila sad to say goodbye when we leave a place? Yes, but everyone must learn to say goodbye. She’s also learned to walk into a crowd of strangers and turn them into friends, even if they don’t share a common language.
This is sometimes difficult for me. I want to protect her from getting hurt, but sadness is an inevitable part of life. I’ve also had to let go of the notion that I know what’s best and allow Lila to navigate the world a bit on her own.
And isn’t that exactly what we all strive for, adult or child, when we leave home to travel?
Leigh travels with her children all over the world. For more advice on traveling with kids as well as her family’s travel adventures, check out her website at The Future is Red.