Why you should still travel with children who are too young to remember it

Travelling with babies and toddlers can be hard work – but there are infinite rewards for your efforts. Even though they may not remember your family trips, Terry Ward explains why you should still travel with young kids. 

A woman holds her children in the Arctic.
Terry Ward and her kids in Arctic Norway © Terry-Ward.com / Lonely Planet

I consider myself a tough traveller and never gave a second thought to whether having two kids under two would stop my wandering (of course it wouldn’t). But a recent flight from Colorado with my toddler nearly broke me. Not one to sit still for long, she howled and thrashed until I feared the seatbelt might hurt her, leaving no choice but to release her to rummage under the seats in front of us (apologies to the passengers in row 27). This trip, I knew, was one I would never forget.

It’s safe to say that Gabriela – just two years old – would never remember it. Not the hellish flight, not the sleigh ride where she steered two Belgian draft horses, nor the sheer chaos of our fondue dinner at a spot called Swiss Haven that was anything but. My kids had already been to the Arctic, North Africa and all over Europe by this point, too, none of which they’ll remember. Yet I’m already planning our next family vacation, because travel has done so much for my two toddlers’ socialization and confidence, as well as our family’s bonding. And also, of course, because I love to travel. A wise friend told me that as long as you realize that traveling with young kids is not a vacation, it’s worth it. Even if they won’t remember anything of their early travels, I’m convinced we’re laying the groundwork for a lifetime of well-adjusted adventures. Here's why. 

A small child is looking out of an airport window and pointing at something outside.
Even the airport can be a learning experience © Terry-Ward.com / Lonely Planet

You’re raising your future travel buddies 

A friend of mine told me that when child rearing, just remember you’re raising your best friends. By normalizing travel from the start, I also see myself as raising some of my best future travel partners. Even if my kids can’t remember the specifics of our vacation in Spain, travel at any age is a lesson in patience and adaptability – from waiting in the airport security line to trying new foods, sleeping in new beds and learning to interact with kids who don’t speak their language. Like sleep begets sleep, travel begets travel. The more you do it – and the earlier you start – the better they’ll be at going with the flow on future adventures.

It helps their brains develop 

We know toddlers are sponges. My three-year-old still remembers the name of a Finnish friend who took him sledding in Rovaniemi last winter. There's no doubt that the stimulation of new experiences – whether reading a book at home, visiting the zoo or hitting the road – is good for kids. When I travel with my children, it automatically means less screen time as we navigate new surrounds away from our predictable routine. It’s a form of bonding that’s good for their brains and also good for our family. They might not remember or care about seeing the Eiffel Tower, but plan an immersive experience around it – unpacking a picnic basket and sitting in the grass to try a new cheese – and you’ve anchored in a glorious new moment instead of plodding through your usual day-to-day. 

A child sleeps sprawled out in a hotel bed.
Adapting to a new bed in Helsinki is one of the many things learned on the road © Terry-Ward.com / Lonely Planet

Kids who learn to adapt while traveling are more easy-going at home 

I may not have scientific backing for this, but I’m convinced this is true after seeing how well my toddlers adapt to last-minute changes in our home routine thanks to the flexibility travel has taught them. In Europe, where we almost never encountered a kids’ menu, they learned to eat what was on offer. It’s no surprise that they’re less fussy back home. In the north, when it stayed light until 10pm in the summer, we all got used to staying up past their 7pm bedtimes, just like the local children. Kids are far more flexible than we give them credit for. I’ve seen travel build confidence in my children – an openness to new people and experiences – that I’m convinced would have been trickier to teach back home.

These are years you won’t get back 

A fellow mom of two toddlers wrote an article with a headline I always remember – that you get 18 summers with your kids before they’re too cool to travel with you. Let’s hope that’s not true, but there’s no doubt these years pass in a flash – and we don’t get them back. Your kids might not remember walking through the souk with you in Marrakesh, but you’ll remember that carpet shop and their faces as they ventured through it like an Aladdin’s wonderland – and your memories are worth something, too. When they’re a bit older, you’ll have the photos to show them of all the places they went and the people they met. And chances are you’ll have laid the foundation, too, for the kind of travelers the world needs more of – the kind who are open to new people and experiences, and who realize that the world is far bigger than the little corners of it we call home.

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