One Giant Leap

How to Make Travel Meaningful for Children

For many parents, traveling with children is intimidating. Especially daunting are the exotic adventures that were commonplace before the kids were born. Heidi Mitchell, journalist and mother of three, explains how she manages to make it all work, and make it worthwhile… most of the time.

In the past 16 years of parenthood, there were at least eight years where the only times I’d go anywhere that wasn’t an all-inclusive, a cruise, or Camp Grandma was for work or a quick weekend d’amour with my husband. It wasn’t that I didn’t crave an escape to Rome or Rajasthan, but the requisite wastefulness of taking three kids, on multiple flights, to destinations with exotic food, iffy plumbing, and glorious history that they’d never appreciate diminished any desires. So we went to California, where my family lives; to Scotland, where my husband’s family lives; and to Mexico, where flights are non-stop, the hotels have kids’ camps, and the food is familiar.

Those were great trips, don’t get me wrong; we now know what time of day is best to visit Chichen Itza, and which is our favorite burger in San Francisco, and where to avoid the tourists in Edinburgh. But we had once been adventurers, my husband and I, and we wanted to reveal to our children that side of ourselves while also showing them the world.

To do that would require baby steps.

Mosque and cave
Samarkand, Uzbekistan (left) and Wadi Rum, Jordan (right)

My first exotic venture with offspring was just with Thing 1, on a work trip to China. He was not yet six, and the Olympics were all anyone could talk about. In Beijing, we saw the Bird’s Nest and the Forbidden City. We walked the Great Wall. Far west in Yunnan, we placed candles in a river and took countless selfies in Lijang with locals, many of whom had never seen a blond white child. I admit, that trip emboldened me, though my eldest son remembers only the selfie lines.

Back home I enrolled the kids in Mandarin immersion school and began taking classes myself. I took them on a complicated trip to MittelEurope that required buses and trains and, other than the Sound of Music portion, was a total fail. I tried again for China, this time to secondary cities like Nanjing, also a fail. Getting lost where no signs are in English letters does not a holiday make. Steeling myself, I continued to study flight maps and contemplated where we could go as a family that would be entertaining, enlightening, and still fun.

Over two weeks, we learned that a morning activity (not too early!), an afternoon of laziness (not too long as to induce boredom), and an evening adventure before or after dinner was the magic formula.

Nevertheless, those imperfect trials rekindled my intrepid spirit. A couple of Christmases later, instead of the usual trip to the UK, we jetted to Zanzibar, probably because the flights were reasonable and the weather good. We kayaked in glass-bottom boats, visited the birthplace of Freddie Mercury, and learned about the slave trade. New Year’s was spent in Kenya on safari. My daughter loved the baby giraffes and elephants, but hated the early starts. “I just want to see the lions, then get on the next plane back to New York!” she’d exclaim in tears at 5am each morning. (She denies the line to this day, but I have it written in “the book” of best quotes.) Over two weeks, we learned that a morning activity (not too early!), an afternoon of laziness (not too long as to induce boredom), and an evening adventure before or after dinner was the magic formula.

Rhino
Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya

From there we truly kicked it up a notch, though we tried to match travels with whatever at least one of the kids was studying in school. One spring break we drove for two weeks from Istanbul to Bodrum, stopping at Gallipoli (after watching the 1981 Mel Gibson movie) to witness the massacre site during World War I. At the statue of a fallen soldier, the words of Ataturk, the nation’s founder, are emblazoned on a plaque: “You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.” All of us cried at those words. At last, these trips were having an impact.

From there we truly kicked it up a notch, though we tried to match travels with whatever at least one of the kids was studying in school.

Increasingly, as the kids got older, we let them (help) decide the destination. Egypt was at the top of the list, because they’d all learned about the Valley of the Kings, and lord knows we’d dragged them to enough museum exhibitions on Ancient Egypt. The cruise down the Nile was one of our most cherished holidays, and not just because my middle child got to hold an Uzi (the armed guards were always in view). Our guides let us totally bend (break?) the rules and climb into long-ago raided tombs for excellent photo ops and take pictures where none are allowed, like in Nefertiti’s subterranean grave. We ventured on to Oman to visit a friend living there and gained an understanding of life in a strict Arab country, covering our skin and bargaining even for lunch in Salalah. They loved it.

Camels
Giza, Egypt

So naturally we took a summer’s break to Uzbekistan, because why not? As a group we’d learned we enjoyed Muslim-majority countries the most, with their superb food and beguiling foreign customs. Who knew Samarkand was the epicenter of the Silk Road, or that the famous Ulugh Beg built his observatory here? Who knew Shakespeare frenemy Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great was based on the ruthless 14th-century tyrant, Timur the Lame, so notorious among Uzbeks? Or that Registan Square rivals the Taj Mahal for beauty, but is unencumbered by tourists? Or that you can eat horse? We freakin’ loved Uzbekistan.

Lately, older and wiser, we are increasingly cool with winging it. For the past year, with our kids now 11, 14, and 16, we pretty much pick a place we can all agree on, book the flight, and pay for only the first night’s hotel.

On all of those adventures, we hired guides to help get us around and optimize our time. Lately, older and wiser, we are increasingly cool with winging it. For the past year, with our kids now 11, 14, and 16, we pretty much pick a place we can all agree on, book the flight, and pay for only the first night’s hotel.

We drove up the California coast last summer with little more than a plan to see some colleges, and not much else. Thanks to the gods of timing and the kids’ willingness to go with the flow, we crossed paths with six of my closest friends from university, and we ended up in their awesome hot tub rather than our roadside motel pool. It was absolute serendipity — exactly what travel for me and my husband used to be before kids, when we’d rendezvous in Morocco or ride horses in remotest Chile.

These family trips give us shared memories and that all-important isolated time together, but also the leisure to make mistakes and learn from them.

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that Spring Break this year will be in Mexico again, not the originally-planned Ethiopia, but we’re all exhausted. Sometimes you gotta give in to a relaxing trip to rejuvenate and reconnect and not go-go-go. I’m sure we’ll spend nights talking about where to go next, and I know Costa Rica will be on the short list — the little one is crazy into animals and is keen to show off her ability to keep up with her brothers on the zip-lines. Whether it’s to the Osa Peninsula or to North Africa (also top of everyone’s list), these family trips give us shared memories and that all-important isolated time together, but also the leisure to make mistakes and learn from them.

Scorpion
Beijing

We will never eat eggs before a long road trip, I now know that — my Beijing shirt still smells of vomit. We will always leave a few hours a day for relaxing in the room or by the pool (and if there’s an option for a pool, we’ll take it, thank you very much). An ice cream a day is still a delight even for a 16-year-old (or a 51-year-old). As long as the cell phones work, we’re even okay with letting the three kids wander off for a few hours. They always come back with the best stories, exploits that can only happen in a foreign place with a little freedom.

I have learned two rules of the road: assess my goals before booking any family holiday and then align them with the children’s interests.

I told the kids about Mexico, and they were psyched. Not as excited as they will be for Costa Rica, but still. After so many countries and travel both difficult and easy, my children have learned to love getting away, if not to bask in some sun or eat horse, then to at least break the cycle of school, sports, homework, school. And I have learned two rules of the road: assess my goals before booking any family holiday and then align them with the children’s interests.

Hard-selling Ethiopia wasn’t gonna win my kids’ hearts right now. A return to easy, reliable Mexico, by contrast, will. Dragging them to Vienna when they were too young to care was a waste of time and money. Now we choose together, go with the flow, and always make time for ice cream.

 

Heidi Mitchell is a writer and editor who covers trends, travel, media, politics, fashion, architecture, and design. She is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Vogue, the New York Post, and Travel+Leisure. Heidi lives in New York and Chicago with her husband and three children.

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