I read an article recently that said there was a science behind not taking kids under the age of 12 on international family vacations. I’ve given it a lot of thought and I can’t say I agree, or at least, that has not been my experience. My boys are now 17 and 20 and we have been traveling as a family since they were babies. Being the general manager of a family travel company I can say my experience has been different than the author of the story. I am sure most of you will take what I say with a grain of salt as I would if I were you.
I will try and be as transparent as possible. Until the age of 5 or 6 I would agree that it is difficult for children to really enjoy “the strange smells of a Moroccan souk.” The flights and the moving about from hotel to hotel are unsettling for most children. We took our boys to Tanzania when they were 4 and 7 to visit friends there and to go on safari. They both did well on the long flight thanks to all the pre-trip planning my wife did in bringing along games, toys, and video machines to distract them. In Tanzania it was a mixed bag. My 4 year old (Joshua) didn’t have the attention span to be watching wildlife from a vehicle so we were cutting our game drives short and heading to the pool at the hotel before the scheduled time. On the other hand, my 7 year old (Christian) was very ready and happened to learn to read sitting in the back of a land rover. He read the 1989 Animal Family Series from Jane Goodall. This made his parents very proud and maybe he will brag about it when he’s older. At another point on this trip, there were four boys from 4 to 8 years old sitting beside a pool in one of the premiere game parks in Tanzania and all they wanted to do was build things with Legos. Their focus was the enjoyment of the Legos. Getting them out on safari did take a bit of convincing and maybe some arm twisting.
We continued to do adventure trips as a family year in and year out and the boys learned a lot and really did enjoy themselves.
Where I think I do agree with the article is that children do have simple pleasures and like consistency. As parents I think that we need this as well. In addition to our overseas adventures we went camping in Nickerson State park on Cape Cod and went on a long weekend ski trip during the February school vacation to New Hampshire. These two family vacations did allow our boys to ski and sled the same slopes, swim in the same pond, and watch the Cape Cod League ballgames every year. My wife (Kim) and I found these traditions important in our family. We are still doing these two family vacations although the scheduling is much more difficult with one kid in college and one in high school!
Of course, hindsight is 20/20 but maybe it was these repetitive vacations that allowed our boys the “intellectual space” to explore the more exotic spots of the world like Turkey, the Galapagos, and Cuba. I know as parents, watching them spend hours with our guide Natalia in Ecuador identifying the fish of the Galapagos was something we will never forget. They were between 7 and 10 but they took in every second of it. A few years back we went on a trip to Cuba and at the end the boys spent a day at the beach with two Cuban teens as part of a cultural program. The Cubans didn’t speak English and one of my boys spoke basic Spanish, yet the four of them were able to talk “music” for three hours. Where there is a will there is a way. This is another great memory that will always be with us.
Most of the trips that they did with us were “scouting” trips for Thomson Family Adventures. There was an element of work involved as we asked them to rate all of the hotels, meals, activities, and more. That is different than what most families are doing. That being said we were able to introduce our boys to new horizons and I don’t think that they will need counseling because of it. They might for other reasons related to all of our parenting mistakes, but going on adventures to Guatemala or Portugal or Belize won’t be the reason.
We have wonderful memories from both types of family vacations and, looking back, I don’t think I would change anything. We were happy to be able to do both.
Maybe the key is that each family needs to figure out what works for them. I doubt that one size fits all. There are probably plenty of families with children that can really enjoy two or three adventure trips per year and there are others that need to limit it to once every other year.