"Are we there yet?" What parent has heard that little voice coming from the backseat of the car five minutes after driving out of the garage at the beginning of a long trip and hasn't sighed and asked themselves, "Is this all really worth it?" When it comes to taking your children along on trips, the answer is "absolutely."
In fact, going on trips with your children is without question one of the single most important parenting activities that you can ever do. There is simply no substitute for travel. It's an enormous teaching opportunity for your children in a myriad of ways. Not only is traveling with your kids the best possible way for parents and children to bond with each other, it inevitably provides a host of teachable moments that you couldn't possibly have predicted or prepared for in advance.
The first important value that travel provides for your children is that it teaches them how important they are to you. Inevitably, when you take your kids with you on a trip, it is a simple yet direct way of communicating their importance in your life. As you undoubtedly know, children learn a thousand times more by actions than they do by words. Telling them that they matter to you, that you love them, that they are important in your life is all well and good (and of course you ought to do it), but there is no substitute for the message that is communicated to them in their guts and in their souls by the fact that you have chosen to spend one of the most valuable things you own -- your time -- with them. They learn not by the words that you say, but by the things that you do with them that show then that they matter, that they are significant people to you and that you are willing to spend your time and money to include them in a special part of your life.
Children watch their parents every day to learn not only right from wrong, but more importantly valuable from value-less. Too many kids feel that they have little value because their parents ignore them, leave them at home every time they go out or travel and demonstrate day after day that they would rather spend their time alone or with someone else than be with their children.
When parents never take their kids with them on trips, they are teaching their children that they are ultimately not important enough in the parent's eyes to spend time with. It not only causes children to begin doubting their own value, it can be terrible for their fundamental self-esteem. "After all," they tell themselves, "if even my own parents don't want to be with me, what kind of horrible person must I be?"
Another important value that travel with your children teaches is the value of learning how to get along with diverse kinds of people. Whenever we travel, we inevitably meet people from other cities and states. Sometimes they are people who speak other languages and come from foreign countries. Sometimes we see people who look significantly different from us, and sometimes we meet people who are American but who speak with an accent from another part of the country.
All these experiences are opportunities for us as parents to teach our children first-hand about the differences that exit in the world and to teach them not to fear differences, but to celebrate, expect and cherish them as something that adds color and depth and beauty to our lives.
One of the best ways to prepare for traveling with your children is to take the time to think back to your own childhood experiences traveling with your parents. What did you like about it? Which trips were most memorable for you and what made them memorable? Were there any childhood travel experiences about which you remember saying, "When I grow up I'm going to do this with my kids, too," that in fact you still haven't done with your kids?
The more you analyze the positive and negative travel experiences that you remember from your childhood, the better prepared you will be to have successful travel experiences with your own children. Most kids get bored easily, so bring along a bunch of different games (word games are great ways to stimulate their thinking and use the travel time well) and help create a fun learning environment along the way. Bringing along snacks and food to eat that you approve of is a good way to keep kids happy, healthy and occupied.
Read with your children about the places you will visit before you get there. Involve them in the planning of the trip, from choosing the ultimate destination to the method of travel to the activities you will both do along the way and when you get to your destination. Even for small children, you can find simple decisions that they can make that will effect the whole family. This will not only help in the development of their sense of self-worth, but it will give them practice at decision making and living with the consequences of their decisions as well (if you make sure that you control the options, then any choice they make will be a good one).
When you have the opportunity to travel with your kids outside the United States, it is inevitably an eye-opening experience for them (and you as well). Seeing how other people live and learning to appreciate the blessings and gifts of our own lives is one of the most valuable lessons that foreign travel can provide. It is your job along the way to make sure that your kids see what is around them, that they recognize the disparities between what they see and their own lives and home community when it is appropriate. In this way, you turn every trip into an organic lesson in history, culture, religion, politics and gratitude. When all is said and done, I hope that you can all say after a great experience of travel with your children, "There's no place like home."