With spring break upon us and summer vacation just around the corner, parents are once again faced with the age-old debate: When it comes to international travel with kids in tow, how old is old enough for children to truly appreciate a trip abroad?
Early teens used to have the market cornered, but writer Linda Packer uncovered a seismic shift. In her article "Rules of Engagement," Packer reveals what child development experts already know. Today's kids are becoming far more worldly at an earlier age. Hence her pithy proclamation: "Eight is the new 12."
As the founder of the adventure travel company, Classic Journeys, I couldn't have come up with a catchier phrase to describe what I see as a change in common notions of when it's best to travel abroad with kids. But I wasn't surprised... I've seen the evidence firsthand for years in my own family travels and dozens of other families with kids and teens. The premise is simple: Expose kids -- particularly those aged seven to 17 -- to other cultures in a fun and engaging way, and they'll never fail to amaze you with how fully they take it all in. By nature, kids love to be seeing and doing. The more exotic the destination and its daily adventures, the more eagerly they respond.
Putting the theory to the test, I made a call to Karen Gouze, Ph.D., director of training in psychology at Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. Sure enough, her comments confirmed what we've observed.
"Children are much more knowledgeable by age eight than they used to be," said Dr. Gouze. "They're exposed to a much more diverse group of people in their everyday lives, so they're much more interested in the outside world."
It is always a treat to witness that moment when multiple generations really click on a family vacation. I first met Gary and Yang Sciscent on a Peru family vacation over spring break in 2008. They lived in Manhattan with their three kids ages seven, 11 and 12. We all had such a great time together that they joined my family on another spring break trip to Morocco. To see our kids mountain biking through the Sacred Valley on their way to Machu Picchu made for an unforgettable family outing... as did riding camelback, Bedouin-style, over towering sand dunes in Morocco.
Whether the kids are paddling a dugout canoe in Panama, skimming along a zip line in the cloud forest of Costa Rica, or swimming with the world's smallest dolphins in New Zealand, kids and teens are proving they can successfully take on and enjoy international travel at an earlier age than ever before. One reason for this is the support and encouragement they receive on guided multisport programs offered by a variety of companies and resorts that cater to this growing segment of the family travel market.
Where they may often roll their eyes at suggestions from mom and dad, the kids hit it off instantly with each other and the local guides. By taking advantage of every "teachable moment" -- yet never, ever making it feel like school -- the best guides know how to make history and culture come alive in their time abroad. From unearthing wildlife (the weirder the better) to relating centuries-old local legends (like pouring boiling oil over the heads of ancient attackers in Tuscany's hilltowns), they capture the imagination of young and old alike.
As parents who love to travel internationally with our own kids (now 17 and 15-years-old, with 28 and 27 countries under their belts, respectively), we've enjoyed some amazing vacations during school breaks; tending to keep to Latin America, North Africa and Southeast Asia during spring break; and to North America and Europe during summer break. So this spring break, solve your travel equation with the new math that says eight is the new 12.