I am frequently told that it’s a waste of time to travel with kids because “they won’t remember it anyways”. Parents who are more experienced than myself usually advise me to wait until our kids are older--maybe 10, 11, or 12 years? I smile and nod politely—but the truth is I disagree.
We recently returned from our second international family vacation, this time with a 2-year-old and a baby on the way. We had an amazing trip. Any time spent with small children comes with challenges, so I would be lying if I said it was easy. But with challenges come incredible rewards.
When I was growing up in America, vacation meant going to see the world—Disney World that is.
My small Midwestern town was full of familiar and comfortable things. And as a result, I thought all-things-foreign were weird. And I had no qualms with saying it. International food consisted of the Old El Paso Taco Dinner Kit. Which was a little bit weird, but I ate it anyways. And if I spotted someone speaking a foreign language (other than the high school language teachers) I stopped, stared, and may have become suspicious. Because that was weird.
Nevertheless, I was curious about the weird. I vividly remember the day in high school Spanish class when we learned about the highest lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. What a weird name for a lake, I thought.
But I wanted to see that weird lake for myself. When I was 25 years old I pieced together a small amount of savings from my job as a Social Worker along with a bundle of credit card reward miles to leave the country by myself for the first time. I booked a flight to Peru with very little else planned out. I was probably too
stupid idealistic not to be scared. I stayed in a $9 a night hostel for 3 months and traveled the country by bus. Everything was different: the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings. And most importantly, for one of the first times in my life, I was the one that was weird. I was out of my comfort zone.
The word weird often means different. And in my adult years I have come to learn that different is good. Which is an invaluable lesson that I want to instill in my children as early as possible.
It is never too early to expose children to “different”.
We know that young children thrive on routines and familiarity. But they also benefit from being exposed to “different”. To teach children that different is good, they need to experience a whole lot of different from a young age.
This can start from the very beginning of life. Research shows that at birth, babies can already distinguish between their own language and a foreign language—and they show a preference for the familiar tongue. By 7 months, infants begin to prefer familiar foods of which they have had prior experience. By 15 months, young toddlers have been found to prefer spending time with playmates of their own race.
Variety is the spice of life and I want my children to have spicy lives full of diverse languages, cuisine, and people. If young children prefer familiarity, then let’s familiarize them with everything. Early experiences and memories provide the foundation for the rest of our lives.
The memories may seem to be gone but are far from forgotten.
In many ways our earliest years are the most formative.
When we remember poignant moments in our lives, we often relive them in words. Sometimes this is by talking about them aloud, or just finding the words to recall these experiences in our minds. The earliest memories we recall of childhood are often between 4-6 years old—around the time we start to speak well and have a higher grasp on language.
Prior to this time we have limited language skills, but we do still have memories. Before we have language, memories may not be stored in words but rather in our senses—tastes, sights, sounds, touches, and smells. Because these very early experiences often don’t include language, we lack the words to describe them as we grow older. Even if we can't recall these memories, early experiences remain cemented into our lives to become a large part of who we are as adults.
Travel is full of sensory experiences.
Long before young children develop the ability to retrieve memories, they can eagerly experience life through their senses. Travel is a sensory experience. While in Peru, I felt the softness of baby alpaca fur. I tasted the delicacy of fried guinea pig. I saw Lake Titicaca. I experienced the shock of being inappropriately grabbed by a strange man on the street. I smelled the primitive irrigation system that only allowed me to flush the toilet until noon each day. And I embraced the love of my life when he visited and surprised me with a marriage proposal on the side of a muddy, ancient mountain trail.
When we travel we expose ourselves to new sights, new vulnerabilities, and new experiences.
I want my children to realize that most people in the world speak languages other than English. And most people in the world have skin that looks different from their own. And although different, these people are inherently good. Because different is good.