On a Wing and a Mudra: Mindful Travel with Kids

The following is a guest post from Katie Kapro. Katie Kapro is a lifelong traveler and nonfiction writer from the intermountain west. She is presently in the midst of planning her next big adventure to the mountains of Scandinavia, where it’s her hope to spit across a fjord and make it to the other side. When she’s not writing, she’s usually playing with her nephews or rambling through the foothills outside of town. To read more, follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Do all your international traveling now, before you have kids.” But where did that idea come from? What really keeps adventure-loving parents from travelling with their little ones? There are several factors, from fear of the dreaded screaming toddler attack in the middle of a flight to concern over disrupting a child’s hard-earned sleep schedule. That said, parent-traveler Cameron Wears suggests that many of the factors keeping parents from travelling are, at their very core, self-imposed limitations.

Self-imposed? We can work with that; we can find solutions to our travel woes by leaning upon the ingenious parenting hacks and advice from friends who have been there before. We can step up and handle the tantrums, we can get used to traveling with a stroller, and we can give ourselves a little extra time to get places.

But there’s one thing that’s a little trickier to overcome: money. International travel is expensive.

Flying over an ocean is spendy enough when it’s just you and your travel partner, but add in another plane ticket for your little one and the costs can get dang near prohibitive. Whether you’re taking the kiddos to the best zoo in the world or travelling to Jaipur, India so the whole family can hand-print textiles at the Anokhi Museum of Hand Painting, deciding to spend your hard-earned money on travel is half a financial decision and half psychology. Afterall, it comes down to one simple question: is all that money and effort worth it?

If you’re having any doubt as to whether the investment of travelling with your kids is in fact worth it, start by considering the benefits.

Your Kids are Powerhouses of Intuitive Learning

One of the common reasons parents choose not to travel with young kids is rooted in the notion that their kids won’t remember the trip, so why spend the money. While our understanding of the science behind how memory is formed is constantly evolving, one thing is clear. Kids as young as three are in fact building memories.

Whether they hang on to those memories or not, well that’s another matter. Researchers at Emory University have found empirical data to support the notion of childhood amnesia; that as a child ages, they lose their earliest memories. The researchers asked a group of 3-year-olds to tell them about their first memories, and after several years, the kids were invited back and asked about their first memories again. Kids between 5-7 years old recalled 60% of the events, while those between 8-9 remembered fewer than 40%. The Emory researchers described the early memory-forming-years with an odd but effective orzo-washing-through-a-colander metaphor. Essentially, the holes in a young child’s memory are too large to hold all the memories, so over the years things slip away.

All of that said, if a child loses a specific memory, do they really lose the entirety of the imprint that the experience once made upon them? I think not. If the academic pursuit of elementary school counseling has taught us anything, it’s that something has to remain — some shadow of an instinct that impresses upon a child as they grow into the more cognisant stages of life. These early experiences inform a child’s behavior, mental health, and social identity. Even if a kid doesn’t actually remember is first memories, they are very much a part of who he or she is, and they impact how a child interacts with their peers at an early age.

In developmental terms, ages 2-7 are known as the preoperational stage, in which a child develops imagination, learns language, and begins to understand things symbolically. Even if a kid does not have a concrete memory of a trip, travel exposes them to the wonderful diversity of the world at an age when they’re just starting to build the concepts of self and symbolism. Seems like a pretty great gift to give a child, maybe even better than a memory.

Travel Pro Tip: In international travel, oftentimes the most expensive part of the trip will be the airfare to get you there. Let flight fares be your guide. Say you’re planning for spring break; if ticket prices are lower leaving on a Wednesday, jump on the deal and book the cheap tickets. It’s okay for your child to miss a couple days of school now and then. If they’re old enough to have homework, they can always bring it along. The experiences they have during the trip will be an education in themselves.

Travel Teaches Compassion and Respect

It’s no secret that travel highlights the differences between the way we live our own lives and the way people live in other parts of the world. But travel is hardly about separation. In fact, it’s finding the similarities among us, them, and everything in between that makes travel so rewarding. What better time than childhood to be exposed to the inherent differences and similarities between people, before all the social constructs are cemented into a child’s sponge-like psyche?

This concept reaches beyond just human interactions. It’s also very much in play on the earth itself. The upcoming generations are all but guaranteed to face more and more global environmental concerns, and it can be hard to impart the importance of conservation to a kid who is just making his or her way in the world. But being immersed in a culture where food is scarce or where wild animals are going extinct, has a way of making an impact on a kid. It teaches them why it’s important to care for the planet, in a way that’s more visceral than any textbook could ever offer.

Travel Pro Tip: Airplanes are a notorious contributor to the carbon emissions problem damaging our planet. But for North American travellers, unless you’re going down to Mexico, airplanes are a necessity.  You can help balance out the carbon footprint of travel by being especially aware of how you get around once you’ve arrived. Gate-check your stroller and walk as much as possible; take public transportation like trains and busses instead of renting a van; embrace the adventure.

Travel Teaches Kids to Enjoy the Journey

Sitting on an airplane isn’t an intrinsically fun experience, but if anyone is going to enjoy it, it’s a kid. They don’t have to worry about leg room. The airplane restroom seems downright roomy to a kid. The tray-table is just their size. And even if the person sitting next to them hogs the armrest the whole time, they’ll still have more than enough space to wriggle.

Allowing kids to be fully present for the long ride helps them learn to appreciate the journey. Yes, the reason you are on the airplane is to get to your destination, but the flight itself is an experience. When we’re able to get past our hang-ups on the relative discomfort of air travel, it becomes quite evident that there is something magical about flying. It affects us in subtle and unusual ways. It encompasses all the improbable wonders. Floating above the clouds. Seeing the highest mountains from their peaks. Being served little bags of snacks at regular intervals.

Does it get any better, really?

Travel Pro Tip: Saving on airfare will allow you to splurge on the little things, like choosing your seats. There are two ways that seasoned parent-travellers use this perk to their advantage when traveling with a toddler. One, they book at least one aisle seat so it’s easy to get up and walk out the wiggles or make a dash to the restroom. Two, they book two seats together (one for a parent and one for the kiddo) and book the third in the quietest, most serene corner of the plane. This allows the co-parents to take turns relaxing and caretaking. Prices for seat selection on international flights range depending on the airline, so be sure to do your research.

We’ve all heard the platitudes. Travel is good. Travel is great. It opens our minds and makes us better people. But all the words in the world can’t begin to explain the almost mystical influence of travel on the human mind, body, and spirit. It’s better than any book, film, or podcast around.

The intangible effects of travel are arguably even more powerful for kids than adults. Their brains are like sponges, and their personalities are inherently open to suggestion. Many people have to learn the art of travel as adults, but what if every parent took their children traveling during those years that their brains were still developing?

Maybe the next generation would be a little more connected with one another, a little more globally-minded. And their lives would be that much richer.

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