Just a couple of weeks ago, my family was in Europe, hopping on and off trains and travelling from Paris to Copenhagen to London in a journey that, despite the decidedly modest nature of our accommodations (the first thing the kids now ask before we go to a new hotel is “Does this one have its own bathroom?”), still cost a lot more than we probably should have spent.
(sadly, the only pic from this year’s trip that includes all four of this is this not-very-good selfie in front of Lego Mount Rushmore, but what can you do? One of us is always holding the camera)
I am a big believer in family vacations. And I recognize that not everyone has the ability to take their kids to Europe. But to my mind the benefits of family vacations are the same whether you’re skiing in the Alps or setting up the pop-up trailer at Butterpot Park. And it can sometimes be much easier not to take a family vacation — travelling with kids poses its challenges, not just from an economic point of view but from sanity and time-management and energy points of view too. I believe there are two unique benefits to family trips that you can achieve no matter how far you go or how much (or little) you spend — two things you can’t achieve by staying home.
1. You experience something new. The opportunity to try, taste, do or see something completely outside the range of their everyday experience is a precious gift to give your kids. Yes, you do valuable and fun and useful things with them all the time at home, and so do their teachers at school, but both home and school fall into routines and there are certain things we and our children will never get to experience if we don’t get outside our comfort zones. And again, this is not dependent on budget or on your ability to travel someplace exotic. Whether it’s a Canadian kid who gets to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, or a city kid who gets to bait a fishing hook with a real live worm for the first time, the important thing is that your family is doing, seeing or trying something they wouldn’t normally do as part of their everyday lives. That’s how we learn. That’s how we grow. And unlike experiences they might have on a school field trip (which are also great, of course), on a family vacation kids get to do these new things with their parents and siblings. Which brings me to my second point …
2. You only have each other. Once again, this benefit applies regardless of how far you go or how much it costs. The only type of vacation it doesn’t apply to is the kind where you go to visit friends or relatives who live far away and stay at or near their house (or meet up with them somewhere). That kind of trip has benefits of its own — like your kids getting to meet and play with cousins they wouldn’t otherwise know. But I’m thinking here of the type of trip where it’s just your nuclear family, the two or three or four or six or however many of you, in a confined space like a minivan or a camper or a hotel room (or a series of hotel rooms) for day after day after day. On this kind of trip, you make memories whether you want to or not. And many of them are great memories (see point 1) of new things you saw and did and new challenges you faced together.
You will also make memories of how you handled the unexpected disappointments and letdowns of the trip, so that in future years your kids may not remember that you drove them all the way to a National Park to see amazing scenery but may instead remember the 355 games of Uno you played in the tent that weekend it refused to stop raining. I know in the case of our family, any conversation in which someone mentions bad customer service will result in any one of the four of us turning to the others and saying, “No. There is nothing. Nothing,” in an accent that recalls the hotel desk employee in Rome who so memorably (and, it turned out, inaccurately) answered our question about whether there was a place nearby to get supper.
On family vacations, things go wrong. On ours they do, anyway. And our kids argue, and we the parents sometimes lose patience and snap at the kids, and teenagers get bored and complain. And we all have to practice a lot of patience and forgiveness, because we’re not used to such intense, concentrated togetherness for so long, without familiar surroundings or other people or our own rooms to dilute all this togetherness. And these things don’t ruin the family vacation, they are the family vacation. Since the very first time we put six-month-old Chris on a foam mattress in a tent in Terra Nova National Park and fed him baby cereal at a nearby picnic table, travelling together has been a big part of how we become us. I highly recommend it.