Traveling with toddlers is insane. School-age kids can make you crazy too. But “waiting for them to be old enough to appreciate” travel is pretty much a joke.
I traveled with babies, often. I took a vacation during each maternity leave, because I get blue if forced to stay in one place for too long. Travel with a baby takes planning and flexibility and a weird sense of humor. I had a lot of friends tell me, for instance as I pushed a newborn and toddler through Disney World, “I am going to wait until mine are older.”
I get that.
But being a travel nut, I took my kids on trips every year of their lives. Not just annual Disney trips (don’t judge) but car trips to grandparents and plane rides across the country and once, memorably, to Australia. You can do 17 hours in the air with kids the same way you do two hours in the air —with screentime and snacks.
Nothing ever broke me, not Zombie-walking the hallways of a Stockholm hotel with a 1-year-old who never adjusted to the time change, nor having my toddler daughter stage a sit-in with a snowman in Vermont and absolutely refuse to budge. Nothing broke me, that is, until my teens, according to popular myth “old enough to appreciate” travel, were absolute and total brats on an amazing trip to Europe.
It was a day in Dublin. We visited ancient sites and saw a rainbow. We were on our way to a hard-to-get dinner reservation when my kids declared that they were done and wanted to be in the hotel. I got uncharacteristically angry, and accused them of being ungrateful. How often are we in Dublin? And you’re going to spend the evening in a hotel room, on your phone? I dragged them to that restaurant, and my son refused to eat his dinner, and we all returned to the hotel mad.
Three things: I had lost sight of the fact that teens, like babies and 5 year olds and kids of every other age, love being in a hotel, especially if there’s a pool, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re in Dublin or Detroit. That’s where they want to be.
I had also let my own adult wishes get in the way. I wanted a nice dinner and a glass of wine. They did not. If I had a do-over, I would bring them back to the hotel, serve them burgers, then go to that nice dinner with just my husband.
The final revelation came three years later: Despite their behavior while there, my kids look back on that trip fondly.
When they talk about loving Ireland, my husband and I look at each other like, “Are we remembering the same vacation?” When my son once reminisced about how “cool” Trinity College was, I scrolled through my phone to find the photos of him looking bored and frankly disgusted to be there. Evidence aside, he remembers it as terrific.
I used that fact to talk a friend off the proverbial ledge recently, when she recounted how horrible her teen acted on a long-saved-for, much-anticipated family vacation. He moaned about sight-seeing and rolled his eyes in pictures. “Just watch,” I told her. “He is going to remember this completely differently.”
Talking with her got me mentally prepared for yes, another trip to the UK with my grumpy son, no daughter this time. I decided I was going to let him call his own shots. When he wanted to nap (pretty much all the time), I let him nap. When he wanted to sit in the hotel on his laptop, I let him. I did invite him on walks and to my surprise, he often (definitely not always) joined. I let him “lead” excursions, which often looked like him marching ahead as if he didn’t know me. Honestly, you have to laugh, and we did, over him dubbing Nottingham Castle “trash,” for instance. It turns out that if you laugh along with your teen, it’s a lot more fun than telling them they should be grateful.
Because, in fact, I now know my kids are grateful for every trip we’ve been able to take. But they’re both still teens, so neither of them is going to turn to me and say, “Mother, thank you for spending money and time to give us wonderful experiences.” I never said that to my own mother when I was 16. It’s only now, when I travel with her as an adult, that I can fully express my appreciation because I am no longer programmed to complain, the way teenagers are.
I love babies and fully understand that a fountain in a hotel lobby could be the highlight of their vacation. I get a kick out of my nieces, ages 6 and 8, who will drag me by the hand to the nearest playground no matter where we are. And I am finally able to delight in my son, age 16, pointing out that the British stole everything in the British Museum and the dead mummies are creepy. He does have a sense of appreciation, on his own level. It’s just not going to look exactly like gratitude, but as he snaps photos to text back to his friends, I know the appreciation is there. Making new memories with your kids is always worth it.