Why You Should Travel With Your Kids (Even Though It Sucks Sometimes)

travel with kids
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It’s a pain in the ass. It’s time-consuming. There are innumerable lists, innumerable things to remember: sunscreen and spoons, pants and pajamas, medicine and movies. You have to clean your house (if you’re like me), or you’ll come home to a mess and want to cry. Or you destroy your house in the packing of everything.

You will inevitably forget something. You will have to turn the car around. You will get lost. Someone will need to pee two miles past the last rest stop or thirty miles from the next one. Gas stations will be sketchy. Traffic will be bad. Someone will whine until you contemplate leaving them on the side of the highway. But despite all the hassle, despite all the annoyance, despite all the misery, you should travel with your children.

No, seriously. Even though I just reminded you it was hell. You should still travel with your kids. If you can.

I don’t mean you should haul your kids to Disney every year. If that’s your thing, man, go mouse it up. I don’t mean you need to stuff them on a transcontinental flight and deal with that special brand of fresh hell (ever tried customs with a whiney, sleepy child?). In fact, you needn’t cram them on an airplane at all. My kids are nine, seven, and five. Only the youngest has flown, and that was when he was a lap baby. Partly because we’re relatively poor. Partly because I value my relative sanity. For some families, making travel memories means flying to different countries, or checking out the major amusement parks. That’s amazing for them. Hats off, brave souls. That’s not my cup of tea.

But your kids still deserve to travel. They deserve to see the world, and the world is a wide and wonderful place: even the world around you, the world within a (relatively) short drive. We bought a state park pass this year. It lets us enter every state park for free. We also scored some serious Black Friday deals on awesome state park cabins. We are talking rock-bottom prices. This is how we afford to travel on the cheap: we regularly spend time in the mountains and at the beach  (the benefits of living in a coastal state). But even if you live in the Midwest, you’re only a manageable day and a half’s drive from the beach, and state park cabins are relatively cheap. If you’re really adventurous, you can camp. We camp sometimes. We scored our gear mostly second-hand. It can be fun (when it’s not damp and rainy) or miserable (when it’s damp and rainy).

My current dream: to stick my kids in the car and travel down the length of Florida to the Keys. It’s a long way, but with lots of cool stops (a must for travel with small kids). We could camp or stay at state parks.

But why? Why bother to go through the hell of travel with kids? Why not wait until they’re older?

Because they deserve, if we are able,  to see a world beyond their day-to-day.

Because it actually makes them smarter. An article for the Telegraph showed that when you take your kid on vacation, you support their exploration, or “SEEKING” system, and their play urge, or “PLAY” system, both parts of the limbic system discovered by a neuroscientist at Washington State University. They can often go under-stimulated at home; both systems release dopamine, opiates, and oxytocin: and create a feedback loop that, when stimulated, in turn strengthens them. These help your kids develop the ability to come up with new ideas, to look for creative solutions, or to “play with ideas: essential to the entrepreneur.”

Because travel also builds concentration. We know that even a few minutes in a green space — 20 minutes a day — can be as effective as medication in children with ADHD, according to the Telegraph. One study in Psychology Today indicated that “the greener the setting, the better the attention”: a good reason to get out there into our free or cheap national and state park systems. (I’m not advocating for nature therapy over medication. I am a mom with ADHD and I have three children with ADHD. I know the value of medication. I also know the value of fresh air and open spaces.)

Because travel brings your family together. It builds what the Telegraph calls “attachment play”: play that’s vital for bonding, and that sends the child a message that “You have my full attention. I delight in you. I delight in being with you.” Think leaping over waves, like we do on the North Carolina beaches with our sons. Think building sandcastles with them. Think building campfires together —something you don’t even have to travel to do, a small trip we take pretty regularly as a family out to our own backyard.

Travel also builds shared memories. I’ll never forget the day trip (yes, I said day trip!) we took to a state park two hours away. We were busy looking at a salamander when my 7-year-old spotted a copperhead snake two feet from my husband’s foot. Carefully, we walked around the snake. It wouldn’t have killed us — no one in my state has ever been killed by a copperhead — but one of us would have been really, really sick and miserable; we’d have had a terrible scare, and it could have killed our German Shepherd we had with us. We’ll always remember that. We’ll always remember our favorite waterfall, a two-mile hike into the North Carolina Nantahala Forest. It was breathtaking, and we shared that moment together.

Can’t travel that far? I understand. There’s plenty to see in your own town or city. Go to your local museum. Explore local creeks. Find hiking trails in the area. We do lots of those too; my son saw gray foxes recently (and we were downtown); we’ve seen bald eagles and enormous beavers. Yes, we’re lucky to live near a river. But you have hiking. You have trails. You have something. If nothing else, you have streets to walk down, streets you’ve never been down. Go explore them. Find something you’ve never seen before. Find the bugs in your backyard; identify the trees. Pack a lunch, and head to a new park.  Learn and discover the new: you don’t need to leave your town to do that. And that’s what travel is all about in the end.

Yeah, it’s a pain in the ass. Part of me dreads it, every single time. I often try to weasel out of it. But in the end, I’m always truly glad we went. I’m always glad we were together, just us, undistracted by toys and electronics, focused on each other, learning about the world, seeing new things, making new memories. Just us. Together.