“Can we go back to Cyprus? I liked all the swimming we did there,” my 3-year-old daughter asks. “And when are we next going to Sweden? I want to see our friends in Stockholm. I was last there when I was 2…so how about now that I’m 3?”
I never expected to have a jet-setting preschooler (never mind one who is able to debate the relative merits of different destinations and who can find them on the map), but I’m really glad I do. In fact, giving her itchy feet is one of the things I think my wife and I are doing right when it comes to our parenting.
From a basic perspective, travel is important for making people less narrow-minded. When you meet folks who have different languages, cultures, histories, beliefs, and lives than you do, you’re forced to reconsider your own. You discover the pros and cons of different ways of living, different political systems, and different approaches to everything from food and clothing to religion and education. You’re less likely to think that your way is the only way or the best way, because you’ve seen all the other ways that things can work.
Travel teaches you respect, not just for the general histories and systems that shape a country but for the individual people. We teach our child that if you go somewhere and you don’t speak the language, then you should try at least to learn a few standard phrases. You shouldn’t expect everyone else to speak your tongue, or to make all the effort. I like hearing my daughter attempt to say “hello” or “thank you” or to count in a variety of languages, and people appreciate it and feel seen and respected.
Also, despite the challenges of traveling with a young person who has a fairly short attention span, I’m convinced that it does help her learn patience. Our daughter understands the procedure that gets us from one place to another – she recently recited, in both an exhausted and an excited tone, “A taxi to the airport, one airplane, a bus to a second airplane, another flight, another taxi, and then we’re at the hotel!”–and she knows that she will have to wait patiently throughout all these modes of transportation.
Travel involves lines, waiting rooms, and long bouts of sitting still, entertaining ourselves with books and toys. Travel also involves being asked questions by authorities and having to be polite to a whole range of people, some of whom are not polite to us. Delaying gratification, following instructions when required, and waiting are important skills for life.
Our daughter also is involved in packing our suitcases for our trips. She loves to write her own to-do lists (which often seem to include buying apples), and she has started to grasp the process of narrowing down what we take with us. We can’t bring her entire collection of books, but we can take a handful, and she has to help us choose which ones she might want to read on our trip. One day she will be responsible for packing her own clothes, toiletries, and reading material, and she has already begun to get an awareness of what you need in various climates and for different types of trips.
And, of course, travel is known to boost people’s creativity. Doing something different from your ordinary routine creates new neural connections and helps you imagine new things. Both life generally and your own imagination are expanded through travel.
I also love to travel because it’s a chance to actually relax. Even if I’m going somewhere to give a lecture, I feel I can take a break in a way that I can’t when at home—because at home, I think of all the things that need doing (laundry, a new coating of paint, insurance renewal). I’m just not a stay-cation sort of person. But when we’re away, I can focus entirely on my wife and our daughter, and I feel at peace, reminded of what is important in life.
The two downsides to travel are the cost and the environmental impact, neither of which can be denied. In terms of the environment, many trips we take are linked to my work, so I feel slightly less guilty about that, and we try to be conscious of our environmental impact in other ways (such as by being vegetarian), but this is something we will have to discuss more as our daughter gets older.
In our household, we discuss money and the concept of working so we have money to pay for both needs (food, shelter, clothing) and wants (such as travel or new toys). This is a complicated thing to talk about with someone so young, but she must learn about budgeting, so it is a conversation we will keep having. In the meantime, though, we have explained that travel is important to us and that we try to organize our finances so we can take trips fairly often.
I doubt that when she is older, our daughter will remember all these early trips we have taken, but I hope she will have memories of the things she has learned through them. So when she asks me if we can take another trip soon, my answer is always a happy yes. Now the only question is to decide which country we should visit next, and I know she’ll have an opinion on that.