How many times have I heard, “You are so lucky that your daughter is so well behaved…you are so lucky that your daughter isn’t a picky eater…you are so lucky that she likes to go to museums…or, you are so lucky that she is such a good traveler.”
Yes, I am immensely lucky. I count my blessings every day. Every time I look at her I’m overwhelmed with gratitude that I have the opportunity to be her mom. But do we always have to discount the impact of nurture in this equation?
I feel like I’ve worked hard to get where we are. The joy of my life started out a colicky, challenging baby. I would often tell people she is easy except when you need to bathe her, feed her, change her or get her to sleep. My dream of having a baby that I could take anywhere were blown out of the water by a kid that screamed in her stroller and she was definitely NOT a kid that would sleep anywhere (or hardly at all.) We then moved on to new challenges including sensory processing issues making new experiences and things like travel to over stimulating environments difficult. And god forbid she walk barefoot on sand (our first beach vacation involved rainboots and lots of carrying.) As a preschooler, she was very shy and had difficulty socializing. But these challenges didn’t stop us from exposing her to new people and new experiences because we knew that these were life skills that she needed to develop.
Before I even started thinking about raising a good traveler, I thought about raising a global citizen. I wanted my daughter to have an appreciation of other cultures, beliefs, and experiences. I wanted her to understand that the world is big and diverse and fascinating. And yes, I didn’t want to give up travel just because I had a child. But even more than my personal desires, I knew that sharing the world with her is a gift that would impact her academic learning, personal relationships, and hopefully help shape her into an accepting, open-minded and giving person.
So how did we get from there to here? Maybe some of it is luck, but I think a lot of it was thoughtful parenting and good travel planning. To help others, I’ve put together the steps I took to get where we are today. Every child is different but I hope that adopting and adapting some of these steps will help you raise a good traveler.
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15 Steps to Raising a Good Traveler
1. Buy a globe or world map
When my daughter was 2 or 3 we got her a globe for her playroom. I like globes even better than maps because they are much more tactile, especially if you get one that has topographical maps that show the bumps and ridges of mountain ranges. Whenever my husband or other relatives would travel, I would point out where on the globe they were. We would track a path with our finger from where we lived to where our loved ones lived or visited. I would point out where I’ve been and where we’d like to go. And later, as we learned about new places, whether it was from watching the Little Einsteins or reading books, we’d go back to the globe and find those places. In addition to the globe, we also liked playing with one of those giant Melissa and Doug floor puzzles of the United States. Later on, we added a nice wall map from our Little Passports trial so we could mark off places that we’ve been with push pins.
2. Eat the globe
I get the whole picky eater thing and one of the biggest challenges of travel, especially international travel, is finding foods that your kids will eat because nothing will ruin a vacation like a hangry kid. While today my young traveler would eat sushi almost every day, loves tapas, and has eagerly tried dishes like escargot and oxtail stew; I remember well the days of chicken fingers and mac and cheese. This kid didn’t even like baby food! But don’t give up and don’t give in. There are tons of great books and blogs about dealing with picky eaters but my main advice is to get your child to help you cook. It is hard to turn your nose up at something that you helped create. Even if they taste it and don’t love it, they are at least going to try it. Today one of my daughter’s favorite activities is cooking together. We don’t get to do it all the time, as during the week she is often doing homework or practicing piano when I’m preparing dinner, but it makes a nice weekend activity.
If you want some ideas, recipes, and inspiration, check out Sasha Martin of Global Table Adventure, who cooked her way around the world with a meal from 195 countries in 195 weeks, changing the lives of her toddler and picky husband. And, when trying new cuisines from around the world — make it fun. Eat with chopsticks or sit on the floor. Create table decorations inspired by the country of origin. Print out a menu and play some appropriate music.
In addition to cooking dishes from around the world at home, try going to restaurants to try new cuisines. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Eating out can be a lot more interesting and tempting then what mom or dad puts on the dinner table at home (no offense!) When eating out I use the same philosophy I started at home — I make sure there is at least one thing on the table that my child will eat (that could be naan, tortilla chips, or rice) and they need to try at least one “no thank you” bite. Order quite a few small dishes and eat family style so everyone can sample a little something.
And don’t forget, you don’t have to go global to explore new cuisines — think regional too. Start off with something you know they’ll like — maybe a pizza taste test — New York style vs. Chicago deep dish to get things rolling. If your child gets used to trying new foods, whether at home or at restaurants, they will be much easier on the road! Another idea for getting your child interested in trying new foods is watching shows like Iron Chef, Top Chef of Food Network’s Rachel vs. Guy: Kids Cook Off.
3. Read the world
I’ve made it a habit in my own reading to seek out books that educate me on other cultures and help me better understand different periods of history. I recommend taking a similar approach with your kids to help them understand that everyone is NOT just like them. Some of the picture books we read and enjoyed include: We All Went on Safari, by Laurie Krebs; Elephant Dance by Theresa Heine; Beatrice’s Goat by Page McBrier; and The Red Thread by Grace Lin. We then moved on to The Magic Tree House, the Who Was… biographies, and Mysteries in our National Park. We also enjoyed historical fiction series like Dear America, American Girl, Little House on the Prairie, and others. One of my daughter’s favorite all time novels is Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin.
For many of my blog posts, I recommend good books to read before you go like these on Rome, Gettysburg, Philadelphia, and Salem. I think reading about a place is an important part of preparing for a trip.
4. Be an armchair traveler
There are so many places to get travel inspiration and get kids excited about the beautiful and amazing things to see in the world. Of course there are so many wonderful family travel blogs, including this list. I’d also recommend Pinterest, YouTube, Google Image Search, National Geographic, and following travel bloggers on Instagram. When you see a place that looks awesome, show your kids, then find it on your map or globe.
I’d also encourage you to watch family-friendly shows with your kids that explore nature or new places. When my daughter was young, she loved the Little Einsteins. My mom almost fainted when my daughter asked to be pushed “moderato” in her stroller. But on top of teaching musical terminology, the Little Einsteins explore the world and some of its most famous landmarks — sparking an interest in geography. I’ve recently discovered National Geographic Wild and I could watch some of those shows all day just to gawk at the raw natural beauty in some of our National Parks. Even if you don’t get any of these channels, so much can be found online or on YouTube. Just use discretion and supervise what is being watched. Another great resource is your local library. Before we went to Spain, we borrowed the entire PBS “On the Road Again” series with Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow traveling and eating their way around Spain.
5. Try new things
If you can get your children used to trying new things close to home, they are more likely to be open to new experiences when you are traveling. Make point to explore in your own backyard. Start with a local children’s museum or science museums that have hands on exhibits. Try a small art museum on a day when they have a special family program or scavenger hunt. Take a family walk or hike. Learn a little about the history of your area. Take day trips to nearby attractions. Every new experience and opportunity to meet new people helps break down the barriers.
6. Seek out cultural festivals
You don’t need to travel to another country to get a taste of other cultures. Almost every city has a variety of cultural festivals, whether it is a Chinese New Year celebration, a Cape Verdean Festival, or a Colombian parade. A few years ago there was an excellent FirstWorks Festival in Providence where we saw an Indian dance troupe, dancers from West Africa, and Chinese ribbon dancers — it was so much fun for everyone!
It is also helpful to join in with friends’ family celebrations. Perhaps you have friends that celebrate Three King’s Day, Ramadan, Diwali, or another holiday. Ask them about it! Take out books from the library about these celebrations, research it on the Internet, and express and interest in joining your friends in their celebration.
7. Develop geography skills
Your child will be much more interested in travel if they have heard of where they are going. In addition to having a globe or maps around, we found some great apps that helped my daughter learn states, capitals, cities, countries, and famous landmarks. Some of our favorites are: Stack the States, Stack the Countries, PopGeo, GeoBee Challenge, Nat Geo World Atlas, and her new favorite, GeoGuessr.
Also, it might harken back to my college days when I worked summers at AAA making TripTiks, but when we go on a roadtrip I like to look at an actual paper map. When we were figuring out where to go last spring, I took out a map of mid-atlantic states and showed my daughter where we could drive within a few hours of her grandmother’s house in New Jersey. We then picked places that sounded interesting and figured out how much we could see in a week. We ended up visiting Lancaster and Gettysburg, PA; Ocean City and Berlin, MD; and Chincoteague, VA. Don’t be afraid to hand over the highlighter and let your child connect the dots by highlighting the interstates that connect cities you plan on visiting.
8. Dabble in language
Even if you don’t plan on visiting another country anytime soon, learning a bit of another language will remind kids that not everyone speaks your native tongue. Plus, it can be fun when you are visiting restaurants to use a couple of words of the appropriate language as practice for when you do travel internationally. It is easy to get started early through programs like Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, and reading/listening to books like Skippy Jon Jones.
When kids are older, they will probably have fun with the gamification of language learning with apps like DuoLingo. We also found it very fun and helpful to listen to language podcasts before traveling internationally. Our favorite was Coffee Break Spanish, which gave my daughter the confidence to order in restaurants when we were in Spain.
9. Get the kids involved
Before we went to Hawaii, I made a list of different things you could do on the various islands. Each of us picked two things we absolutely wanted to do on the trip. Since we all wanted to see a live volcano (because how often do you get to do that), we decided to visit Maui and the Big Island, instead of Oahu. We also decided to splurge on a helicopter ride to ensure we’d see some lava, in addition to visiting Volcanoes National Park.
Make planning your family vacation a family affair. This doesn’t mean you need to be an equally voting democracy, but it means getting your kids involved. Maybe they will always vote for Disney, so don’t make that one of the choice if that isn’t where you want to go. But after you’ve narrowed down your choices, get your kids involved in the research. Let them look through the guide books. Show them pictures and browse websites to see what things peek your kid’s interest. After you develop your itinerary, print out a copy for each of your kids. When you are traveling, review the next day’s itinerary each night so that your kids know exactly what to expect the next day.
10. Plan appropriately
One of the biggest tricks to raising a good traveler is to have a successful first experience. Once you get a good trip under your belt, your kids will be more open and willing to try something else. If they have a miserable experience it will stick in their minds and they will dig in their heels, resisting future adventures. So take the time to plan it right. You know your kids best and you know what they like and don’t like, what their hot buttons are, and what their energy and stamina levels are. Take all that into account when you are planning your trip.
Schedule the more “challenging” things earlier in the day when your kids are fresh — this could be a museum, a tour, or even an activity. Build in downtime. Make sure you know where you are going to eat. Do your research and make sure you know how you are getting to an attraction, what hours they are open, if you can buy tickets in advance, and any other tips you can find for making an enjoyable visit. I know it can sound fun to wing it and figure it out as you go but trust me, things will go much easier if you plan ahead. Save the open ended exploration for after your kids are more comfortable and confident travelers.
11. Be prepared
Proper planning takes you far, but proper preparation takes you further. If you are still packing a diaper bag, you probably know all about being prepared. But once you make the switch from a diaper bag to a purse, it is easy to leave some essentials behind. Make sure you are prepared for illness, injuries, hunger, thirst, weather, and boredom. I’ve found that one of the times that seem to prompt an accelerated pitch of whining is mealtime. Often when you are on vacation, meal service operates a little slower than you might be used to at home and restaurants are not always equipped with crayons, activity sheets, or other forms of entertainment. This is where I like to whip out our travel journals to record our thoughts about the day before we forget our impressions. It is also a good time to hand over your camera or smartphone and look through the pictures you’ve taken together — maybe even let your kids try their hand at photo editing.
12. Go family size
I’m not sure anyone is good at sleeping in a new place, especially if you are moving around frequently and sharing a room with more people than you are used to. Even after 10 years of family travel, sleeping arrangements are still one of our biggest challenges. While now our 10 year old can go to bed later and is slightly more flexible about sleeping arrangements, we started off investing a little bit more in cushier lodging to make our vacations more enjoyable. When we went to Beaches in Jamaica when our daughter was a toddler, we splurged for a one bedroom suite and it was worth every penny. While her crib was still right next to our bed, we had a separate living room where we could hang out after putting her to bed at her regular time (since sticking to her schedule made her more pleasant during the day.) The suite also came with a fully stocked fridge so we could easily satisfy her early morning demands for milk and food.
In Maui we got a one bedroom suite with a murphy bed in the living space and two balconies, ensuring we had lots of space to relax after bedtime. Even now if we were staying somewhere more than a couple of nights we try to rent an apartment with Airbnb or vrbo so we have room to spread out, have space to work or read in the evening, and have the ability to cook breakfast or lunch so we don’t wear ourselves out by having to eat out three times a day. (See my tips for renting a vacation apartment or house)
13. Pack wisely
Lots of people have great advice on packing for vacation, but as amazed as I am by people that travel for two weeks with only a carry on, I’d rather check a bag and have what I need. That means something to keep warm on chilly nights, something to keep off the rain, comfortable walking shoes, children’s cold and pain remedies, enough sunscreen and whatever else I think I might need without burdening us down with more bags than people. I like to bring laundry bags to separate clean from dirty clothes. I also like using compression packing cubes to make more space, but also to group together outfits for different stops on the trip.
14. Set the right expectations
Another tip for having a successful trip and raising a good traveler is to set the right expectations. If your child is over the moon excited for their first trip to Disney and they expect to run up and hug their favorite characters or jump right on to their favorite rides, they are going to be a bit surprised if they get there and find the Princesses hard to find and ride lines 10 times the length of the ride itself. Each morning (or even the night before), walk through your day. Share your itinerary and talk about what to expect at each stop. Let them know how long you will be at each attraction and where and when they will be eating. If it is going to be crowded, tell them in advance. If the weather forecast calls for an afternoon thunderstorm, let them know that you might be ducking for cover later that day.
15. Start early!
My last piece of advice is to start traveling early. You can begin with local exploration and day trips. Work your way up to sleepovers at Grandma’s and weekend road trips to visit relatives. But don’t think that all that comes after that are trips to Disney, weekends at the Great Wolf Lodge, and week-long cruises. Anything can be a “family” vacation and sometimes the experiences that are the most unique are also the most memorable. You know your kids best but I urge you to push their comfort levels just a little bit each trip. Soon you will find yourself with a good traveler. If not…send them to summer camp and travel on your own (just joking!)
Whether it was luck or a combination of the tips above, we now have not just a good traveler, but a girl that loves to travel. Over the years our favorite family memories are from our trips. The farther we go, the more “different” the location is in terms of landscape, food, language or culture, the more special the experience. I hope that you find these tips useful and that they help you raise a good traveler.