Travel is good for kids – except when it isn’t

Travel is good for kids. It allows kids to see that not everyone lives just like them. It allows them to see that we’re more alike than different. Travel allows our children to stretch their horizons and learn new things. Travel is good for kids.

Except when it isn’t.

burma ox cart

Experiencing life in other countries is a great way to learn about the world.

If you’ve read my blog, you’ll know that I’m a huge proponent of family travel and, especially, long term family travel. I’m a big believer that getting kids out in the world can change the world. It will promote world peace and global understanding. I truly believe that long term travel is good for kids.

But not all kids.

I am fully aware that all kids are different. They’ve got different ways of thinking and different needs – just as we adults do. Just as some adults can’t fathom the idea of leaving everything behind to travel the world, so are there kids who feel the same.

burma marketSo what’s a parent to do? You’ve dreamed big and committed yourself to a Round-the-World journey. You’ve spent hours comparing hotels on discount websites and booked your RTW tickets. You’ve quit your job and rented out the house, yanked the kids from school, and set off to live your dream.

And your child hates it.

My husband and I are fortunate that our children enjoyed our travels. Our biggest fear back in 2006 when we set off for our first year-long family bike ride was that our children wouldn’t enjoy the bike touring lifestyle. We had made big changes and spent enormous amounts of money to make it happen, and if they didn’t like it? Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

Not all parents are so lucky. Some parents find themselves on the other side of the world with a child who just wants to go home. And then what? Erin Tullis and her husband are in exactly that spot right now. Here’s her description of what’s happening:

eiffel tower

For some children, long-term travel is great. For others it doesn’t work.

It was about 2 years ago when I first came up with the half-baked idea to take a year-long sabbatical to travel the world, spend time together as a family, and refocus our priorities. From idea to realization, it took us about 16 months to actually hit the road. My husband, myself, and our 5-year old son were all brimming with excitement and anticipation as that first plane took off. We were off on our adventure.
As the months turned and the countries changed, I began to notice behaviors in my son that were not typical. At first, I wrote them off as he was missing family and friends and made sure to get extra Skype calls in that were just for him. We also slowed our pace, giving us all more downtime, and tried to stay in each housing situation for a week minimum (in some cases we stayed a month…and once we stayed two).
There were obviously things we had hoped to see in each locale, but the sightseeing wasn’t nearly as important as our son’s happiness. We opted to let Tyler plan special days where he could choose what he wanted to do (within reason).
Things did improve temporarily until a “moving” day approached. No matter how much preparation we gave him, or how slow we went, or how much we tried to make it a game, his behavior on these days was horrendous and anger-filled. I’m talking screaming, violent fits in the middle of train stations, subways, buses, and airports. And did I mention all while my husband and I both had large backpacks strapped to our backs?
Each night, I tried to talk to my son and ask him about how he was feeling. I asked him if he wanted to go home. Each and every time, he said he wanted to keep traveling. Until one day, he said he wanted to go home.
So now, here I sit, literally on the other side of the world, with a son who just wants to be back in California. As a parent, the last thing you want to see is your child unhappy. I will admit, too, that I am ready to be done with the tantrums and the stress. I am done with my hair falling out and staying up nights reading parenting books on how to help him cope with his anger.
As much as I would love to spend time exploring the rest of our itinerary, my son needs a controlled environment surrounded by friends and family. If he is angry, he needs the space to be angry. It is a challenge to find that space in a 100 square foot hotel room. Even outdoors, there are few places we have found where he is able to wander freely without us trailing him. Just as it would be at home, as parents, we make sacrifices to ensure we do what is best for our children. Though it wasn’t at all what I had planned, right now, what is best for my child is to find a way home.
The time on the road has given me the confidence to know that we can travel anywhere in this world at any time. I no longer feel restricted or tied down. It also helps to have learned loads about traveling on the cheap!
Maybe one day, we’ll make it a whole year. But for now, it’s time to go home.

Erin is not the first parent to call off a journey because her child wasn’t enjoying it. Joel and Cindy set off on a 5-month adventure only to decide it simply didn’t work for them at this point.

cindy and JoelWe were fulfilling a life-long dream, so we thought. We traveled with our three sons now aged, 5, 3½ and 2.
We hoped for a 5-month adventure in southeast Asia. During that time we would have Joel’s daughter join us to travel during the Australian school holidays. In addition, Joel would return to Australia to visit Georgia during the midterm break. This meant that I was alone with the boys for a week at a time. Without the support of friends and family during this time I found it very difficult indeed.
The children got homesick and started asking for their sister and friends. Georgia came and joined us in Vietnam and we all spent a great ten days exploring but when Joel and Georgia left, the boys really struggled knowing it would be ten weeks before they saw their sister again.
Other factors that impacted on our situation are but not limited to :
  • We struggled in small hotel rooms. Our boys are early risers and we were ever mindful of neighboring guests. We opted for apartments when available and this did improve things dramatically.
  • Eating out was challenging. Eating out two or three times per day got exhausting at times.
  • The heat of SEA affected the kids. They perpetually seemed tired and fatigued.
  • The change in their diet no doubt impacted on their energy levels.
  • We went too fast, too early. Travelling to three countries in the first month was crazy!
We tried everything to make things easier for the children. We slowed the travel down and stayed put for several weeks in a nice apartment for them to recoup but things did not really improve. Their behavior was getting worse by the day.
Not listening, struggling at bedtime, eating minimal amounts of food. Constantly asking to go home.
We decide to go home to (a) re-establish a routine for them as that is what they were used to in Australia and they seemed to be lost without it, (b) mum and dad needed some support, (c) we thought that the five-year-old needed to be back in the structure of school.
So what now? For us it is an issue of timing.
Our children are very young. We have decided to spend the next year or so allowing them to learn the social skills of eating out in public and to mature a little so they better adapt to change. This time will allow the children to get over those difficult two-year-old, and worse still three-year-old stages.
This time should also see the parents ‘recovered’ and feeling stronger to cope with any issues that should arise.
On our return to Australia we purchased a campervan so as of next week we start our short travels around our local area and we are in the midst of planning a central Australia tour for early next year, all being well.
We think that six weeks of travel to one country at a time will work for us while the children are young so we hope to continue travel but not in the way that we first planned, nor is it the most cost efficient way to travel but it’s the compromise we make while our children are young.

Sometimes, people change their plans before they even start. Melissa Banigan had big things planned for herself and her daughter, but then… well, the universe stepped up and changed things.

In the end, Melissa came to the conclusion that everything comes at a price. Although the travel was good, it would have meant sacrificing other things. There was no right or wrong, just plenty of shades of gray.

In the end, there is no right and wrong – just different.

For every choice we make in life, we opt out of something else. Sometimes those decisions are easy; sometimes they are anything but. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of those choices. In the end, we have to make a decision. We have to choose for one and against another. That’s just the way it is.

We could have chosen to stay in Idaho and the boys would have played on soccer teams and swam on swim teams. They would have eaten lunch in the school cafeteria and ridden the bus to school and raced outside to play tether ball at recess. They would have had sleepovers and played video games with friends. They would have been part of chess club and boy scouts. Those things aren’t bad.

Or we could take off and travel the world and allow the boys to climb on Mayan pyramids and Incan temples. They could swim with sea lions and scuba with turtles. Fly over the Nazca Lines, see the mysterious Ica Stones and conehead skulls, see ships rise and fall in the Panama Canal. They could see real life penguins and guanacos and rheas and armadillos and foxes and bison and musk ox and big horn sheep and reindeer and iguanas in their natural habitats. They could stay with indigenous families in the Bolivian highlands and with migrant workers in Mexico. They could go sand surfing and real surfing. They could eat lomo saltado and carne asado and drink mate. Those things were wonderful, but they came at a price.

A price that, for some kids, might be too great.

EVERYTHING comes at a price. Whenever we choose TO DO something, we choose NOT TO DO something else. The trick is to choose wisely and spend our time doing the things that will most benefit us and our children. In the end we feel that, overall, our choice was the right one for Davy and Daryl. They have amazing life experiences that will benefit them tremendously throughout life, but are still just normal kids.

The important thing is that we, as parents, provide the experiences that will most fully allow our children to grow into capable human beings who can contribute to society – whether those experiences come from traveling or a more stationary life.

This is a sponsored post.

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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33 Responses to Travel is good for kids – except when it isn’t

  1. Barbara October 30, 2012 at 10:19 am #

    Juggling kids and travel isn’t easy, even though so many people make it out to be the dreamiest thing ever. Pre-kids I traveled. I can “do” travel and everything that comes with it. But parenting? That’s what I find difficult. Oh, and compromise … um, that’s super-difficult for me. (Although I think I did it one time.)
    So I tip my hat to Joel and Cindy, Erin and Melissa who have learned the amazing art of compromise and readjusting plans. I hope someday I can be as mature as you guys.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Barbara, I can’t stand it when people make travel out to be all rainbows, roses and puppy dog tails!! It’s hard work and it’s not all fun. Yes, there is a lot of fun to be had, but there’s a lot that isn’t fun too. It’s all about finding that balance – that point where everyone is happy and fulfilled.

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  2. Lana Hope October 30, 2012 at 10:47 am #

    I recently tent camped through Europe (12 countries) for two months straight by bus and train hopping. Before that (this same year), I had done four months in Thailand, two months in the US, and one month in Cambodia. I’ve been back in Asia for a month, and am still exhausted.

    Telling you, tear jerk exhausted.

    Of course, kids can get very exhausted and confused, especially when living in tents and hotels. Those things wear me out, and I’m not three.

    I still plan to see every country in the world, but this last year has made me realize that I will have to always slow travel. I like living in one place and traveling around from there rather than what I did in Europe.

    So maybe too, you have to figure out what works for your kids.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Lana Hope, the hardest part is that everyone has their own pace. Some people can maintain what I would consider a frenetic pace. Others of us need more down time.

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  3. Jeremy Branham October 30, 2012 at 11:03 am #

    Very interesting stories to read. How much of that has to do with a child’s age? How much has to do with his or her personality? These are factors that show that every person is unique. What works for some doesn’t work for all. Travel is a good thing but maybe some kids need it in smaller doses or need to be at a certain maturity level before they can take a trip like this. I don’t think there is a right answer for everyone. Each family has to make their own decision about what is right for them and their kids.

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    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Jeremy Branham, Exactly! Parents need to look at their children and make decisions based on their personalities and needs. There is no one-size-fits-all decision, and no right or wrong either.

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  4. Tiffany Fite October 30, 2012 at 11:32 am #

    Great article Nancy. Thanks for sharing the stories – and showing another side of travel with kids. I appreciate the candid sharing.

    We’re getting ready for some long term travel with our family. Our boys will be 11 & 12 when we push off. We realize this will come with the sacrifice of friends, organized sports, and other activities they enjoy today.

    Although we’ve not yet done any long term travel (over 3 weeks), we have noticed a HUGE difference in the boys energy and ability the past few years. It was almost as a switch was turned on around age 8/9, that has allowed them the endurance and desire to travel. They’ve better handled long days, travel delays, hiking in the heat, discomfort, and time zone changes, among other things.

    We are excited for the possibilities; yet we also remain realistic that it won’t all be easy and welcomed. Given our kids’ ages, they are taking a big part in researching destinations and activities they recommend we engage in. I am thinking our biggest obstacles may be in culture shock, given the “bubble-ish” town we live in right now; and puberty, with the emotions that come with it.

    We’ll see!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Tiffany Fite, You’ll never really know until you get out there. I’d like to say that we can make educated decisions based on what we know about our kids, but the reality is that we know our kids in THIS situation. If we’ve never traveled long term, we don’t know them in THAT situation. It’s exciting for sure!

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  5. Ian and Wendy Sewell October 30, 2012 at 11:58 am #

    Amen! We’ve often thought of long-term travel and our children’s reaction is a serious concern for us. For now, the month we were gone earlier this year was long enough. Even though she was still enjoying herself, our daughter couldn’t wait to play with her friends and her dress up stuff (which clearly didn’t fit into our backpacks).

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    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Ian and Wendy Sewell, One of things I missed the most was my beads! It’s hard to do without some of those things, even though we might know they are not essential.

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  6. Renee October 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    Great post, Nancy. I have so much respect (and sympathy) for all the parents you profiled who made the tough call to abort their travels.

    I can absolutely relate. By the end of our 1-yr RV trip through Europe & Turkey, our daughter (10) was absolutely fried. Just DONE. Overall she enjoyed our trip and obviously it was a phenomenal educational experience, but the language gap between her & the other kids we met got her down after a while. Not being able to communicate made her feel isolated. Plus we moved too quickly (damn Schengen) and we packed in too much “sightseeing.”

    Our last big city was Paris, and the poor kid was so beat, I actually excused her from nearly ALL sightseeing…the Louvre, the Orsay, everything. She wanted to see the Eiffel Tower, so we did that. Other days she and I just hung out at the campground and laughed at our dog swimming in the Seine. The only things she really wanted to do were food based…drinking hot chocolate in cafes, eating macarons, enjoying crepes form street vendors, spending our euros in pâtisseries, so that’s what we did.

    I could have forced the museums and culture and sights and history, but to what end? It would have made her hate Paris and art and traveling and history. At the time I felt guilty, but now I’m grateful I followed my gut and honored her feelings. She can return to Paris when she’s older and “in the mood.”

    Now we’re in Mexico in a rented house. We’re taking things slowly, learning the language and building a temporary community, which has made a world of difference.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Renee, YAY for following your gut! We were the same way with Mayan ruins – we were so bloody tired of seeing old piles of rocks we gave them a pass. I would have probably taken time to go see Chichen Itza, but my sons were way to ruined out to bother.

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    Rich Polanco Reply:

    @Renee, Bingo! I think people too often jump on the “starving dog at a buffet table” style of travel.

    I’ve lived out of suitcases before and while exciting, it is also exhausting.

    Given the choice now, I’ll always choose slow travel. We’ve rented a house in Guatemala and when relocating to another country, will look for a “home base” and integrate again into our new community.

    I’ll leave the crazy schedules and frantic pace to others. It did nothing for me then, not about to incorporate stress willingly into my life this time around.

    Great post!

    -Rich

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    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Rich Polanco, It’s funny how we all have to learn it for ourselves. No matter how much others talk about it, we need to get out there and wear ourselves out in order to learn.

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  7. Living Outside of the Box October 30, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

    Great post, Nancy. I love how you talk about how everything comes at a price…and choosing one option over another does not mean the other choice doesn’t have value.

    Also, it’s great to change our minds ;-)

    What’s life about…if you can’t try something new, see it if works, and change if it doesn’t? That’s the beauty of living!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Living Outside of the Box, There are advantages and disadvantages to every choice we might make. It’s all about maximizing the positives and minimizing the negatives.

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  8. Travel with Bender (Erin) October 30, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    We were honoured to spend some time with Cindy & Joel during their travels and sharing their frustration. I admire them so much for putting the kids first ahead of their travel dreams. It’s hard to recognize our kids needs when ours are so strong! Can’t wait to meet up with them again somewhere… even if it’s back in good old Australia.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Travel with Bender (Erin), It is amazing how hard it can be to look beyond our own wants and needs! Major kudos for them for realizing it wasn’t working and taking some time to regroup and figure things out.

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  9. Rilla October 30, 2012 at 11:39 pm #

    Great article. We have some unique challenges to traveling with our son. The biggest one is he has anaphylactic allergies to peanuts and dairy. Eating out at the best of times is a scary risk, eating out in countries where we don’t speak the language is terrifying. Of course we carry an epi-pen (or two), but it definitely adds a whole new level of preparation and planning.

    The other very real challenge is his motion sickness. He is truly miserable anytime we travel, especially in heat. We’ve taken to dosing him up with gravol prior to traveling, but even that doesn’t help sometimes. He’s thrown up on every single mode of transportation he’s ever been on, public and private.

    When he is older we hope to travel with him, but for now we are content with road trips and short vacations away from home.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Rilla, We don’t have the allergy issue, but Daryl gets very, very carsick. Even just a drive to the other side of town makes him nauseous. We realized very early on that bike (maybe motorcycle) is the only way we can travel. The poor kid just cannot handle being inside any kind of vehicle.

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  10. 30traveler November 7, 2012 at 6:29 am #

    As someone with a ticking biological clock and equally strong wanderlust, this is a great but sobering post. It’s easy to get the impression from the awesome traveling family blogs that anyone can do extended travel with kids, but of course it depends on the kids.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @30traveler, I do think that most kids love travel, but it is a bit of a lottery when you have kids – you just never know what you’ll get. There are so many traveling families out there with kids that are thriving on it, it’s very easy to get the impression that it’ll work for every family!

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  11. Gary Bembridge (www.tipsfortravellers.com) November 14, 2012 at 10:00 am #

    Great images and love your stories about your trips. Came across you from the Hostel Booker Award you won. Congrats, I look forward to following more of your adventures. Safe travels !

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Gary Bembridge (www.tipsfortravellers.com), Thanks Gary! Ours was a fantastic journey for sure! We’re glad you’re here.

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  12. Immigrant Patty November 21, 2012 at 10:51 pm #

    Good for Kids
    Our kids are the best for us so that we want them to became happy so we all the best for them. Like some kids wants to travel other wants to the beaches or some wants to go to the mall to make shopping or watching movies. Because all the kids our different in moods so we need to be like a kid also so that we can go to their moods. Because if we did not do that may be our kids will have an argument with us or may be they will not go with us. So may be we need to know what are kids want before we go to travel or go someplace make sure that our kids will enjoy.

    thanks.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Immigrant Patty, Very true that kids are all so very different. It’s hard to generalize anything.

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  13. jamie December 4, 2012 at 9:44 am #

    hi nancy! (and everyone else) I’m fascinated by this post and also by the coincidence that many of the kids that seem to struggle the hardest with the nomadic model are BOYS. My daughter could keep going forever. My son asks to go home even when he is having a good time.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @jamie, I have never paid attention to that at all. My sons were good with our travels. It’s all so different and varies so much kid to kid.

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  14. Jessica Festa December 6, 2012 at 10:19 pm #

    What a thought-provoking post. I guess it all boils down to the fact everyone is different. What works for some doesn’t for others. I don’t yet have children but I do hope when I do they have the passion for travel that I do! :)

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Jessica Festa, I feel so blessed that my children shared my passion for travel. I’m not sure what I would have done if they hadn’t, but I’m sure I would have figured it out.

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  15. Louise December 11, 2012 at 8:00 am #

    When I was a kid, I was also bored traveling. I am more of an indoor person.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Louise, We’re all so different. The key is to pursue a lifestyle that is meaningful and fulfilling to you. Somehow we tend to miss that all too often.

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  16. Alyson April 1, 2013 at 3:10 am #

    That is a brilliant post and deals with the thing I’m most scared of. My youngest likes his home, his house. This could go two ways, we could cure him of that and he could learn to love travel, or we could give him a nightmare few years. I hope it’s the former, the alternative,coming back here, is my nightmare.

    [Reply]

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