Why It’s Not Selfish for Parents to Travel With Young Children

A few months after publishing an article with BootsnAll entitled How to Develop Character in Your Children (and Yourself) Through Travel, I was reviewing comments that had been posted and I came across the following:

“Parents who travel with toddlers do it only for selfish reasons. The simple truth is that children at very young age can’t appreciate what their parents are doing…Small kids enjoy being with their relatives, but not too far from home and their culture.”

I was taken back by this statement. Not because someone would dare to have a different opinion than I, but because it was so far from my truth.

While we will admit that my husband and I thoroughly enjoy traveling, our decision to do it with our young children (all toddlers when we began) was not based on our selfish desires, but on an honest belief that doing so would be for their best benefit.

Deciding not to travel with your children while they are young ‘because they won’t remember’ the trips you take is a little like saying you’re not going to read to your children while they are young because they won’t remember the books you read. You read to your small children because of sounds they will hear, the words the will see, the skills they will acquire, and the habits you hope they will form. Traveling with young children is very much the same.

We made the conscious decision to travel abroad while our children were young in order to help mold them into the global citizens we hoped they would become – individuals who have a broader understanding of ‘the way things are’, than the myopic outlook that can develop from “vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime”, as Mark Twain puts it.

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For my husband and I, a life of travel for our very young children was so important to their development, it’s been done at the sacrifice of career, a comfy home in the suburbs, and a social life – in many ways it been a selfless, rather than a selfish endeavor.

Here are a few of the reasons we believe traveling with young children is for their benefit, not the parents:

1. Significant Brain Development Happens Before the Age of Five

A lot of research has been done by Glenn Doman and others about the immense growth and development that happens during the first five years of a child’s life.

Some even go as far as to say that a “seventy five percent of brain development occurs in the first three years of life.

“The right kind of experiences in their early years can actually help our children’s brains to grow! And, that it can affect how they continue to learn later on in life…The neural pathways that are developed in your child’s first three years can act like the roadmaps to later learning.”

In essence, “the first years of life lay the groundwork for future experiences.”

While I don’t believe that a child’s entire future is carved in stone because of the first few years, I do believe that a lot of what happens during that time has a major impact on the establishment of their perspective of life and the world.

Before beginning our first adventure driving the Pan American Highway from Utah to Costa Rica as a family with our small children who were (at the time) ages 4, 3, 2 and 2 months old, my husband an I discussed at length about whether they would ‘remember’ our six week trip together, and the consequent year living in Costa Rica.

We knew then, and we know now, that they wouldn’t (and they don’t) remember what we did. But we believed (and we’ve discovered that we were right), that these early years of travel would help to develop the way they would learn and build a foundation for a larger view of the world.

From that, and subsequent adventures, we’ve found that our kids don’t remember what happened, but they do know (by experience) that people speak different languages in different places;

They know (by experience) that they like gallo pinto and pina and platanos and Indian parotas and hamburgers, but that all that food is not eaten in all the same places.

The also know (by experience) that some people have white skin with blond hair and speak Swiss-German, but others with white skin and blond hair speak English; some people have brown skin and curly hair and speak Spanish, but others with brown skin and curly hair speak Creole. And some people have brown skin and straight hair and speak something totally different.

Most importantly they know that no matter the skin color, language, or location, they can make friends. And while still only 7, 6, 4 and 3, my kids continue to make friends all over the world. That’s the foundation of a global perspective that I want them to keep for the future.

>> Check out the new parent’s guide to travel with an infant

2. Experiences Bring Growth

The greater number of experiences you introduce a child to (or an adult for that matter), the greater, and faster, their brain development.

Mothers have always known this instinctively. That’s why they shake rattles, talk to their babies, have them touch new textures and listen to “Baby Einstein”.

What parents have known for years – that good early experiences are good for our children – is now being proven by doctors and scientists at research centers and universities all over the country.”

Everything a child sees, hears, thinks, and touches transfers into an electrical activity. Each time the brain is stimulated, the experience rewires the brain.”

Every time parents take their children to a park, the petting zoo, the aquarium or a museum, it’s with the intent of introducing their children to new experiences in order to widen their little minds.

Travel takes that concept one step further. Instead of petting zoos, it’s safaris, elephant rides and crocodile preserves; along with the aquarium, there are beaches, snorkeling and dolphin sightings; Latin, African and Indian Carnatic music; ancient Mayan ruins and Hindu temples; bungee jumping, boat rides and plane trips, all contribute to mind expansion.

Travel helps to increase the amount, and diversity, of new experiences in your child’s life, literally increasing neural pathways and enlarging your child’s brain.

We’ve seen our own children grow with each new experience, as they develop a new skill, overcome a fear, try a new food that turns out to be a favorite, make a new friend or have an adventure that is totally amazing.

>> Find out how to prepare your kids for adventure

3. Language Builds Confidence

It’s no secret that small children learn languages quickly and easily. It’s amazing to all parents how a Russian child can learn to speak perfect Russian, while a Japanese child speaks perfect Japanese.

Experts say that “language is acquired most easily during the first ten years of life.  If children are to learn to speak a second language like a native, they should be introduced to the language by age ten.”

In fact, “children learn any language best in the context of meaningful, day-to-day interactions with adults or other children who speak the language.”

Acquiring a new language can happen in a simple and easy manner- children listen to others speaking the language, then mimic it.

If given the opportunity, they can repeat this process again and again, in a multitude of languages.

But why is learning another language helpful or even necessary?

Jessie Wise, in her book The Well-Trained Mind, states that, “The study of language shows a young child that his world, his language, his vocabulary and his way of expression are only one way of living and thinking in a big, tumultuous, complicated world.”

Exposing your children to new and different languages at an early age contributes to an expanded global understanding, sharper cognitive skills, a better understanding and use of their native language, a greater appreciation of cultures, and most importantly, the ability to make friends of other nationalities.

I’ve seen my own daughter’s self-confidence grow as her ability to make friends in multiple languages increase, and from the admiration she receives from native language speakers who are impressed with her ability to speak a second language fluently.

>> Discover non-obvious ways to learn a language

4. Offer a Real Education

ABC's on the BeachSure, we could have placed our kids in preschool where they could play with their peers, color, mold play-dough, learn the alphabet and nursery rhymes and have snack time.

Instead we chose to leave their homeland. Now instead of homogeneous peers, they’re meeting new and diverse people from all ages and cultures; in place of play-doh it’s sand castles; along with the alphabet (in English), they’re learning other languages. Snack time includes fare in many flavors.

While a regular study of school subjects is important, travel schooling offers an opportunity to provide real-world application of concepts from all areas of curriculum.

History, the Arts, Science, Language, and even Math can all be studied hands-on through travel, and brought to life in a way that’s impossible through ‘school learning’ alone.

Our children have experienced first-hand ancient Mayan ruins, snake-eating frogs, feeding dolphins, elephants and giraffes, Hindu temples, currency exchange, various forms and styles of art, and diverse languages. As they learn about these subjects during their schooling, they often connect what they’re learning to real-life experiences.

5. If You Don’t Do It Now, You’ll Never Do It

Throughout our travels we’ve heard many parents bemoan that fact that they can’t take their family abroad – their children are in school, they have their group of friends, extracurricular activities – so many commitments that they can’t tear them away- or even more common, the children don’t want to leave.

As a couple, my husband and I decided to start living nomadically while our children were young so that they would be accustomed to it as they matured.

Then an extended trip abroad (wherever ‘abroad’ might be), wouldn’t be an uncommon occurrence, something to oppose, but ‘just what our family does.’

Despite the perceived difficulties of traveling with young children, if you don’t do it while they are young, you may find it just as difficult, if not more so, to travel with them when they are older.

As Timothy Ferris says in his book The Four-Hour Work Week, “Far from being a reason not to travel and seek adventure, children are perhaps THE best reason of all to do both.”

Traveling with young children is not only possible and plausible, but preferable for many families who unselfishly want to offer more to their posterity.

Read more about traveling with kids:


All photos by Rachel Denning and may not be used without permission

Rachel Denning is a writer and photographer for her website on family travel and lifestyle design. She and her husband are driving from Alaska to Argentina with their 5 children. Read more about Rachel Denning and check out her other BootsnAll articles.


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Older comments on Why It’s Not Selfish for Parents to Travel With Young Children

21 April 2010

Good article, and a good case to be made for traveling early and often.

I have three children, now all teenagers. I didn’t travel with them (except for occasional grandparent jaunts) until each of them turned ten, which is when I took each one on their ‘first trip’.

This worked out quite well. With both parents working, I felt fortunate that my employer would let me take two or three weeks–long enough to set a cadence for travel, if not for a more nomadic experience.

Although these are good kids, I feel strongly that before age ten, kids just don’t travel as well. Developmentally, they are simply more self-centered, and can’t roll with the punches as easily when there are travel delays, meal delays, lines to wait in, and rain for the fourth straight day.

In the years since each kid’s first trip, we’ve touched several countries on two more continents, experienced cultures much unlike our own, and seen incredible natural beauty and cultural heritage. The takeaways for the kids:

— travel need not be a lavish, elegant, expensive experience.
— with a little travel savvy and endurance, you get to see some cool things.
— bragging rights and pictures matter.
— if you know how your trip is going to turn out before you’ve even left, you’ve planned too much
— be willing to be changed by travel

Could be worse outcomes than this. By all means, take the little nose-pickers along with you. But, be mindful of their ability to share in even your most well-intentioned travel offerings. It’s their trip too.

Traveller At Heart
21 April 2010

This article and the comment that followed were both excellent in presenting differing views. I say: To each their own! Parents need to do what is comfortable for themselves, as well as for their children. And this is unique to each family, each parent and each child. There is no general rule for all families. I happen to agree with SputnikLee, for the reasons stated. Older children tend to remember their experiences and are less dependent upon their parents for basic needs, more flexible and understanding of inconveniences, and can add quite a bit of variety to travel.

21 April 2010

My mother was a bit of a nomad and thusly so was I.

We went to exotic rainforests, deserts and more than a few towns and cities before I learned how to tie my shoes. While I didn’t fully appreciate it then, I know now that THESE are the experiences that helped me grow into the traveler (and the man) that I am today. I learned, through her example, ingenuity, resourcefulness and openmindedness that many of my friends are only starting to grasp at now.

I know it’s harder to travel with children, and may even make other travelers uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done. I will definitely travel with my kids from when they are babies to when they are grown.

I hope to see the way they travel matures as they do.


21 April 2010

Great article. My wife and I recently went on a year long RTW trip as our last hurrah, so to speak, before having kids and settling down. We were SHOCKED to see the amount of people traveling with their young children, and we realized that our previous thoughts were just closed-minded. We went against the grain of societal norms by quitting our jobs in our late twenties and not buying a house and settling down in order to travel for a year. Why we thought we wouldn’t be able to do the same when we did have kids, well, I’m not sure why we thought that. I guess that we’re just so engrained as to what’s “normal” that we never thought it possible.
I love seeing stories like these and good, logical arguments explaining the benefits of traveling, both with and without kids. Thanks for the inspiration!! Very well written.

21 April 2010

Fabulous article. We have traveled quite a bit with our kids and I was a little dismayed the other day to find out what our eldest DOESN’T remember from our trips to Italy, the West Indies and more. But what she DOES remember is that she loves to travel, loves to meet new people, experience new things and can’t wait to do more of it. That hunger for learning more about our world–and the people in it–is at the heart of the best kind of travel.

Our youngest was 4 when we went to Italy. No problems with schedules and the kids were so enamored and intrigued with the new experiences, we had few issues with them “rolling with the punches.” I say that if discipline and family dynamics are in order at home, you can handle it on the road. And those shared experiences have brought us closer as a family. Travel forth without trepidation, fellow travelin’ families! It is SO worth it.

Lisa Bergren

21 April 2010

My first travel experience was at a very young age to Mexico – a short trip from California down across the border. When I was 6 and my sister was 2, we moved from San Francisco to Guam for my father’s job. Living in that part of the world opened up so many Asian travel opportunities that my parents couldn’t pass up and my childhood was filled with summer and winter trips to Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Okinawa and Japan. For a change of pace when I was 12, my parents decided the family would spend a summer traveling with my grandfather around Germany, Italy, Belgium and France. Our most recent family trip was 6 years ago (I was 30) to England and Ireland.

From an adult perspective (as one who has been traveling since I was 6 months old), I definitely agree with the article! I had the most interesting childhood and always felt lucky to be able to visit other countries and see different cultures firsthand. I knew my friends weren’t seeing as much of the world as I was and I felt…special! My parents made it a priority to travel before my sister and I were born and never thought twice about continuing to see the world and sharing those experiences with us. I honestly believe that my outlook on life, other cultures and travel in general was shaped by such a travel-rich childhood and I feel so very fortunate to have grown up seeing the world!

21 April 2010

Great article. I travel with my son all of the time. His first flight was at 6 mos. and his first road trip was at four weeks! We haven’t traveled internationally because we haven’t had the means or time, but he has been everywhere with me from four star hotels in Hawaii, hoofing it for hours in NY City, to backpacking around Mt. Rainier. Sure there are irritating times and occasional whining, but I know he wouldn’t trade any of the trips for anything. I’ve also enjoyed planning the trips with him and sharing his excitement…at 12 years old he definitely has the travel bug as a result.

21 April 2010

I couldn’t agree more with your article and that young children should be exposed to international cultures and people. Seeing third world living and poverty is a whole lot different than reading about. I plan to take the initiative to bring my children to places that I visited in my youth to give them the same experience I had. On a different note, I did find this site good on Canada.


Jamie Massaro
21 April 2010

I couldn’t agree more; children should have the opportunity to travel with their family and experience what the world has to offer. I think traveling provides a great learning experience for those that do it right. My wife & I took our 6 month old to NYC and he loved it! He enjoyed all the sights and sounds as we ventured throughout the city. We plan our vacations with our child in mind and think other parents should give it a try as well.

21 April 2010

To SputnikLee and Traveller At Heart about it being easier to travel with older children- I totally agree.

At times of extreme frustration, my husband will often throw up his hands and say “Forget it, we’re not taking them anywhere anymore. We’ll just stay at ‘home’ until they’re older.” (It’s difficult to try and take a 3 year old potty in an Indian toilet when there is no paper and you have to use water.)

But then we’ll have a great experience together which makes it all worth it, and we realize that when it comes down to it, the difficulty involved is an investment we’re making that has huge returns.

Thanks for all the great comments!


22 April 2010

Loved the article! No kids yet, but I know when they do come along, I’m not going to stop traveling. I realize that it isn’t always going to be easy bringing the kids with, but I want them to experience more than the annual trip to grandpa’s house, or Disneyland (which was my travel experiences growing up).

23 April 2010

Excellent article. Child development experts agree that children need varied experiences for brain development and what is more varied than travel. I always traveled with my son for my own enjoyment but figured it was good for him too. I knew he wouldn’t remember everything, but memory isn’t the only way that the experience enriches a child. In any case, I think it has done him good. Now that he’s a teenager, he “hates” traveling because I love it. Now I truly travel for selfish reasons and “drag” him along. I always tell him, “I’m not traveling for you, I’m traveling for me. So, I don’t care if you don’t enjoy yourself. Have fun or don’t have fun, just don’t tell me about it!” The key thing I’ve always done when traveling is to try to design some of the trip with the kid’s interests in mind. That has always (until adolescence) made it fun for all of us.

26 April 2010

It’s interesting that I agree and disagree with some of your arguments.

We have been traveling with our child since she was 2 weeks old & we have been on an open ended, non-stop family world tour since 2006. She was 5 when we began and is 9 now. We have no plans on stopping & live large on just 23 dollars a day per person!


We wanted to wait til she was reading well and could remember all her international travel & we are really glad we did it this way. Books, reading, deep immersion & learning languages very proficiently ( reading and writing like a native besides just conversational) has been a tremendous benefit that adds so much to our travels. Four years later and she remembers ALL of our international travels! ( 4 continents, 32 countries so far).

She also has a real sense of home because she was raised in the same place for her first 5 years, so I’m grateful for that security and sense of roots. She still is close with friends from there albeit mostly by webcam calls & online.

Brain development is crucial in the first 5 years, but international travel does NOT make it any better. One can do ALL of the things you mentioned without international travel. Brain development enrichment in early years is mostly about loving, involved parents…NOT location.

Many people miss the many international experiences that are available right at home. We are monolingual parents who have raised a trilingual from birth & exposed her to MANY cultures and languages before any international travel. We lived in a very “white bread” kind of area where most parents did not do this or take advantage of the many opportunities to actually expose & teach their children other languages and cultures.

Language begins in the womb actually, and one can start helping a child learn both their native tongue and others starting then. You do not have to go to other countries to do that. Most places are filled with people who speak other languages.

Just exposing your child a bit to other languages will not have any where near the advantages as raising them as true language learners. It’s like letting a child bang on a piano or really teaching them the daily discipline of really learning to play a piano well. Sure banging is exposure and good creative fun, but very different than really learning an instrument. Saying a couple words in another language is just the very beginning. Most people do not realize how much work it takes over many years to be very proficient at an instrument or a second or third language.

Most Americans probably will not do international travel, but there are soooo many ways one can enrich their kids with travel experiences even at home.

That said, we were featured case studies in Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek, so I totally agree with his quote:

“Far from being a reason not to travel and seek adventure, children are perhaps THE best reason of all to do both.”

I just think it makes a little more sense to wait until they are reading well for maximum educational value.


Dee Andrews
27 April 2010

Couldn’t agree more with you Rachel. We are just back in the States after a year of living and traveling abroad. Our daughters were 6 and 9 when we left, and the journey definitely shaped all of us.

You can read about our travels and travails at http://www.travelandtravails.com. And, yes, there were travails for them and us, but those were the moments we all grew and improved from.

Thanks for the great article!

~ Dee Andrews

travel bug
04 May 2010

I too couldn’t agree more with the article. Last year, we took our 2 1/2 year old to Paris, and she adored it. All of it. Though I’d say it was a trip, not a vacation (I certainly didn’t find it restful traveling with a small child), it was amazing. She still talks about the trip, and wants to know when we can go back.

As for kids not being able to roll with the punches, I’d suggest that they are all different. After a full 24 hours of travel time on our trip home, my daughter immediately said, “can we do it again?” Now, I realize that might be an exception, as that length of trip would send most kids over the edge, I just want to share that so other who may be considering a trip with a toddler know that it can be possible.

And kids don’t get much out of travel? Well, okay, she might not remeber it when she’s older, but she was excited about every single thing that we saw and experienced. She also noticed that people speak a different language (and can still pick out the French language when she hears it).

I wholeheartedly agree with the brain development section of the article as well — every time my daughter experineces something new, we notice a huge spurt in her development. Granted, that happens at home and overseas, but that certainly isn’t a reason to stay in our own country all the time.

I am, admittedly, a travel freak, and since we read a lot about other countries, my daughter is excited about travelling absolutely everywhere, from Africa to India to Iceland. I think it’s great.

13 April 2011

“Deciding not to travel with your children while they are young ‘because they won’t remember’ the trips you take is a little like saying you’re not going to read to your children while they are young because they won’t remember the books you read.”

I disagree. They are learning to talk at that age (I’m thinking 1, 2 year olds). Reading and hearing people speak is very important in that process. While their brains are definitely in an important developmental stage, I think the influence travel would have on them would be minimal. I think it would have more influence even on a 4 or 5 year old than a 1 or 2 year old. My uncle and aunty took my cousin to Europe when she was about 1, and ultimately, it means nothing to her. It had no influence on her. The trip her mother took her on to Guatemala when she was about ten, and the trip to China when she was about 13, mean far more and have had much more of an influence on her.

Please note that I do not think international travel with a toddler is wrong or selfish. I’m just not convinced it’s anything like, or anywhere near as important as, reading to children of that age and think the comparison is a bit silly. Everything you listed in point 1 that your kids “know”, most kids know anyway.

A lot of your article deals with the benefits of travelling for older school-aged children too. The initial title and introduction of the article seemed to focus on toddlers. All the benefits you listed, I think are more applicable to primary (or in American terms, elementary) aged children than toddlers.

13 April 2011

As a follow-on to my previous comment: I fully intend on travelling internationally with my kids when I have them (if we can afford it – living in Australia, just getting out of the country can cost an arm and a leg!), but not until they are probably about 5. It will obviously depend on the children themselves, but I am not expecting myself and not setting any goals to travel internationally with them any younger than that (though they will certainly travel domestically!) I really want them to remember the experiences. I think the ‘learning’ they’d get from travelling any younger would be negligible and would just cause too much trouble for us as parents as well.