Author: Rachel Denning

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.


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.