The Joys of Traveling with Kids
You never know how the journey is going to change you and your family. Traveling with kids has surely changed mine
For my family of three ordinary kids and one mom on a mission, my desire to travel with my kids had a profound and positive effect on all of us.
Each of my three kids is different and like so many families, the story is familiar. The firstborn, a girl, is a natural leader. The middle child, a boy, has some learning issues—challenging though nothing a veteran teacher hasn’t seen every one of their years in teaching. The youngest, another boy, is the baby. He is in no hurry to get anywhere.
After a painful exodus from the airline industry following 9/11, I needed to move forward and recover in a way that resonated personally. From that experience, I knew the perfect time to live life would never materialize. Waiting wasted time, and time is really the most valuable thing each of us is given. So for me, the perfect time to have kids came quickly and the perfect time to travel with them happened often.
A year-and-a half after my final baby arrived, my flock of three was ready to spread their wings. It was 2009 and I was ready to lead them. I always knew I’d travel with my kids, though I didn’t know how I would do it. The one thing I sensed from the beginning was tomorrow comes quick when raising kids and I wasn’t wasting my opportunity to explore with my babies. Without a grand plan or a grandiose budget, we started small and frugal by road tripping to the neighboring states and car camping.
Scrapping by with cold-cut lunches and deluxe campgrounds (campsites with hot showers and flushing toilets), we wandered state-by-state, summer break-by summer break. It was enough, actually it was perfect.
My need to detach and experience life outside my bubble was strong. For my kids, spending a chunk of the summer chasing each other through campgrounds and down hiking paths was more fun than fighting over the TV. Each summer I crafted a loose itinerary packed with interesting sites that appealed to the entire family. Though we always gravitated to the national parks and quirky roadside attractions the most. We saw America and its majestic natural beauty and along the way we experienced more than we would have close to home.
Each year as my kids’ ages increased so did our scope. Luckily, our home was centrally located in Texas, so we spoked out in a different direction on every trip.
My kids got dirty and no one cared. Actually park rangers liked dirty kids—dirty kids were engrossed in nature and learning by exploring. From biology to geology to geography, we learned about the natural world. Though there was more to learn at national park sites, from the people before modern language to the modern thought makers of their day–we learned how humans shaped our continent for the better, and sometimes for the worse.
My kids didn’t require elaborate meals when traveling. Burgers and hotdogs cooked over an open fire were perfect. I splurged on the name brand marshmallows and kept chocolate from melting in the cooler. When at home, I thought about what we needed to live a full life. Stuff wasn’t at the top of our list, and living simpler seemed the key to a deeper life when merged with travel.
The conversations our travels ignited kept our desire to explore alive. What we discovered through our travels changed the way we lived our lives in-between.
For the kids, each trip expanded their view, and they began to pick out the common threads woven through our continent. We marveled at its subtle differences, so many times experienced through food. This could be as simple as trying regional fast food, a favorite with the kids.
During the school year, their teachers each remarked how well-traveled my kids were. At first that statement would confound me—it’s not like I had been dashing all over the globe with my kids in tow. We were exploring our own country.
The more I thought about it, they did travel a lot, especially compared to their peers who gravitated to the well-trotted amusement-based attractions. Sure, my three kids had been to those places a time or two. And they were amused by them, though they were never enriched by those excursions.
Did they fight? Not really. Did they complain? Again, not really. Was it exhausting at times for me, the primary driver and planner? Absolutely, though that feeling was temporary. Personally, I came back re-energized from my experiences on the road. And then there was the bonding cemented on our trips, of fun road games we played on drive days, like shouting Waffle House each time we saw one. Then the scary experiences (at the time) got replayed at the dinner table frequently, like waking up to hear an elk scratching its bum on our cabin or the glimpse of a bear on our hike.
Each of my kids gained something different from the road. My firstborn student found herself in Japan as a high-school exchange student, ready to explore on her own. My youngest gained confidence in the outdoor world when he would have preferred to stay indoors.
Though the largest gain was made by my middle child, my struggling student. I had always noticed he absorbed more through our travels, reading more comprehensively and understanding scientific concepts more thoroughly. He needed the real-world experience to understand those concepts better.
When he returned to school, he recalled what he had learned and his teachers noticed. Eventually he chiseled out an identity as the traveler, instead of letting his educational issues define him. His teachers knew he was the kid who traveled a lot and always had something to add to class discussions, no matter the subject. When college acceptance letters landed in our mailbox recently, he got a special note from the Assistant Dean of Admission.
I am so impressed you traveled to all 50 states, that is really amazing!
For me, I gained the confidence I lost after 9/11. With that confidence, I then felt gratitude for the time I got to travel with my kids. I invested my most valuable thing–my time and I shared my passion with the loves of my life.
Now, I am sharing my experiences and knowledge with others. I aim to change the narrative of traveling with kids. It can be a childhood-changing experience as well as enriching for all who travel with kids. Not every family can spend each summer exploring a new area, though try to carve out some time, and explore somewhere new together.
Life moves fast and sometimes you can slow that down on a summer road trip.
Catherine Parker has a passion for travel that’s driven her across North America, visiting all 50 U.S. states along with seven Canadian provinces and top destinations in the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. Logging close to 100,000 miles behind the wheel, Catherine and her three kids have explored 43 of the 63 U.S. national parks and 10 Canadian national parks. She is an awarding-winning journalist who has written for U.S. News and World Report, Trip Advisor, Popular Science, Chron.com and Meredith Media’s Family Fun and Chicago’s Suburban Family. Her writing was featured in onboard travel guides: Compass—The Onboard Magazine of Holland America Line and Disney Cruise Line Wonder Onboard Guide. Catherine publishes a travel website, CarfulOfKids.com. She lives in Central Texas in a 100-year-old house with a menagerie of animals and adult-sized kids.