Travelling with small children - is it worth it?

So are all the hard times worth it?
So are all the hard times worth it?  Photo: Shutterstock

"What's the point? Your kids won't even remember it." Jackie lost track of how many times she heard this in the lead up to the nine-month outback trip she took with her husband and their two children, aged three and five, around Australia. And sure, given the major financial and logistical challenges involved in travelling with small kids, it's no surprise people wonder whether it will be "worth it". However, as many families have discovered, a child's perfect recall of a holiday is neither the best nor the only way to measure the success of the trip.

"Our trip was an opportunity to reconnect with each other," explains Jackie. "We felt like our lives had become really task-oriented – getting to and from places, constantly battling to get things done, never really slowing down to just enjoy each other. That nine months gave us uninterrupted time with our kids while they were still very small that we will cherish always. In many ways, that trip helped us lay strong foundations for our family life going forward – as a couple, as parents, and as a unit."

Azza Brown, a developmental clinical psychologist with the Australian Psychological Society, confirms that children don't start to make lasting memories until around the age of five – though it can vary from child to child. That doesn't necessarily mean that travel shouldn't start until that age, however.

"Anything that takes us out of the bubble of our own neighbourhood will help build a resilient, curious, open-minded child," she says. 

Yes, the memories they have will likely be an amalgamation of photos, videos and anecdotes told to them by others but that doesn't diminish the value of the experience.

Indeed, over thirty-five years after the fact, I remain convinced that the outback road trip my parents took my brother and I on as young children played an important role in the shaping of my character, in the bond I have with my family, and certainly in my continued love for outback travel. Sure, my "memories" of that time are probably more the creations of faded snapshots, snatches of old super-8 film, and stories repeated through the years, than of precise recollections, but they remain as precious to me as the more "accurate" memories I have of travelling as an adult through Europe or Asia.

Alison has been travelling to every year to Germany with her husband to see his family since their two sons were born, and while the annual trip has allowed them to build up familiarity with their "second home", Alison says that the boys' curiosity on these trips remains insatiable.

Of course, there are challenges associated with travelling such long distances and big shifts in routine combined with jetlag, time differences, and unfamiliar foods are bound to cause the odd melt down. But she explains that they've got better at managing their own expectations so that their boys don't get to that point. "We know, for instance, that arriving in the early evening is better for us than arriving in the morning. We've learned that as good an idea as a stopover seems, we just need to get the travelling done and dusted as quickly as possible. And we know that one hour in a museum that we want to see has to be followed by at least an hour and a half in a playground for the kids!"

Understanding that making opportunities for good old-fashioned play time and not turning every experience into a lesson, is crucial to keeping things relaxed and happy. Jackie describes how it's important to resist the temptation to make it one big guided learning experience. It's not necessary as the kids will inevitably pick up stuff that resonates with them.

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"The other day my daughter started talking about the indigenous creation story of the Rainbow Serpent," she says. "It's now well over two years ago that she heard about that, but it's really stayed with her."

Keeping a journal with the kids can be a beautiful way of creating a treasured record of the time. "The boys get out their travel diaries at any opportunity," explains Alison. "They love sharing the experience with other people and reminding themselves and us of all the fun we had together." And of course, it's not just the kids' memories that count. "We wanted to have beautiful memories of this time together in our marriage and of our little kids too," says Jackie.

So are all the hard times worth it? It would seem so. "The funny thing is," says Jackie, "the hardest bit about it is also the best bit about it: being with each other constantly with no breaks! It's super challenging but so rewarding."

Alison agrees. "I always anticipate the worst – especially with the long flight. But I'm pretty much always surprised at what a beautiful opportunity it gives me to spend close, uninterrupted time with my kids. No washing to put on, no phone calls. Just us."