"We're waiting to go until the children are old enough to really appreciate the trip."
Admit it, you've heard that line before or even said it yourself. The rationale for saying such a thing being that at age 2, 3, or 4 you would have to be a lunatic to take a kid on a long trip.
Then, when the kids hit5, 6 or 7, this line may come tripping off your tongue:
"Well, wouldn't it be better to wait just a bit so the trip might be helpful in their schoolwork?"
As this monologue continues, a couple of years slip through your fingers and the kids become deeply engaged in activities like summer camps and baseball. Before you know it they're teenagers with a lot of attitude who don't want to know you.
Is there a perfect age for the big trip? Well in my opinion the problem starts with the word big. Don't view it as the trip of a lifetime. Instead, see it as a taste of what is out there with the intention of returning and exploring more in the future. Taking on an epic family trip in this way suddenly makes everything more manageable.
It's also important to realize that there might be a psychological wall preventing us from stepping out into the unknown and dealing with language and cultural differences in foreign lands.
But if you put the thoughts firmly into your mind that most people are good rather than bad and that most economies need tourists, it becomes logical to realize that people in other cultures will, by and large, be nice and not scare us off.
Of course you must allow yourself one "mulligan" per trip. In other words, if you are having a really bad day and things are just not going to plan, you are permitted to whip out your credit card or emergency cash stash to right the wrongs or at least ease their pain. We all make mistakes. Some experiences you think will be wonderful won't be, and other things that you had not even considered will turn out terrific. It all equalizes in the end! So, budget in a couple of mistakes and forgive yourself.
Now here comes the golden rule to successfully travel with children: write down your wish list of what you want to see and then narrow it down to what you think is practical to achieve per day.
Then, take a big red pen and slash it in half! This is the single most important detail to planning your trip.
Remember, children have half the stamina and half the attention spans of their typical adult counterparts. However, this only becomes a problem if you maintain a hard line about what you need to see and do.
For example, you're in Europe, as I was recently with my family, and you get the morning to traipse around the Louvre. That's all well and good, but they then get the afternoon splashing in the Paris Plage (the Parisian equivalent of a Seattle paddling pool, depending on the color of your glasses).
Even if the pool is small, the kids won't notice as they muck about while the parents sip on aperitifs and watch boats navigate the Siene. Kids need to blow off steam, and it's happy compromises like this that make you glad you took the big-trip risk and didn't stay home.
And finally, if you think you'll reap the immediate rewards of having exposed your dear children to the wonders of the world, think again.
Invariably, after a big trip, when it comes time to write the perennial what-I-did-on-summer-vacation essay, my children astonishingly write about swimming in Lake Washington and playing with the dog. Don't be downhearted though. The details will come out at the most unexpected and least glamorous moments.
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