Take your kids to work day is this week (April 28). Many think we've just been travelling for the past year but in actual fact Colin's been living "take your kids to work" every day for the last year and a half ... actually he's been living "taking the WHOLE FAMILY to work day" for the past 452 days. The joys of working nomadically with your family in tow ... every day is take your kids to work day. A number of travelling families have decided to celebrate take your kids to work day by discussing the highs and lows of long term family travel based on the various ages of our children. We're attempting to answer one of the most frequently asked questions by parents who are planning to travel long term with their kids - what is the best age to travel with your kids? Or in our case, were we insane to pursue a nomadic lifestyle with two kids under 6?
When we first set out 16 months ago to explore the world, Noah and Hayley were 4.5yrs and 2.5yrs respectively. We realised at the time that travelling with such young kids would come with it's highs and lows but it was the perfect time for us as a family to go. For the first few months of our trip, Colin and I kept stating how much more fun this trip would be if Hayley was closer to the age Noah was then. If she was 4 life would be good.
At least that's what we thought! Less need for day time naps, no toiletting accidents, more confident and less reliant on Mum, able to swim solo, a longer attention span for museums and movies. We could walk further, do more adventurous things and stay out later.
And Noah at 6 would of course be a pure delight. He's able to sit through long train rides reading books with us, play independently, ride the big waterslides and enjoy even non-dinosaur museums. Travel would be a breeze!
Well guess what? Next month, Noah turns 6 and Hayley turns 4 and we're still waiting for our golden age of family travel.
We've since realised that even though the kids have both grown up in many ways, new difficulties have arisen and some things just haven't changed. Even at almost 4, Hayley still gets tired, wants to be carried and needs the occasional afternoon rest. We still have the odd toilet accident and she still wants to spend more time with mum than with friends. Noah is picking up reading but it's not his thing and dinosaurs still beat art galleries hands down, no contest. I'm pretty sure they will continue to do so for at least the new few years.
We've realised that there is no perfect act to travel with your children. The general concensus is that the older they get the easier it is ... up until a point! We now think between the ages of 7-10 might be our new golden age of family travel but who knows what we think when we'll get there. And there's definitely a lot of advantages of travelling with your children when they're even younger.
It's both tiring and frustrating, fantastic and heartwarming every minute of the day. We've realised it is possible to be both immensely proud of Hayley and want to put her in time out for the rest of the day in the exact same breath.
Travelling long term with a child aged less than 3 years old is an amazing experience for your family and your child. Lets face it - kids that young really just want the undivided attention of Mum and Dad. Travelling long term as a family has provided Hayley with exactly that for the past 16 months. It's attachment parenting at it's best. She has developed an immense sense of home as wherever her family is, rather than it being a place. She's had more time to be shaped by her parents than most children her age (we hope this is a good thing). We've been there to see her learn to hop and jump, read her first words, learn how to draw recognisable objects and people, and interpret the world in her own unique way. She never fails to surprise us with her different perspectives on things that we encounter as we travel, even if they are fantastical stories involving unicorns, princesses and farts. She soaking up the many languages she hears around her every day - she's only learnt a few words but she spends most of her time inventing languages and stories about the people that speak these words. We've had the time to notice her change from a shy toddler to a confidence, trusting, giving and determined girl.
Being able to spend so much time with her and seeing her grow has been priceless.
The toddler years are also one of the cheapest times to travel with kids. Entry for children under 3 is almost universally free to everything. Most hotels don't charge extra for your child provided you're happy to share beds. Most bus and train companies won't charge for children this young, although in some cases you'll have to have them on your lap. For under 2's you don't even need to pay for flights. The average toddler doesn't eat that much either so you can usually get away with them just sharing your meals.
There are benefits of travelling with a toddler over a baby. Generally they can miss a daytime nap and the whole world doesn't melt down. They're usually past the crawling stage and don't still put random things in their mouth - so travelling in developing countries doesn't require you to constantly chant "dirt is good for their immune systems ... really it is." If they do get sick they can generally tell you what's wrong. Another bonus of travelling with an under 3 year old is you don't have to worry yet about your child missing out on school or having to homeschool on the road.
Of course here's the negatives - toilet training! It's a big one.
We were lucky that Hayley was out of nappies during the day by the time we started our trip, although there were still plenty of accidents so that meant we had additional sets of clothes and extra washing. She was still at the stage of identifying when she needed to go, which usually means she left it to the last minute to tell us and then we had to rush around a foreign city in search of a toilet. She also initially insisted on doing Number 2's in nappies, which meant taking up precious packing room with nappies and wipes. All that changed of course when she got her first case of travellers stomach and decided it was too yucky for nappies!
Then how about night time toilet training? Hayley has been ready for at least 6 months but when we're always sleeping in someone else's bed it's almost impossible to let her go through that first month where lots of accidents happen unless we want to carry plastic sheets with us, extra linen and 20 extra sets of pj's.
Children this age also get tired and over stimulated easily. Often we need to plan afternoon rests and nothing days where she can just rest. The lack of routine can be really draining. There are limits on how far she can walk - we don't carry a stroller so by the end of most days we're carrying her. Even the simple things like hiring a bike to ride around a city can be difficult - finding a baby seat for a rental bicycle in a third world country is challenging. And what about infant restraints? It's not practical to carry one of these around the world with you, but then you are making the choice to never have your child restrained 'properly'.
Then there are tourist attractions. Places you've dreamed of visiting your whole life that are amazing to you and about as interesting as watching grass grow to a toddler. It's unimaginably hard to have dreamed of visiting somewhere your whole life, book the tour, turn up on the day and spend your whole time chasing a bored, grumpy toddler around rather than oohing and ahhing at the thing you've paid good money to come and see. You put on a happy face, tell yourself you can come back when the kids are older and give into the play ... but it's hard. Toddler years are usually when fussy eating rears it's head. This can be really difficult to deal with on the road. We learned to dread the constant battle to find food she'd like in each new country and ended up giving in for a while - we had three months where Hayley lived solely on bananas, pink milk, jam toast and plain rice.
Noah is a much easier travel companion than his little sister. He can walk further, sit through 8 hour flights without a complaint, hold serious discussions and thankfully has the whole toilet thing under control! He's almost at that "dream age" to travel with. Almost!
Spending an entire 16 months travelling with Noah has been a priceless experience. Seeing how his mind ticks as he encounters new cultures and people, as he learns new concepts and interprets the world in that fantastical way that only 5 year old boys. He is a sponge and remembers so many tiny details, even from our previous holidays. It's been amazing to have the time to appreciate how effortlessly he soaks up new knowledge regardless of whether it's how to add and subtract, geography, obscure facts about dinosaur with hugely complicated names that only children and palaeontologists can pronounce (I'm sure I knew how to say them when I was 5 but I so can't now) or the workings of a Buddhist temple.
Watching your child accept children of all cultures and backgrounds, without preconceived ideas or prejudice is something every adult should take the chance to see and learn from. We've watched him learn how to make new friends, anywhere anytime and become open to new experiences. He's grown 16cm since we left, lost two teeth, learnt to ride a bike and how to dust himself off after a fall.
The negatives? The biggest one would have to be education. Homeschooling a child who has never actually been to school and learnt the fundamentals of not only literacy and maths, but sitting still for extended periods of time and doing what he's told even when it's hard, is a lot harder than I ever thought it would be.
I'm not saying homeschooling isn't a wonderful thing - I believe in it whole heartedly and I'm so glad we have chosen this path. I just wish that he had of been through the first two grades of school to learn these fundamental concepts so that we could just build on them together.
Age appropriate friends are becoming harder to find - they're usually at school so he becoming very bored during the day. Teasing his sister is becoming one of his favourite passtimes. Not because he's a mean, thoughtless kid. Far from it, in fact he just offered to give his sister his second tooth so the tooth fairy would come to her, knowing it would mean she would get the money. It's simply because he's bored and needs the stimulation of older playmates! In some ways, only having his sister to play with and Mum or Dad constantly around to do things for him has stopped him from growing up in small ways. He's not as independent as many kids his age, he relies on us for entertainment and assistance in simple things like getting his shoes. These are small things but they're becoming more and more noticeable.
At almost 6 he still can't walk all that far. Walking just isn't something he enjoys (he takes after his father!). He can't (or won't!) carry a backpack or hike up a mountain so we won't be doing Everest any time soon! He still gets very tired and throws some spectacular tantrums. Just like his younger sister, he doesn't really appreciate tourist attractions like historical monuments and world heritage sites. Ruins are for climbing on and racing around, historical cities are only cool if they have a decent playground, art galleries are boring apart from the kids craft area and famous landmarks are no where near as important as the obligatory ice cream stand outside.
And then there are the "Why?" questions. All kids go through this phase. "Why is the sky blue?" "What are clouds made of?" "Did the dinosaurs turn into people?". If you have kids you've probably been through this phase. Now imagine that you've opened up the whole world to your child. Different countries, cultures, experiences, religions, modes of transport, ways of life ... can you imagine how many more "Why?" questions you get asked each and every day. How many more "Why?" questions that you just don't know the answer too? And of course he can't read yet so we can't just tell him to Google the answer!
OK so this last negative is a bit tongue in cheek ... but when you've been together non-stop for months and a "Why?" day comes along ... ARGHH
Ultimately a 5-6 years old is an infinitely easier age to travel with than a toddler, but it's just as rewarding.
Travelling with your children is tiring (don't underestimate how tiring spending every minute together is!) and frustrating during those times when travel plans just don't come together. It's infinitely harder than travelling as a couple ... but it's also a lot more rewarding. Whether you're planning on travelling for years or just three months, whether your backpacking around the world or just renting a beach house somewhere and relaxing, we honestly believe the extended quality family time that a long term holiday can offer a family is something every family should have the chance to experience.
Are we insane? Quite possibly. But would any of us change our decision? No way!
As part of Take your kids to work day, a number of other travelling families have all written their stories about what it's like to travel with their children. All of our children are different ages so it's worth taking a look at them all!