When my son, Luke, was three, my wife and I were planning to take him with us on a trip to Japan. Why would you do that, my friend Lisa asked. Why spend all that money to fly across an ocean when he’d be just as happy throwing rocks in your backyard? Plus, he’s so young, he won’t remember anything. And he’ll ruin your trip.
Nine years later, I can admit she was right. But I’m still glad we did it. And we haven’t stopped taking him places. Due to our incredible luck and good fortune, my now 12-year-old has more passport stamps than I had when I was 30. It’s ridiculous. He has stood at the edge of a Nicaraguan volcano. He has steered a sailboat off the shores of Santorini. He has annoyed an entire hotel in Amsterdam by clomping around wearing little more than a pair of wooden shoes. (Sorry about that, fellow guests. That was our fault, not his.) He has awakened to the hoots of howler monkeys in Costa Rica. He has barfed in an Irish country inn.
Traveling with a kid forces you to confront some profound questions about why we travel. Why do we fly across oceans when we have perfectly nice backyards?
When you don’t have a kid, you can sip the finest sake at the secret eight-seat bar in Tokyo and tell yourself, yes, this is way better than my backyard. As you try to maneuver a stroller and two giant suitcases through Shibuya station at rush hour, the answer is not so clear. As Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation says of becoming a parent, “Your life, as you know it, is gone.” Your old life as a traveler is gone, too. But you get a new one.
For my wife and me, our memories of Japan do not include secret sake bars. Instead, we remember following a garbage truck down the street. It was blue! And so small! We remember the doorman who slipped an origami frog into our son’s little hand. We remember that same little hand ringing the bells at the Kyoto temples. We remember finding the playground on the roof of the Tokyo department store and feeding our kid the peanut butter sandwich we’d bought in a 7-Eleven.
Before that makes you vow to never have children, we also remember the times we had to ourselves in Japan, when the other parent stayed back at the hotel at night or at nap time. I remember the solo trip I took to the public bathhouse, an adventure that began with smiles and hand gestures and ended with me deciding that a few seconds of standing naked in a pool that had electric current running through it that was making my leg hair stand on end was probably enough. You still get to do stuff like that. You just don’t get to do it all the time, whenever you want.
That’s why you fly across the ocean: Life is short, and the world is full of wonders. None of us gets to experience all of them. But there are plenty to go around, if you keep your eyes open. That’s another thing about kids, little ones especially. They don’t care what you’re “supposed to do” in a destination. Everything in the world is new to them, and they decide what’s cool. In Ireland, we took a day tour out of Dublin to see the ancient stone towers and carved gravestones of Glendalough and the crags and bogs of the Wicklow Mountains. Luke’s favorite part of the trip? When the guide let him make an announcement over the bus’s PA system. (We have yet to find a guide who doesn’t grab Luke’s attention more than we can. He would follow a guide anywhere.) Is that memory worth any less?
I don’t know if this is true in all families, but the memories that seem to stick with us are the quirky ones. We still sing the song we sang along with the fans at a Korean baseball game, using our made-up words, and remember the one-eyed cat who hung around with us in the Greek village of Monemvasia. We saw the Parthenon on that Greece trip, too, but we don’t seem to talk about it much anymore. (Though I don’t think it’s a coincidence that after our trip, we tore through the Percy Jackson books, which are based on the Greek myths.)
I can’t claim to know how traveling with our son will affect his life in the long-term. (Do any parents really know . . . anything?) At this stage I can’t point to a specific trip that has affected the trajectory of his life in a specific way, although travel has left its mark on him. He has scars on his elbow from when he fell in the Jardin de Luxembourg after playing with the toy boats and on his calf from when he slipped as we hiked across a Hawaiian lava field. Like all the best scars, they have stories.
I’d like to think that at some level, these trips are shaping his identity. I want him to think of himself as someone who does stuff. Even if he doesn’t actually remember riding the bullet train past Mount Fuji, he knows he is a person who has ridden the bullet train past Mount Fuji. I hope he sees himself as a part of a world that is bigger than his school or our town but small enough to be explored. I hope that he understands that there are people who don’t look like him or talk like him and yet are very much like him in most ways. Maybe someday, one of our trips will spark a passion or reveal to him his life’s calling. We recently got back from an African safari. It was one of the first trips we’ve taken that he had a say in deciding where we went. I’m pretty sure he would’ve been happy to stay at the lodge to be an apprentice to our guide—it’s always the guides—and spend his days tracking down cheetahs. Then again, he would probably be just as excited to work at the Nintendo store we visited in a Johannesburg mall. So I’m not holding my breath. Traveling with our son lets my wife and me explore the world, and, as a bonus, watch him explore the world. That’s more than enough.