I usually like to walk (and literally jog!) along the path less travelled and when it comes to holidays with my family I’m no different.
There is a general mindset amongst families that they won’t take their kids anywhere (apart from the obvious theme parks/hotels specifically geared to under-12s) because the kids “won’t appreciate anything.” The great destinations, from European cities like Paris and Rome to camel rides in the desert, are out.
The danger of this is that kids culture (which is fun in its place but is can include a lot of junk culture and junk food along with it) dominates every holiday and your children are never challenged, stretched or surprised. I want my kids to be taken out of their comfort zone so that they can grow.
I think the assumption that amazing places won’t rub off is also wrong because kids learn all the time while travelling. Even walking a child through a museum will allow something to linger, even if it is a memory of one memorable painting. When we visited the world’s most famous museum, the Louvre in Paris, we decided to zone in on just one painting! We took Noah at 12 to see, of course, La Gioconda (Mona Lisa to non- art buffs like me). It was a really intense burst of art for 20 minutes. To get there we had to go through several sections so the kids, including Zoe at 4, were looking at these incredible paintings en route without any pressure. We didn’t stop to analyse every artist and discuss the history of each period, but they do remember the Louvre as a kind of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory of painting and sculpture.
We have to be crafty: when we go to a palace, mosque or museum we don’t burn them out; we just give them a yum cha size taste. The way we see it, it’s not about missing out on the challenging stuff; it’s minimising the timeframe to make it work for a child. It trains them to open their eyes and be tolerant. My children have absorbed so much by osmosis that they have become quite worldly – certainly more so than if we hadn’t nudged them along.
I love that they know what it is to shop at a 1000-year-old market, not just a mall. My son Noah, 16 loves rap as much as the next kid but has discovered a passion for European sophistication and history. My eldest, Josh has set off with his friends on a pilgrimage across Israel and Europe (at 19, I’m sure it will involve a search for pretty girls more than the Holy Grail!) and with so much world travel in interesting places behind him, we know that he will handle himself well. Don’t get me started on Zoe at 8! One minute she is begging me to paraglide in New Zealand’s adventure capital, Queenstown. The next she is diving into the choppy ocean with me in Croatia. Travel has really allowed her inner intrepid explorer to shine.
We have all been inspired by seeing foreign children at play too. Greek kids run around in village squares on the islands as the parents and grandparents dance to live music, part of the communal fun. French kids get used to crumbly, sharp, amazing cheeses rather than getting fobbed off with bland, processed slices. Argentinean kids siesta so that they can be part of the family weekend celebrations into the night. In more traditional cultures little people come along for the ride rather than get relegated to a kids ghetto (hold the Big Mac). We are interested in sharing our lives - and the world - with our children in their formative years too, not just as an occasional thing.
Okay, it is hard work because you have to take their needs into account, so I factor in downtime by a pool or days off from touring. But we take the hit because we would rather they get something out of the places we go to than stay home and be bored. (Granted, as kids hit 18 they will find many creative ways to make an empty house work for them!) Even when we are just chilling out on the beach kids are soaking up other languages, styles of people and food, or striking up friendships with new friends whom they can keep as email buddies.
I have no problem in taking Josh, Noah and Zoe to places that are not perceived to be particularly child friendly. As Sheira says, if we dumb down and take them to a Hard Rock Café what can a kid get out of it that he couldn’t do at home? They can only order universal food like hamburgers because the restaurant is designed to create familiarity. When you ask kids to raise their game, they learn to eat good food and behave in a restaurant. Which means we grown ups don’t have to live in the fluoro-lit junk food universe either!
If you asked Noah what is his favourite place in the world he would say Capri - and the chic beach club there, La Fontelina. I’m pretty proud that he is so open to the Italian high life! Some years ago we had 5 free days in Europe while waiting to meet some people. It was summer so I suggested to Sheira, let’s show the kids the Amalfi Coast! Someone said to me, on automatic pilot, how can you go to Capri with a kid? It sounds so boring, with nothing to do there. On the contrary: it ticks a lot of boxes. It’s safe, because it is an island so there is a lot of freedom to move around, and fewer cars. It is beautiful, so you are exposing them to all the charm of the gorgeous topography and old-school resort elegance. Italians love children so they are welcomed and cherished, and the country’s natural gaiety is infectious and a delight to be around. It’s so much more than a holiday, it’s the university of life…
We have to be quite creative working our adventures into the school calendar. But even when Jonathan and I squeeze in extra travel on our own the kids’ schedules come into it. We have a great support system so I know I can be on the other side of the world and the kids are safe (although 17 days is the absolute max before I go into mother-meltdown). When you leave an 8-year-old daughter with a doting grandmother who is a lovely helper, her life will still be a swirl of ballet and play dates with minimal homework (and by the time we start to pine for each other I am heading back).
But being away as kids become older gets trickier; exams and challenging homework are a whole new world and mean more mother guilt. In most families Mum is the household co-ordinator and homework assistant. “I’ll help you study” is part of the job description! Unless your kid is a budding Stephen Hawkings, of the scholarly persuasion, you have to push them to work and remind them about deadlines. Left to their own devices most teenagers would rather sit around watching TV like Jabba the Hut than get into the algebra - and that’s when we are around. We may be on a South Pacific island ‘child-free’ but give a child some ‘parent free’ time and watch the real games begin!
The one time that I will not allow the kids to miss school or be away on my own for any significant amount of time is when they are in their last school year .It’s the one time I interfere in Jonathan’s planning period, or “fnagony.”
I stayed put while my son Josh got ready to graduate and now it’s Noah’s turn - he only has 13 months left of school calendar.
You reach that wall where the benefits of travel are less than the risks of falling behind. The school system in Sydney has broken the year into 4 terms instead of 3, so now we have more holidays, albeit shorter, which breaks up the hard slog a bit in the years to come with Zoe.
Luckily, in the years that have flown by, we have had 12 years of quite intense travel with the boys. Apart from albums of happy, smiling faces, we have armed them with quite interesting skills that will help them see the world on their own later (gulp!) or work out the bugs when luggage gets lost and flights are cancelled. Best of all: they have an interest in travel, which is the greatest tribute they could give to Jonathan’s efforts to include them in the adventure, from beachtowel to desert jeep.
Nothing excites a teenage boy like his peers (except teenage girls probably) but I don’t think we have lost them forever, or “that’s it,”as we are so often warned. They like being with us: we’re not boring parents and get their jokes. They can tell us almost anything (I do not want to know what Josh is blackberrying Jonathan from Amsterdam that makes him laugh so much; they share an amazing honesty).
As long as they have the liberty to go off and do their own thing, which is totally natural, I can see a very short turnaround period in which they’ll always come back and hang with us. One day their partners will join in as well… If this helps anyone who assumes that world travel ends with childbirth then I’d be thrilled. Pushing past the easy, obvious stuff is the best thing we have ever done with our kids.
To be a mother and to travel is always tough. Our instincts are to nurture, care for and protect out babies, so to leave them at home and travel is fraught with mixed emotions. But all mothers need the break from their routine, so once you have made the decision to leave them, its time to get packing and get going!!!!!