When I told friends I was taking my 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Peregrine, to Sydney, Australia, for a few weeks to visit her expat auntie and new cousin – they gushed, "Aw, what a great experience, but do you think she will remember it?"
And it got me thinking: As time marches on, what, if anything will she remember about this trip? And do small kids gain anything from travel besides the memory of it?
"First of all, she will remember," says researcher Dr. Carole Peterson, University Research Professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland, who studies memory in children. "While the rate of forgetting starts to slow at age 7, kids can remember salient moments farther back than we think. My own son's first memory was from the age of 22 months. Children who are 2 often remember pieces, three-year-olds have a lot of memory, and four- and five-year-olds certainly do."
You don't need to plan a big trip to make lasting memories. But travel can help by opening up unusual, vivid experiences outside of the everyday – and these are what stick around the longest. "Children don't tend to remember everyday events, like playing at the park, because how do you tell one day from the next?" Peterson explains.
Memory is like a muscle that you can build, and the way to do that is to talk about special experiences with your kids: "When you talk to children about events that are salient and important, especially if you take turns or 'co-tell' the story with them, they're developing the habit of memory by organizing experiences and creating a narrative. That's a skill that underlies literacy, so by the time they start reading they already know how to organize a story, they just have to put the words on top."
So maybe my daughter will remember the feel of the kangaroo nuzzling into her palm when she fed it carrots at Wild Life Sydney Zoo in Darling Harbour. Or the electrifying fear of staring into the jaws of a crocodile through the vertical glass tunnel carved into its floating tank. Or of sprawling across the "fancy hotel bed," at QT Bondi, in a breezy white and turquoise room across from the glorious Bondi Beach. Or of swinging in a car at the top of the Ferris wheel at Sydney's colourful Easter Show. Or maybe it'll be that night chasing her Auntie Ali on the soft grass outside our Seal Rocks campsite – with just the stars and fluorescent glowsticks guiding her path.
We can't know what our children will remember, but it's nice to know that the most meaningful moments just might stick around for good. But like most jet-setting parents, I'm convinced that kids get a lot of other things out of travel, besides memories.
After all, according to the Family Travel Association, North Americans are taking their infants, toddlers and kindergarteners to more faraway places than ever before.
"Given the significant increase in demand from families, tour operators serving Africa, Asia, Europe and South America have been expanding their itineraries and upgrading their services to accommodate parents and their children," notes the association's president, Rainer Jenss.
I'm part of a group of double-income, mid-thirtysomething to early-40s parents with young kids who don't want to wait until we're 50 to dip our toes in the Indian Ocean, and want to take more than just one "trip of a lifetime."
And we're either unable or unwilling to leave the kids behind to do it. Before they turned 2, the group of 20 or so toddlers in Peregrine's Toronto daycare had vacationed with their parents in places like Los Angeles, Florida, New Orleans, Iceland, New Brunswick and Jamaica.
And more than a few Canadian parents are undertaking serious adventures with their little ones. In fact, I was inspired by Meighan Ferris-Miles and Jonathan Miles, who dusted off their backpacks and took their daughters Rachel, then 2 1/2, and Sarana, eight months, to Southeast Asia for nine weeks last October. They traversed the region, spending five weeks in southern and northern Thailand, a week in Myanmar and finishing up in Vietnam.
Ferris-Miles is convinced the trip had lasting impacts on both girls. Before embarking, she worked hard to get Sarana comfortable with solid foods so they didn't have to lug North American pablum along.
And those flavours shaped her palate. "She loves any recipes with coconut milk, soy sauce and sesame oil," says Ferris-Miles. "Her favourite meal is tofu stir-fry."
Ferris-Miles also found that the trip generated lots of teaching moments – like visiting an elephant sanctuary. En route to Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, the guide played a video telling moving stories about the mental and physical abuse the animals had undergone while in the circus, patrolling borders where they'd stepped on land mines, and even as buskers in Bangkok.
Rachel watched and had lots of questions, on the bus and in the rehabilitation centre, saying she felt sorry for the elephants. She pointed to ones that had physical deformities, asking her parents what people were doing to help them and if they were hurting.
"We explained that the sanctuary was there because some people do mean things – but that each elephant had its own guide who they trusted and was very nice, and that here, the elephants had good food, open space and mud piles to roll in," she says. "It opened up a conversation about the fact that there are nice people and mean people in the world."
Another benefit travel brings to young children is to give them lots of opportunities to realize how capable they are, says Julie Freedman Smith, a Calgary parenting expert and co-founder of Parenting Power. "When a child is between the ages of zero to 6, so much of who they are is made up of what they can do."
When Danica Jeffery booked an all-inclusive vacation to Azul, Mexico, for a week this spring, the 39-year-old mother watched her 22-month-old son Asher's independence bloom. "He was just feeling so proud being in the pool with his water wings on and swimming by himself," she recalls.
For Jeffery, a self-employed, single parent who writes Last Call Mom, a Vancouver parenting blog, it was the easy time they spent together that was the best benefit of all. "Every parent struggles with distractions, but for me it's superamplified because I don't have any breaks. I don't have an ex-partner who is going to take him for two nights a week," she says. "So the holiday let me focus all of my attention on him, and really take a step back and say, 'Wow, this is what being a parent can be like.'"
And that uninterrupted time isn't just a boon for parents, Freedman Smith says, it's the biggest benefit that kids get from family travel too. "Kids spell love, t, i, m, e," she says, "So spending dedicated time together as a family is where it's at for children's development between the ages of zero to 7."
For me, after cuddling my nephew and visiting my loved ones, spending unpolluted time with my 3 1/2-year-old was the thing I was most looking forward to about our trip. Peregrine and I left half the family behind – my 1 1/2-year-old son, Lochlan, who clings to me like a jellyfish whenever his sister gets near, and my husband, Conor. At his age, Lochlan can't sit still for two back-to-back flights and my husband takes weeks to get over jet lag.
So for the first time in almost two years, the two of us spent every day together, sharing a bed, cuddles and plenty of conversation.
It wasn't until I became a mother that I truly grasped the concept of time slipping through your fingers. I mourn the passing of the baby stage, and get weak in the knees when I see a child walk for the first time, because I know that for me, those years have already passed. And now that both of my kids are in daycare, time has sped up even more – my belly aches with sadness if I think about it too much, that five days a week they're gone for most of the day. This trip slowed time down, there was no daycare rush, no driving or even map-reading, and we kept things manageable for a three-year-old: one big activity or outing per day.
I sensed that Peregrine was pretty happy about us hanging out so much too. Most mornings she ran around my sister's house singing, or sat colouring with her water pens chanting the same words over and over again: "Mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy."
Visit Sydney and QT Hotels & Resorts supported the author's stay. They did not read or approve this story.
Meighan and Jonathan's Top 5 tips for an epic family trip
1. Pick the right window: From past experience, we knew that travelling with kids between 12 and 18 months old is the most challenging because they are very active and have short attention spans. So we waited until Rachel was 2.5 before setting off.
2. Plan ahead, way ahead: We think in five-year plans. In four years' time, we're planning a six-month overland trip from Newfoundland across North America and south to Argentina.
3. Honour eating and sleeping routines: If you can keep your kids fed and slept, they're up for anything.
4. Explore new cultures, but build in comfort: We ate dinner out daily – six nights a week it was local cuisine, and one night was a "comfort meal" like spaghetti and meatballs.
5. Be sensitive to each other's needs: Some days we all had lots of energy, so we went and explored; other days we needed quiet time so we sat by the pool, ate ice cream and did puzzles.
– As told to Crystal Luxmore