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Children ride the Fairborne Railway in Wales.

There is a tendency to view travel with young children as the modern equivalent of a hair shirt, a penance preferably avoided, or at best, endured. Kids, it is held, with their whining and restlessness and tantrums, dilute the inherent joys of wandering so profoundly that the resulting experience is, at best, a lukewarm rendition of the real thing, incomparable to the eye-opening, heart-stretching miracle that was travel-before-parenthood. Meaningful family journeys (never mind enjoyable) are widely regarded as a myth; the unattainable dream of selfish parents, and a bloody nuisance for everyone else.

Yet despite dire warnings and incessant dissuasion, many parents still choose to set off with kids in tow. Their initial journeys are, generally, acts of defiance. The road is in their blood; it is who they are. Unwilling or unable to surrender this faith, they book tickets, clinging stubbornly to that worn mantra: "Parenthood won't change me."

They are, of course, wrong, and unprepared for what lies ahead. But a lifelong trust in travel – in the inherent good of exploring unfamiliar worlds, both within and abroad – does not misguide them now, for the road shapes and nourishes a child's inquisitive soul, just as it did theirs. Perhaps more significantly, the shared experience, with all its uncertainties and challenges and enchantments, is like fertilizer for family bonds.

The first thing a travelling parent will notice is an unsettling abundance of time; minutes and hours and days that cannot be filled with the usual distractions of home. Consider this scenario: Woken by roosters, you have wandered the avenues of an unfamiliar city for hours, a young child perched atop your shoulders. Together you have eaten breakfast, walked some more, stopped for coffee, and later shared an ice cream. You have played I Spy to the point of exhaustion. And it is only 8 in the morning. What in god's name will you do for the rest of the day? "Rest!" your brain and body scream, but the more pressing your need for a break, the less likely your children are to slow their pace.

Still, as the hours dawdle by, it slowly dawns that you are holding those little hands longer, and more, than you would do at home. Above the din, even of bus stations and busy markets, you begin to hear their hushed commentary, something too often lost amid the demands of daily working life. You find yourselves lingering together, shoulder to shoulder, marvelling over the tang of wild raspberries or the deep toll of a cathedral's bell.

Travel, it was famously said, shakes our complacencies. And yet it takes children to shake the complacencies from our travel. Routines and habits, developed unconsciously over a lifetime of journeys, are tossed the instant we touch down, for children race down every road but the one we'd instinctively follow. More interested in chickens and graffiti than Internet cafés and landmarks, they will happily pass an entire afternoon watching a construction site or playing hopscotch. And the gems such restlessness unearths – a Hong Kong sushi bar where the waiters are dressed as Asian cartoon characters, a crumbling Soviet amusement park crowded with Kazakh families – are rarely found in any guide book.

Along the way, we are forced to approach strangers we'd normally avoid, and knock on doors that would otherwise remain closed, because children's simplest needs – food, sleep, bathroom breaks – arrive with irrefutable urgency. Sheepish approaches and bungled attempts at sign language are met with open arms and sympathetic grins, which reveal the single greatest gift children bestow on travel: common ground.

Rarely, in the far-flung places our family travels, do we share the same language, religion or cultural outlook of those we wander among. Often, our backpacks and suitcases carry riches they will never know; our lives awash with opportunities they'll never see. We may live, literally, a world apart. Yet with the cry of a baby, or the curious blink of a child, such momentous barriers wash away. Suddenly, taxi drivers are inviting you home for dinner. Construction workers leap from scaffolding to tickle a little one. Teenage boys stop horsing around and politely ask to hold your baby, whom you nervously pass, and whom they take as gently and lovingly as a grandmother. We sit at kitchen tables, break bread, play impromptu soccer, chase chickens, sing songs, inspect heirlooms and raise glasses, all with the constant awareness: I would never experience these precious moments were it not for my children.

This is because children – both ours and theirs – speak of common hopes and common struggles, and there just may be no more powerful or unifying a human bond. Rather than insulating us from opportunity on the road (as so many charge children of doing), our kids create it, at a dizzying rate.

"What a pity they won't remember a thing," travelling parents hear again and again, as if the cost of getting the kids halfway around the world (or perhaps the effort) is somehow wasted.

The sentiment is understandable. It's hard to imagine the effects of hitchhiking across Australia, or boarding a river boat in the Congo, could be more profound and enduring for a three-year-old (who won't remember the trip in later life) than the same journey, undertaken by the same girl, at the age of 21 (when she will carry fond memories for the rest of her years). Yet every shred of evidence suggests the early years are at least equally influential.

Unconvinced that travel has a profound effect, even on the youngest of babies, who apparently only eat, sleep and poop? Take such an infant to Buenos Aires, or Kathmandu, or Siem Reap, or any foreign land where children are woven through the strands of daily life. Here, strangers will ceaselessly approach – poking, tickling and whispering to the baby – without so much as a sideways glance at you. Suddenly, the African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" is more than a line on a card (although for Western parents this challenges the powerful instinct to monitor and filter every interaction our babies have). Within days, the infant has learned to seek the attention of strangers, basking in their affection.

To watch the process in reverse is heartbreaking. Board a plane bound for Canada with an infant, and the collective aversion of eyes is obvious. Ditto for walking into a restaurant once home. The child, of course, will continue to wave and coo at strangers, in cafés and supermarkets, although far fewer will return the attention. Eventually, the baby gives up.

Ironically, the worries travelling parents hear most often surround conditions our children will face on the road. "The pollution and noise will be too much!" we are warned. Or the poverty. Or the spicy food. The truth is, our kids are much tougher than we give them credit for. Keep them well fed, properly dressed and rested, and they can handle almost any hurdle.

When things fall apart on the road, as they often do, when we get royally ripped off, or the bus breaks down and the air conditioning fails, pause and take note of who is upset. Probably the parents. It is we who feel the need to control every detail of our day. And it is our kids, with Buddha-like acceptance, who remind us that such trivialities rarely matter.

Through these ups and downs, through the trials and frustrations, we are laid bare to our children's scrutiny. And more important than what we do in these moments is how we do it. I know the presence of my young boys brings out a better traveller in me than I previously knew existed.

Admittedly, when things go wrong with the kids themselves – illness, exhaustion, low blood sugar – the situation can fall apart very quickly. But this is no different than at home; and no reason to stay there.

We travel with our children because we want them to experience first-hand the beauty, sadness and infinite variety of the world. We hope to inoculate them against prejudice, imbue them with curiosity and nurture the practice of lifelong learning. And, along the way, disrupted from circumstance, the family itself grows more tangible.

But such rationalization misses the fundamental humanity of it. To travel with kids is to know them sleeping on your chest, open-mouthed, on a jolting bus. It is to wander dark streets lit by neon lights, hand in hand, both beset with jet lag.

To travel with kids is to be reminded of their infinite trust, and be humbled by their essential faith in the goodness of the world.

Travel returns each of us, in a small measure, to a state of childhood. For a fleeting moment, we look out upon the world – crowded with the unrecognizable and incomprehensible – from the same shore as our kids. And, in doing so, the distance between us shrinks, just a bit.

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