Dear Jenny: Should I Travel With My Toddler?
Our resident advice-giver-outer Jenny True provides shouty, full-hearted answers to your niggling questions about pregnancy and parenthood in her column Dear Jenny. Warning: This is not a baby-and-me singalong, this is about yelling into the cosmos and actually hearing something back, sometimes in the form of an all-caps swear. Jenny isn't an ~expert~, but she has a lot of experience being outraged on your behalf. To submit your questions to Jenny, email email@example.com.
I love to travel. Before I had my daughter, I traveled a lot. Traveling to different countries and meeting the people there has given me a sense of perspective about my own country and what it means to be a person, even what it means to be a parent. I really want to share traveling with my daughter, and my partner and I got her a passport when she was five weeks old! Now she's 2, and I'm getting antsy — I haven't left the country since before she was born, because traveling with three people is crazy expensive. Also, I know that even if we could afford it, she wouldn't remember anything. Still, I want to be able to tell her, "You've been traveling since before you can remember!" so she'll grow up thinking traveling is just a part of life. But time is ticking away, and I feel like the opportunity is slipping away. My question is, am I stressing out about nothing or should I be trying harder to figure out how to travel with my kid? Should I just put a vacation on my credit card and worry about it later? Is there even any point to bringing my kid on a trip she won't remember?
Dear Tick Tock,
We all want the best for our kids: the best care, the best education, the best experiences. But we all have limitations on what we can offer. Some of us have plenty of money for amazeballs vacations but can't offer our kids a stable home life or a clean bill of health. Some of us can offer a loving family but not enough food or quality child care (43 percent of children in America live in lower-income families, per the National Center for Children in Poverty, and aren't considering a trip to the mall, let alone Hawaii).
I want to travel with my kid. The vision I had when I was pregnant was of me walking some foreign street in flowy pants and a flowy shirt or a flowy dress, none of which I have ever owned, with my newborn strapped to my chest.
Then I took my son on a few trips stateside to visit family and was like I'M NOT LEAVING THE HOUSE AGAIN UNTIL I GROW SIX ARMS. This was because I didn't visualize all the sh*t back in the room:
CAR SEAT BASE
DIAPERS TO LAST ENTIRE TRIP
ALTERNATE BABY CLOTHES
ALTERNATE BABY PAJAMAS
PERHAPS SOME CLOTHING AND TOILETRIES FOR MYSELF
If you aren't able to offer your kid the thing you most want to offer — international travel, a neighborhood without gangs, not having leukemia — I would focus on what you can offer: comfort, a sense of security, and validation of their lived experience. And to help with that, here are some things I learned from Dan Siegel, M.D., and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed., who wrote a book my therapist recommended called Parenting from the Inside Out.
No matter how old your kid is, their brains are making memories. Before the age of about 2, kids have no sense of self or time. But still, memories are being formed, including behavioral, emotional, perceptual, and even possibly bodily memories ("factual" and "autobiographical" memories start at about age 2).
And memories don't just live in our brains: They shape our brains. And brain structure shapes brain function, and brain function creates the mind — making us who we are.
All this means that, before the age of about 2, your kid will not remember the details of a vacation — or, on the other end of the financial spectrum, the challenges of poverty. But how you interact with your child during those years — how you tend to respond to her when she is sad, or excited, or curious — will be remembered, and it is these memories that will lead to her developing "characteristic ways of seeing and being."
The short answer, Tick Tock, is that there is value to anything you do with your kid whether or not she explicitly remembers it — but it's a good idea to understand what she will remember and act accordingly.
(Read: If you want to take your kid on a vacation and can afford it, go for it, unless the challenges of traveling with a kid — 1) CAN'T LEAVE THE RENTAL PAST BEDTIME UNLESS YOU CAN AFFORD TO TRAVEL WITH OR HIRE CHILD CARE, 2) ALL ACTIVITIES AND MEALS OUT HAVE TO BE KID-FRIENDLY, 3) TAXIS ARE A NO-GO UNLESS YOU WANT TO CARRY THE CAR SEAT OR YOU DECIDE TO FORGO THE CAR SEAT WHICH SOME PEOPLE DO BECAUSE THEY THINK CARS IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES DON'T CRASH, 4) MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF LUGGAGE, 5) EMERGENCY SERVICES ARE NOT IMMEDIATELY AVAILABLE IN MANY PARTS OF THE WORLD I COULD GO ON — outweigh the benefits to you — LIFE EXPERIENCE AND THE CHANCE TO GET ONE F*CKING PHOTO OF EVERYONE SMILING AND NO ONE CRYING IN FRONT OF A MAJOR TOURIST ATTRACTION SO ALL YOUR FRIENDS AT HOME CAN EXPLODE WITH JEALOUSY OR MORE LIKELY PAUSE, SAY, "LOOKS LIKE THEY'RE HAVING FUN," AND SCROLL PAST WITHOUT ANOTHER THOUGHT. But how you act on that vacation is more important to your child's development than whatever tourist attraction you manage to pose her in front of).
Still, there's one more element to this, and that's modeling. It has long been understood that children learn by watching and listening — not only watching and listening to their parents but also to other adults, other children, and media. And you're talking about modeling a particular value, both by talking about it and showing it to your daughter. That's a great start, but since you can't afford to travel right now, it might help to model the values you're really talking about: curiosity, kindness, and compassion.
Good news: You can do this right at home!
Look around your world, and your home. How do you interact with people? Do you have a diverse friendship group? Can you offer literature and art and music that reflects the diversity of cultures in the world? Can you engage with your local library and neighborhood or cultural center and museum for cross-cultural programs and exhibits?
How you model curiosity, kindness, and compassion will be the greatest predictor of whether your child learns those values. And if she does, whether or not she develops an interest in traveling or the resources to do so, she will learn one of the greatest lessons: not what she can take from the world, but what she can give to it.
DON'T GO INTO DEBT FOR ANYTHING THAT ISN'T NECESSARY TO SURVIVAL. YOU WILL REGRET IT MORE THAN ACID-WASH JEANS ALTHOUGH APPARENTLY THAT SH*T IS BACK. IF YOU WANT TO TRAVEL LOOK FOR CHEAPER ALTERNATIVES, SUCH AS STATE AND NATIONAL PARKS, OR BUILD A FORT IN THE LIVING ROOM AND SLEEP IN IT. KIDS ARE EASY THAT WAY. YOU GOT THIS.
Dying to ask Jenny a question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.