Making memories through family travel

This is the time of year when I envy all the Europeans who take a month-long summer holiday. By the time we reach August in Minnesota, it feels like we’re on the steep downward slide toward another stress-filled school year. Summers never seem long enough to pack in all the adventures we’d dreamed about in May.

But we still have a month to squeeze in some family travel time, whether it’s a weekend at the lake, a trip to the State Fair, or a cross-country driving adventure. August also is a good time to solicit teen input for the next family adventure. Involving your kids in the planning will not only make them more invested in the trip’s success, it will help them refine important skills, like how to budget, how to research, and, of course, how to compromise with family members who have different interests and needs.

My husband and I love to travel, and we’ve exposed our three kids to a variety of adventures since those challenging diaper and stroller days. Ten years ago, we compiled a list of places we hoped to take them before our oldest graduates from high school. She’s now 15, her brothers are 13 and 10, and we’ve made an impressive dent in the list. I have no doubt that their travel experiences have made them more appreciative of our country’s cultural and geographic differences and have heightened their curiosity about the world around them.

Greater meaning, greater vacation

I often begin a vacation thinking about how much the kids will learn by visiting the historic sites, museums, or national parks on our itinerary. This usually has proved true. Two years ago, on a visit to Boston, we spent more than an hour at a museum learning about the myths of the Boston Massacre. When that topic came up this year in my daughter’s American History class, it held a greater meaning for her because she had been in the location where it occurred. 

Typically, though, my husband and I are the ones who receive the greater education as we learn things through the perspective of our children’s eyes and ears. If we had traveled to Canada without the kids a few years ago, we might not have noticed that the candy bar wrappers were written in both English and French, or that the Canadians could purchase ketchup-flavored potato chips, which we’d never seen in Minnesota. We certainly wouldn’t have taken photos of the snacks in the grocery store, like our daughter did; yet, that’s a part of the trip that now sticks in my mind, her contagious enthusiasm for noticing everyday differences.

We also observe, through travel, how our kids can mature when faced with new situations. We sigh with relief when the picky eater discovers he likes cherry sauce and biscuits. We swell with pride when the middle-schooler thanks us repeatedly for the best vacation ever. We smile when we tease the oldest — not in the moment, but weeks later — about learning the hard way how important it is to ration one’s water supply on a long hike.

It’s the things that go wrong that end up making the best stories, anyway. On one vacation, instead of skirting the most dangerous block in Vancouver, my husband and I accidentally led the kids right through it, past two people getting arrested, and a homeless man with a pet rat on his shoulder. You can’t make that stuff up. Another legendary story involves the time on our middle child’s birthday when we ordered a meal at a recommended restaurant in Cody, Wyoming, and didn’t get served for two hours. It was so late when we finished the meal, he didn’t get a birthday dessert. We’ve had many great meals on our vacations, but none as memorable as that one, where we bonded over the agony of shared starvation.

I know that what works for our family won’t necessarily work for others, so I’m not going to offer an extensive list of vacation tips. But I don’t think you can go wrong anytime you travel with your kids, as long as you pack two important items: a sense of humor, and reasonable expectations. Your vacation doesn’t have to be perfect, and it won’t be. Your children will not remain on their best behavior the entire time, and neither will you. What’s important is that you spend time together, outside of the usual home setting, making memories as a family.

Joy Riggs is eagerly anticipating her family’s October trip to Yellowstone and San Francisco.