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Traveling with Kids: Paradise or Hell?

Kid enjoying a swim in Pothole Lake

Mt. Rainier National Park

Washington, USA

This July, I celebrated my 40th birthday by seeking outdoor adventure with my friend Kim, our combined brood of four kids, and a very full Toyota Highlander. The Grand Finale of our 25 day tour was to invite friends and family to camp with us at Mt. Rainier National Park.

When I told people about our planned trip, many of them said, “Oh, fun!” But, just as many said, “Whoa, that sounds like my own personal hell.” So, which was it? Honestly, both.

The Bloom: What’s the attraction?

I chose Mt. Rainier for the culmination of my big 4-0 for several reasons. One, it’s gorgeous. Two, I hadn’t been there since I was a kid. Three, it is easy to get to from Portland and Seattle, where most of my crew lives.

The Nectar: What’s sweet about this place?

Mt. Rainier is covered with glaciers, wildflowers, and waterfalls. The park also offers sweet visitor centers, old lodges, and daily interpretive programs. The most popular of these are literally located in a place dubbed “Paradise” by early European travelers. [Beware! All of these choice amenities are there because LOTS of people want to see the views and hike the trails with you. My sister spent 90 minutes in line just to get into the park!]

The Pollen: What observations might pollinate good ideas elsewhere?

On the first full day of our three-week trip, Kim and I sat on a gorgeous, sunny beach and chatted about why we were motivated to travel with our kids. We focused on how we wanted our children to learn to be resilient and helpful. We hoped that seeing new places and ways of life would encourage them to be open-minded and curious. Finally, we wanted to share common memories of adventure and beauty with them while they were still little. In short, we thought that traveling gave us and our kids a chance to be better, happier people.

The first 20 days of the trip went pretty well, no major issues other than the occasional grumpy attitude or skinned knee. Then, during the last five days--when we were on our way to Mt. Rainier and then in the park--we had one kid step on a wasp, two kids vomit (for totally unrelated reasons), one trip to urgent care, one bloody nose, and four friends go home early with strep throat. Oh, and LOTS of sadness and frustration on the part of both kids and adults.

So, were we really better, happier people by the end?

I’d still say, “Yes!” Those final trying days had some of the most touching reminders that we were doing something worthwhile. Here are a few examples:

  • Learning to be helpful: When my four-year-old threw up in the middle of washing the dishes, he still wanted to finish the job.

  • Learning empathy: When we explained that puking children shouldn’t touch other people’s dishes, the other kids (who usually fought mercilessly when work was not evenly distributed) were gracious and helped do his part.

  • Learning to be open-minded and welcoming: Mt. Rainier was swarming with people, which was not what Kim and I usually looked for in an outdoor adventure. But, the crowds meant that we got to model patience and hospitality. We waited our turn at viewpoints. We practiced our Spanish with other tourists looking for trailheads. And on our last night, we invited a German family to share our campsite when they didn’t have anywhere else to stay.

  • Learning to be adaptable, enjoy the moment, and build shared memories: On our way home, we squeezed in one more adventure to Pothole Lake in the National Forest just outside of the National Park. (“Pothole” also described the road to get there.) After a quick lunch of leftovers eaten directly out of the cooking pot on the side of the road, we hurried to the lake. Sadly, it was infested with biting deer flies. We hadn’t planned ahead, so we didn’t have our swimsuits, PFDs, water toys, or bug spray. So, what did we do? We stripped down to our undies and jumped in the lake. There were no beaches, so we climbed on submerged logs to rest. When the log started to sink under us, it became an underwater teeter-totter. Then, we climbed out, used a clean(ish) towel found on a nearby tree to dry our mucky feet, and walked back to the car—dirty, wet, and happy.

When I got home, I wanted to know if there was any scientific research on the impact of travel on children. Thankfully, child psychotherapist Dr. Margot Sunderland wrote this helpful article summarizing the science behind the benefits of traveling with kids. In short, she argues that travel supports brain development by providing rich opportunities for play and exploration.

Of course, reflecting on the value of travel for kids seems like a worthwhile activity as a parent, but what does it have to do with creating experiences for others as an interpretive planner? First, we should share the research findings on the benefits of visiting cultural institutions with families. In addition to cognitive impacts, the Harvard School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project suggests that visiting new places with your kids supports their social and emotional development. For example, the Harvard team encourages parents to “work to develop caring, loving relationships with [their] kids” by spending time with them and to “expand [their] child's circle of concern” by considering people and places outside of their normal interactions. Parks and museums are perfect places to share these recommendations with families as well as give parents an opportunity to put them into practice.

Second, whether families know the research or not, we should be designing experiences that maximize the social, emotional, and cognitive benefits for our guests. Part of the mission of our cultural institutions should be to encourage families to delight in one another, to empathize with the struggles of others, and to be grateful for the beauty of the world we live in. We should be helping everyone to be better, happier people through the power of shared adventures.


Harvard School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project: Raising Caring Children

“The science behind how holidays make your child happier – and smarter” by Dr. Margot Sunderland in The Telegraph (February 1, 2017)

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