After a recent trip to China with my 23-year-old son, Sumner, people would ask me, “What was the best part of your trip?”
Originally, when I first got back, I’d say something like, “the food” or “the people”, or even “seeing how much it has changed since I was there years ago.” But none of those answers sufficed. No, the best thing about the trip to China had less to do with the place and more with a person. The best thing about my trip to China with my son was my son.
Traveling with just one son (he has a younger brother who was in school and couldn’t go) opened my eyes to a whole new form of travel. We can spend gobs of money on stuff for our kids, but I can’t think of a better investment than just traveling with them, both when they are younger and even as they age.
Sumner and I had planned this trip almost a year before. It was intended to be a post-college graduation celebration, a last father-son bonding trip before he headed out into the world on his own. What made it even more poignant and timely was his engagement to his girlfriend two months before the trip. After that, our China adventure took on an even greater sense of being a marker, a transition from one phase of life to the next.
Here are some takeaways from that trip that you might consider if you’re planning to travel with a parent (if you’re an adult child) or an older child (if you’re a parent).
1. Know what you want.
We agreed before we left on what we both wanted to do. Not so much what we wanted to see: we’d figure that out as we went. But we decided early on the theme of this trip would be “design.” He would draw and I would photograph elements of Chinese design, both traditional and contemporary. We would take our time since we had no other family members hurrying us on. Our shared interest and intent helped us determine where we’d go and what we’d observe. I’ve never really traveled with an intentional theme before. I will certainly try to do so again in the future.
2. Strive for shared experiences.
Before we left, I started practicing drawing so I could sketch with Sumner on the trip. I could have just shot pictures while he sketched. But the common experience of sketching drew us closer for this reason: you can’t really know something unless you do it. I not only saw places differently by sketching, but I understood better the delight that Sumner feels when he’s capturing a scene on paper with pen or pencil. Sitting next to him while he sketched and I watched wouldn’t have been the same. True empathy — and I would add, delight — came in actually doing the same thing.
3. Be open to being open.
Distance from home opened us to share about things we don’t normally talk about. We had numerous deep discussions, particularly at the trip’s beginning when everything seemed novel and unsettling. Nothing produces vulnerability and a willingness to dive into deeper territory like stepping out of your comfort zones.
4. Find your rhythms.
We developed a cadence of compatibility. We learned what each other liked and disliked. We found new ways to accommodate and appreciate each other. For example, I could never sleep in. He could. At first, this was frustrating for both of us: I wanted to get out and explore in the morning. He needed the rest. I eventually found I could go and read or write or review photos in the courtyard of the inns where we stayed. Getting fully dressed to explore the town would have made too much noise, but padding out into the courtyard with my journal worked great. Having that reflection time in the morning actually improved my experience of the trip. Accommodation to the other isn’t always just a compromise. Sometimes, it can be a blessing.
5. See each other in new ways.
I was constantly amazed at how flexible and open to just about anything my son was. It even inspired me to be more Gumby-like. Travel has a way of opening our eyes not just to the novelty of the sights before us, but to the people we’re with and key traits we don’t fathom at home. And that insight alone made the entire trip worthwhile.
6. Learn about the trip after the trip.
As with all trips, the fullness of the experience comes over time with reflection. I’m aware that this trip was special for more reasons that I currently comprehend. Time will inform me of more. But even now, a few months after our return, I’m aware that traveling with your adult child, particularly as they enter a new phase of life, can change you both.
I have no idea how much travel we’ll do together in the future. But I’m so thankful for the trip we had and the insights we both gained. I hope soon to sit down with him and ask him what his takeaways are as well. But that can wait. Memories of the specific things we did or saw on the trip may fade. But those of the special moments, those memories never leave us.
All photos are the author’s.