Next time your child approaches a significant birthday, or you’re debating whether or not they really need those athletic shoes they claim everyone else already owns, think about what sort of gift would really be meaningful. While a big trip isn’t something you can give for every birthday, few things are more valuable than the rewards that come from travel. Making travel a part of your kid’s life will help them grow into the type of person we should all aspire to be. Here’s why travel is the best gift you can give your child.
Memories last longer than objects.
Chances are, no matter what you give your child, it will either break or they will outgrow it eventually. Memories, on the other hand, last forever. Sure, you may get fuzzy on some details, but the fact of having traveled and the experiences gained from that will last a lifetime. In fact, if you have your child keep a diary, they will have those travel memories in greater detail. Plus, a diary lets them reflect on the travel, and it may have a bigger impact.
Travel makes us grow.
Ultimately, we want our children to grow up to be better human beings. We know that travel expands the mind and broadens our horizons. It’s no surprise that travel helps kids do better in school, as a survey of teachers showed kids who travel tend to exhibit more independence, confidence, respect for others, and openness to trying new things.
It’s a gift that you can enjoy together.
Your child may be pestering you for a skateboard, and you may find one with the coolest deck design for their birthday. After a brief moment of appreciation, though, they won’t really continue to associate the skateboard with you. A trip taken together, on the other hand, will always be remembered as a gift you shared with them — whether it’s to another country or just the countryside.
You can really celebrate your child.
Your child may appreciate receiving Legos or a friendship bracelet kit, and those things can certainly be personalized — but they don’t necessarily reflect a child’s passions. A trip, on the other hand, can celebrate what the child loves or loves to do.
When our artsy eldest turned 15, her father took her on a four-day trip to Tokyo, where they checked out cool architecture, a DJ competition, and a robot restaurant. When her surfer sister turned 15 two years later, she and I went to Kauai. We woke up before dawn each morning to hit the waves and explored the island for the rest of the day.
You don’t need to give travel for every birthday.
Travel is expensive, and giving a travel gift every birthday is not feasible for most people. Special gift trips can be reserved for milestone birthdays or other special events, like graduation. We used mileage tickets for the trips to Tokyo and Kauai, and they were special presents to commemorate our daughters turning 15. The parents of a friend of mine took each of their grandchildren on a trip when they turned 10 while other parents I know celebrate 13 as the year to go on a birthday trip.
You can give the gift of travel any time.
Travel is a great way to bond with your child and create special memories, and that can happen any time. If the opportunity arises, you don’t need to wait around for a milestone or special day. If you have a business trip with some spare time, bring a child along — without siblings, even if they have them — to share a few cool experiences together. My husband took our tech- and music-loving son on a work trip to Seattle. He missed school on Friday, and they stayed for the weekend. They rented a muscle car, checked out the new Amazon Go shop, and spent hours at the Experience Music Project museum.
Send them on trips without you.
Consider sending your kid on a trip without you. If they are at least 10 years old, they could fly to visit grandparents or even friends who live not too far away — as long as those friends are able to wait for your child at the gate, as is required for unaccompanied minors. It may be a little scary for them, and you, but it will build their sense of independence. It will be empowering to learn that they really can venture a little farther afield and spend some time with people who might do things a little differently than they’re done at home.
When they get older, give them longer travel experiences.
If your teen is wondering what to do for the summer, have them look into programs abroad. There isn’t a more transformative experience than being an exchange student with a program like AFS. If all your child can fit into a busy summer is a short-term voluntourism experience, this is still likely to be enlightening.
Travel abroad can be expensive, and some of these exchange programs offer scholarships. If you’ve got a motivated, hard-working kid, have them apply for a government- or foundation-funded program like NSLI-Y to study Chinese, Russian, Korean, Farsi, Indonesian, or Arabic; the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange to study in Germany; or CIEE programs to study in a variety of countries.
Note that, very often, the hardest part of longer-term travel is coming home. Your child may come back to think that everyone has changed, when in reality they’re the one who has grown. They will be seeing the world in a new light; with time they’ll come to appreciate things from both their home culture and the one they’ve come to know.
Exchange students bring the rewards of travel to you.
If you can’t afford a longer-term trip for your child, or your child has sports and academic commitments that make a longer trip overseas impossible, consider bringing the travel to your home. Hosting an exchange student will still cost money, but the experience of seeing where you live through another’s eyes will be invaluable.
You can give the gift of travel at home.
You can also get a lot of the benefits of travel in your own backyard. You don’t need to go to Paris to see Degas paintings. If you live in Southern California, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has the second largest collection of Degas works in the world.
You can also explore the food and art of other cultures in plenty of US cities. San Francisco has the Latinx Mission, Chinatown, Japantown, and Little Russia. In the city’s Richmond District, the mix of restaurants and houses of worship is dizzying — from Turkish, Korean, and Burmese eateries to a Serbian Orthodox Church and a Buddhist temple. Most major cities in the US will have similar diverse offerings that can make for an exciting, educational day trip.
Travel will make them travelers.
This may seem obvious, but not everyone grows up knowing the value of travel and, maybe more importantly, how to get the most out of travel. A child exposed to new foods, cultures, and ways of life will likely seek out more of these experiences as they get older. Travel will make them curious and open-minded — qualities we need more of in today’s world.
Travel can still be wrapped with a bow.
If you still want to have something to put under the tree, or to commemorate a special occasion, you could print out that e-ticket and wrap it. But what we suggest here is to commemorate that trip after you’ve taken it — with a photo book. The book can highlight a trip you took together, or one your child took on their own. If your kid has an iPhone, chances are they’ve been posting photos — hopefully some of them to a shared family album.
Every year I make a calendar for the family with photos from fun events at home and trips we’ve all taken. As this is a tradition now, my husband and kids all share photos with me for it. It’s a year-end reminder of the wonderful experiences each one of us has had — and an inspiration for more in the future.