Luke Voytas is a pediatrician and author in Portland, Oregon. His posts combine research and common sense to help parents be calm and confident in raising their kids.

In Defense of Traveling With Kids, Kind Of

In Defense of Traveling With Kids, Kind Of

I’m writing this post sitting on the (closed) toilet seat in the tiny bathroom of a crappy cabin in Yellowstone Park. Everyone else went to bed at like 8:00, but I don’t feel ready yet to settle in for my 2-3 hours of poor quality sleep. It’s been a long day. Yes, we did see a bison. But it was hot – did you know it got to the 90’s in Yellowstone? The freaking 90’s, which feels even hotter when you’re staring down into a bubbling geothermal cauldron. And did everyone, from Ranger Karl to the teen-aged barista, really have to warn me about bears? Dude, I know that this is their home and not mine and that even though they look cuddly they will eat my whole family. Then my meal of penne with local lamb ragout at the lovely Old Faithful Inn Dining Hall was cut abruptly short by an attack of intestinal badness on my son. My evening concluded with my six year-old daughter DESTROYING me in Yahtzee. The ass-whooping of the year. 407-139, and honestly she wasn’t even making sound statistical decisions.

Welcome to the world of traveling with kids. Some of you grizzled parents need no introduction and some of you novices cringe in horror. Here’s the thing about vacations with kids. They don’t make sense. Go ahead and plan it if you’re that type of person. Plan the heck out of it. And then watch your plans die, because two things are true:

            1. You will not get “rest and relaxation.”

            2. Someone will get diarrhea.

And at any one point on your trip, you’d likely be more comfortable at home, kids in bed, trying to keep your eyes open to make it through the end of Chopped.

So why do we do it? Why do we waste these precious few weeks off work and pay so much money to be so frazzled on vacation? Science does have something to say on the subject. First, the bonding benefits of a vacation are obvious. We’re busy, and going from seeing your kid for 2-3 hours a day to 24 hours a day lets them know that they are your main focus. I imagine that’s only going to get more important as my kids get older and busier with their own lives.

Dr. Margot Sunderland, a British child psychotherapist, wrote a nice article last year about the benefits of taking your children on “holiday.” (1) Our lives revolve so much around routine that vacations are a jolt of stimulation to a developing brain.  Sunderland talks about two systems in our brain discovered by Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University. The first is the PLAY system, which is activated by all the novel types of play and interactions you have with your kids on vacation. The second is the SEEKING system, which is triggered by all the exploring you do with your kids on a vacation. These systems are important because they make chemicals such as dopamine that make us feel loving, secure, and just generally good. “The amazing thing,” notes Sunderland, “is that these systems are like muscles: the more you use them, the more they become part of your personality. . . . Emotional states become personality traits.” She proposes that healthy development of these systems leads to better relationships, creativity, and happiness as adults.

Most family vacations include a healthy dose of nature, and a 2004 study found that this can improve our kids’ attention. (2) The researchers looked at kids with ADHD and found that as few as twenty minutes of “green time” a day improved their symptoms significantly. The theory is that all kids develop some “attention fatigue” by concentrating in school and in our daily routines, and nature seems to be the best means of replenishing the system.

And research aside, in ten years my kids are going to talk about the hundreds of bison they saw walking through that geyser smoke at sunrise rather than the long, painful car rides. They’ll remember having pillow fights and jumping on the beds, not the ten times I yelled at them to be quieter. And when my kids are too busy to have much to do with me someday, I suppose I’ll remember putting my daughter on my shoulders to get a better look at Old Faithful and my son yelling over and over from the car “Wait, I think I see something!” at stumps that might have been wolves in his mind.

We have eighteen years to fill our kids’ lives with memories that will define their relationship with us and affect what they’ll do with their own kids someday. Luckily our brains help us by sifting through the sh!t-show of these vacations and keeping only the very best memories. And isn’t that what being a parent is about in general? Are you honestly telling me that you had more fun today than you would have with no kids? Can you imagine? Tons of extra time and money to do whatever you want, whenever you want? To take real vacations? But you still wouldn’t trade it for the world. . .

It’s funny, the alchemy of how all the moments of sleep deprivation, frustration, and poop we experience as parents add up to something greater. Sometimes, when I want to be fancy, I quote American poets like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote, “The years teach us much which the days never know.” It doesn’t make sense, but keep planning those disastrous trips to Disneyland (you really think your toddler can handle waiting in line for an hour?). Keep on taking those road trips, figuring they’ll be just as fun as the ones you took as a kid (news flash – you drove your parents crazy on those trips). And if you find yourself in a crowded Yellowstone gift shop, dodging large bikers with even larger waffle cones as your kid agonizes between a bag of “precious gems” and a small stuffed bison, I want you to soak in the pain of that moment and know that you’re creating forever memories.

1. “The science behind how holidays make your child happier and smarter.” Sunderland, Margot. The Telegraph. Feb 1, 2017

2. A potential natural treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: evidence from a national study. Kuo FE, Taylor AF. American Journal of Public Health. 2004; 94(9):1580-6.

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