It's also a great deal of fun. Sharing new and sometimes bizarre experiences bonds you together and builds a rich treasury of family memories to laugh or smile or groan over. And there's something about a friendly and decently-behaved child that seems to draw out the kindness of strangers, especially in places where family culture is strong (like the Mediterranean!). I won't forget the older English tourists who stopped by our restaurant table to tell us how much we reminded them of fond memories shared with their own children, who are now grown and far-flung.
I thought I'd share a couple of tips I've picked up from hard-won experience. They're not particularly groundbreaking, but I think they apply to nearly any travel situation. I always hesitate, though, to offer points of instruction. I'm just a learner myself, and a slow one sometimes at that. I struggle with making decisions. I chafe against limitations. I forget how blessed I am. So I guess I'm right in there with you, making mistakes and gaining perspective.
1. Do as much research as your heart desires on TripAdvisor, travel blogs, conversations with other travelers, etc. Make your wish list. Then be willing to cut it in half. Hold the list loosely. Most kids can handle an average of one thing a day, be it a museum or a castle or a hike or a cavern, before they need to sit and dig in the sand, or run around a park, or relax with a book. Push it -- ignore the signals that they're approaching "done" -- and everyone suffers.
Bottom line: Relationships matter more than experiences. Building connection matters more than building some kind of life portfolio.
2. Keep them fed. Often. In fact, allot a significant portion of your sightseeing budget to dining out, if you're in a place where the food is particularly special. On this recent trip, we ate out an average of once per day. We took the rest of our meals in our condo, which meant a couple fun trips to the Spanish supermarket and to the fish market, where speaking only Spanish managed to get us a kilogram of fresh catch and instructions for cooking it. What a rush! :-)
Yes, it adds up in a hurry for five people to eat out, but you can't go to Spain (or many other places) and not savor the local cuisine. And when you have a thirteen-year-old boy along, it couldn't be truer that the way for a country to gain his heart is through his stomach. So, we visited fewer museums and ate more tapas. And churros con chocolate. And roasted almonds from street stands. Happy blood sugar, happy kids, happy parents.
Sharing a meal with those we love is a gift no matter where we are. If the food is memorable, and the setting conducive to taking it slow, so much the better.
P.S. Interested in more thoughts on family travel? I just listened to an episode of the Art of Simple podcast, in which Tsh has a truly fascinating conversation with a woman who just spent a year traveling through thirty countries with her husband and four young children. I dare you not to be inspired!
P.P.S. Also related to family travel, although certainly on a different scale: Perhaps you've heard that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are taking Prince George on a tour of Australia and New Zealand? (I hope they bump into our dear friends in Auckland!) You can follow along with their trip at What Kate Wore, starting in a week or two.