Starting them young

When I was a kid my family traveled quite a bit. In fact, I like to say I was raised in hotels, which accounts for my continued love for hotel stays and room service. (Especially room service.) As a result, at fairly early ages my siblings and I became accustomed to all the benefits and challenges of the frequent traveller. We knew how to straighten up and behave politely in restaurants, immediately after hours of rambunctious screaming and splashing in the hotel pool. As kids, this was a great time.

We gave no thought to the future benefits we’d have as adults, having been exposed to a wide variety of people and places. We didn’t understand that this early exposure would help shape our perspectives, making us more well-rounded, more understanding and more accepting of others. It also helped solidify our belief that we could (and would) “fit in” in any setting, with any group of people, anywhere in the world.

My husband and I want the same for our kids, so we travel as often as possible. They’ve been travelling since they were too young to remember. They  were 2 and 4 years old on their first flight, and they were 3 and 5 years old on their first cruise. Now, more than 10 years later, they’re excited to travel anywhere and can’t wait to go. They’ve become very discerning hotel guests, always looking for at least 4 stars in the hotel review. (As the parent of two teen girls, I have to say, it’s comforting to know they have standards when it comes to hotels, ya’ know?)

But the benefits of early exposure go far beyond travel. Taking kids to “adult” restaurants (which means no kids menu) provides an education about proper etiquette, ordering from waitstaff and just as important, tipping waitstaff. This is how kids learn to behave civilly in public. Of course, parents may have to give the “don’t embarrass me in this restaurant” speech prior to getting out of the car. And if you’re really concerned, you may want to start with Cheesecake Factory before graduating to Morton’s Steakhouse, but they’ll get it eventually.

Thinking about it even more broadly, exposing kids to plays, concerts and museums doesn’t have to wait for school field trips. I love that our kids will always remember our taking them to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium or our weekend trip to see Hamilton. We took them to their first couple of concerts, which were The Fray (don’t judge) and J. Cole (I said don’t judge). All of these outings are opportunities to expand their horizons and expose them to ideas and experiences beyond their day-to-day environment. But it’s also a chance to create lifelong memories.

I still remember a trip to Niagara Falls when I was very young. We went to a restaurant afterwards, where I saw a lot of people who didn’t look like me, and a few who did. I reluctantly ordered spaghetti from the menu, at my father’s insistence to “try something besides a hamburger”. I learned that some people make spaghetti with mushrooms and little white specks (turns out this was minced garlic), but on the upside I didn’t have to pick out the green peppers that were in my mom’s recipe. Niagara Falls kind of scared me and I gave the restaurant an unenthusiastic review, but I have the memory. I wasn’t being treated like I was “just a kid”. And although my palate wasn’t yet sophisticated enough to appreciate the meal, I was having (what I thought to be) grown up experiences and this was one of many. By the time I was 10 I knew which fork to use and what constituted polite dinner conversation. 

So the next time you plan to take kids or teens out, think beyond their comfort zone and expose them to something new. Skip fast food, opting instead for sushi, Thai or Indian food. Forego TGIFriday’s for Benihana. Traveling? Choose upscale lodging like a JW Marriott instead of a hotel with an indoor waterpark. You’ll find you can have a great swimming pool without a thousand kids in it, and more family time with your own kids.

We know this won’t replace trips to Disneyland and other kid-focused activities but whenever you get a chance, show them something new. After all, memories are where you make them.

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