Why travel with a baby

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I promise this blog hasn’t become “The Family Miler” despite a few family-travel-related posts this week. But the other day on Frequent Miler, we had some lively discussion about whether or not it’s OK to fly in business class with a baby. I’m not going to repeat that discussion here, see “The baby in business class debate” if you’re interested and missed it. One point that was echoed by a few folks was the notion that flying with young children isn’t necessary or that a baby or toddler wouldn’t remember it anyway. Putting aside for a moment the debate over whether some people are more entitled to unnecessary travel than others, I certainly have to admit that much (most? all?) of my travel is not necessary, and I know that at 15 months, my son won’t have any direct memories of our current trips. So why do I do it? I’m glad you asked.

A little background

I think there are two separate but equally important components as to why I travel with a baby. For the first half, some personal background context is necessary.

My father grew up poor. He was one of eight boys born in Puerto Rico and raised in the South Bronx of New York City in the 1960’s and 70’s. I think he counts having moved nearly 30 times by the time he was 18. His parents never took public assistance, but rather worked hard to keep their sons clothed and fed. My grandmother once told me a story about how she didn’t have the money to buy enough new school clothes for eight boys, so she bought each boy 1 white dress shirt. That way, she could wash, dry, and press their shirts at night and send them to school wearing the same shirts again the next day and nobody would know they were wearing the same shirt every day. The stories of my grandmother’s discipline are legendary (and my parents remind me how she would see a misbehaving child and hold her pinky finger straight in the air while saying, “1 week” — as in that’s all the time it would take her to straighten out their behavioral issues). She sure did something right, because those eight boys each found their way out of the environment in which they were raised and discovered paths to success.

But that success obviously wasn’t instant. When I was born, my parents didn’t have much. My first Christmas, they couldn’t afford to buy a tree. A neighbor gave them one. My mom didn’t want me to have a Christmas tree without ornaments, so she made them out of paper and colored them with crayons. Times were tight.

But by the time I was old enough to know the difference (indeed, by the time I was old enough to actually remember much), my parents had worked hard to put our family comfortably into the middle class. I had everything I needed and most of what I wanted growing up. I was a lucky kid.

We took family vacations every summer — usually visiting an amusement park or beach for a few days. Apart from a trip to Puerto Rico with Grandma Reyes when I was in second grade, those trips never involved an airplane (and typically only extended to a distance of 3-6 hours from home by car). My parents’ main standards for a hotel was that it had clean rooms and a swimming pool. I don’t ever remember them picking a hotel by its brand. But we had a lot of fun and I learned what it was like to enjoy travel with a family.

Fast forward into my young adulthood. At a family event, I was hanging out with some of my older male cousins. With the brash exuberance of our youth and the encouragement of a camera rolling to capture proof of our wisdom for posterity, we declared that we were “The next generation of Reyeses, and we’re gonna do it right!”.

Years later, I found out that my dad took some offense to that comment — that the sons of his generation somehow seemed to think that their parents did something wrong. Of course, he eventually realized that we were merely expressing the same concept that his mother had hoped for him and his brothers and that in turn they hoped for us: that we would do it better, whatever “it” is — career, marriage, children, life. I guess that’s the hope that all parents hold for their kids — that their kids are somehow able to have a life that is at least a little better than the one than came before it.

Part II

So while doing it “better” is one part of why I try to give my son experiences that I did not have, that concept ties into the second piece of “why” I travel with a baby: in the hopes that it makes him a better person — one more prepared for an interconnected world and exposed to as many people and things as possible to help him find his niche in that world. Do I think that by bringing him to Japan at 15 months, he’s going to discover a love of trains that leads him to become an electrical engineer working on the next generation of hyperloop technology? Absolutely not.

But do I think there is value in bringing him to a baseball game in the Tokyo Dome, where he is surrounded by people who look different, speak a different language, write words with different characters, and where he can see that mom and dad are totally calm and even enjoying that experience with those around them rather than being afraid or uncomfortable? Yes, I do think there is value in that.

Some will say, “He won’t remember a trip to Japan when he was 15 months old!”. Taken literally, that’s correct. But at 15 months, he remembers the sound of his name. He remembers what it means when his mom says, “Where are your shoes?” and he immediately goes to the door looking for them (and when we return and she says “Shoes off”, he bends down to undo the Velcro straps). He remembers that he shouldn’t smack the spoon when he’s being fed and knows to lift his leg when it’s time to put his pants on. While he’s incredibly special to us, our son is not exceptional in those abilities. How does he remember those things? The same way all children do: by repetition, routine, and reinforcement.

And so, while I know he won’t remember that we took him to play in the snow on a 6,000-ft mountain, I hope he won’t be afraid of heights the next time we encourage him to get into a gondola and climb.

While he surely won’t remember eating soba noodles for breakfast every day for a week (though he sure did remember what the bowls looked like each day and wouldn’t eat anything else once he saw me get one!), I hope he will remember that trying different foods is just something that you do.

For years, we know he won’t know that he took swimming lessons at 6 months old and had dipped his toes in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans before he was 1 year old. But hopefully he won’t be afraid to dive in to the deep end, confident that he can handle it.

There’s no doubt he won’t remember the waitress whose hand he reached for after breakfast each day and how she walked him out responding to all of his loquacious ramblings with inquisitive “oh really”s and authoritative “I agree”s. But in a world where he’ll see the worst of humanity on TV every day and in which I hope he’ll exercise due caution, I hope he’ll also remember that most people are good.

Someday down the line, I hope he’ll be excited to appreciate foreign cultures and understand foreign perspectives, that his fears won’t hold him back from risks he knows are minimal, that he’ll be grateful to live in a country where he can get food from around the globe, and that he’ll seek out good people and hold on to them. When we travel, I constantly marvel at the jobs that exist in this world that I’d never remotely considered: someone gets paid to design the layout of the massive flower displays at Bellagio; it is someone’s job to figure out how much it costs to make the lights flash on the Eiffel Tower multiple times each night; someone decides on the scent of the Emirates First Class cabin. I hope my son will see enough of the world to know how limitless his options can be.

But I know that just like when we taught him his name or what his shoes were or that he should keep his hands down when he’s being fed, it is going to require repetition, patience, practice, modeling, re-directing, patience, practice, positive reinforcement, discipline, patience, practice, time, experience, and a little more patience and practice. And just like learning how to eat or put his shoes on, I think that travel is an important component of life for which I want my son to be prepared — and it is one for which I have the means and he has the ability to lay the foundation right now. I’m not going to wait to lay that foundation any more than I’m going to wait until he can read to tell him bedtime stories.

Travel obviously isn’t necessary. I’m not even suggesting that it’s necessary in order to have a good life — or a better one than the previous generation. But I do think that traveling has made me a better person. It has expanded my understanding of the world and its many people and perspectives. I often say that the most salient lesson I’ve learned from travel is what it means to be American and how that influences my perspectives. I find value in that self-awareness.

Just like we speak and read to our son now to build recognition and awareness of language, we hope to build the same recognition and awareness of the world around him. I hope that learning in its many forms becomes part of his routine in the same way that he knows bath time will be followed by brushing his teeth and a bedtime story. And so, like many family travel folks before me, I want to make travel part of his routine in the hopes that it makes him a good learner, a more curious person, and a better human.

The other reason I bring my son

As someone who is fortunate enough to earn a living writing on the Internet, I accept that not everyone will agree with me. The day I took the job working here, I knew there would be times when someone may say something unkind or offer a perspective with which I vehemently disagree. Those comments don’t generally bother me — I can accept that people have different perspectives. I made my case as to why I’m not afraid to travel with a baby in business class and I can accept that some people disagree with me on that without getting too emotional about it.

But one comment from a different post yesterday did strike a chord with me. It was this one:

one thing yesterdays intentional hot topic argument never mentioned, and it is an emotional issue that most parents refuse to accept the scientific reality of….all kids that age are slightly more intelligent than monkeys, they see lights and geometric patterns, and will have NO memory of their trip beyond what you tell them…so put mouse ears on them in front of a green screen and years later you can tell them how much they enjoyed Disneyland. The logistics of traveling with a toddler and his gear internationally is extreme (as you well know it appears), It reduces the quality time between parents and unless Mommy just can’t be separated from little darling, a stay at the grandparents would be better for all involved…you will have many years to show your kid the world, wait until he will remember it….personally my earliest memory is of my 4th birthday party, so even if my parents drug me around the world before then, I would not have remembered, enjoyed, or cared about the experience….so your not doing anyone a favor by taking the kid along, not him, not you or your wife, not the grandparents (unless he has colic when you drop him off for an extended visit) and expecially not the traveling public at large……..

Wait until the kid can talk and walk, enjoy and remember the sights they see, and most importantly behave with the manners of a considerate traveler like his parents.

I laid out an argument above already as to why I’m not traveling with him for direct memories of Disneyland, etc (though, coincidentally, when I asked Greg about the ideal time to go to Disney before my son was born, he said 18 months — “He won’t remember it, but you will remember the look on his face forever”).

But that’s not what bothered me about the comment.

What bothered me was the suggestion that it would be better to drop my son off at his grandparents’ in order for his mother and I to travel. I know that people do that, and let me be clear that I do not mean to criticize those who do (and in fact we had to take one trip without him early on, though that was much more stressful than traveling with him). In my case, I don’t view a child as a nuisance that gets in the way of quality time between parents or makes my life less convenient. My wife and I spent many years together and traveled extensively before we were ready to start a family — when our son came along, we couldn’t wait to embark on this next adventure with him. I’m not inconvenienced by having a child. Sure, it means my travel is different now than it was before (and yes, sometimes it is more difficult), but the truth is that I can’t wait to show my son everything from how to use a slinky to the colorful fish of a barrier reef. And just like I know he won’t remember the book I read to him today or the beach we visit tomorrow, I’ll remember having him there and that’s the way I intended our life to be.

That is surely influenced by my upbringing. My parents often say that we went everywhere with them as kids — if we couldn’t go, they weren’t going, either. I won’t say it is impossible that my wife and I may decide to someday take a trip alone to focus on each other, but at this point I’m just not interested in taking a leisure trip without our son. That brings me back to those family trips to Hershey Park and Darien Lake. We didn’t take trips because mom and dad wanted to travel — we took them because mom and dad wanted to spend time with us.

All that is to say that the other reason I bring my son is simple: I want to travel with my son. I don’t bring him because I want to travel and I’m stuck bringing him if I’m going to take the trips I want to take. I bring him because now, having been fortunate enough to see many of the places I want to see in this world, I’m excited to go and see places with him.

I know that the opposite side of this perspective is that strangers don’t set out hoping to travel with my son. I get that. I don’t set out on a trip with the intention of traveling with the other hundred and change folks on the plane any more than I go to a restaurant intending to dine with the other customers or I go to a sporting event intending to sit next to an unruly intoxicated fan, but a public place is public, so I don’t put myself in any of those situations unprepared to deal with the public. And I guess that’s why I’m not nervous about bringing my son in business class or why I’m not worried about bringing him to travel: I know that we will encounter members of the public who may not like me, him, or us, but I can accept that and continue forward the same as I will when someone disagrees with this post. I know I won’t make everyone happy 100% of the time, but I sleep well knowing that the decisions I make are made with good intentions and that, when I make mistakes, I’ll reflect and adjust. Hopefully travel helps my son learn to do the same.

While my grandparents may have struggled to make ends meet, and my parents saved up all year long to take us on a summer vacation, I am fortunate enough to be able to generate these magical miles and points that I can trade in for experiences. Through those experiences, hopefully I can impart a curiosity about the world in my son and spark a desire for him to somehow do it better — whatever it may be for him. And while I don’t expect that today’s trips will directly influence that, I hope that they will lay the groundwork for a life of curiosity about the unknown and comfort with the unfamiliar. A comfortable seat to fly us there won’t hurt.

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