My husband Matt and I were cleaning out our sons’ closets and were disgusted by the sheer volume of unopened and barely played-with toys. He turned to me and said, “…and this is why you are always saying let’s give the kids experiences instead of stuff.” ExACTly.
My boys probably can’t tell you five Christmas or birthday gifts we’ve given them in the last couple years, but they can recall clearly that time that my youngest climbed the tallest tree on a campground in the Arizona high country, or that time that they swam with dolphins in Cabo San Lucas, or the trip we took to DisneyWorld almost 7 years ago when my youngest was barely able to talk. One of our favorite Christmas memories was the year that Santa left a note saying they have enough stuff and asked that we go skiing as a family for Christmas instead.
As a kid, many of my fondest memories revolved around fishing with my grandfather or riding hay bales with my cousins on our family farm in Oklahoma. I was fortunate to grow up in Hawaii with a multitude of world-class experiences literally at my doorstep. My parents instilled a love of discovery in me at a young age. They fostered my independence so that when, at 14 years old, I asked to attend a 3-week trip to the (then) Soviet Union, they were more concerned about making sure I had enough film for my camera than they were about sending their teenage daughter to a communist nation. To this day, that trip was a defining one for me, and my mother still talks about how it was the best money she ever spent because she sent a spoiled, entitled kid off to Europe, and got an appreciative, conscientious young adult back. It’s a lot harder to be a thankless brat once you see people literally lined up outside stores for their daily bread, or once you stay with a host family who has opened their home and spent their month’s savings to make you a dinner of meat, tomatoes, and beets.
Travel – both domestic and international – showed me that there was a real world outside what you see in books, and it’s a lesson that I’ve always been eager to pass on to my kids AND to my husband. Matt thought he wasn’t much into travel until he took his first trip to Hawaii to visit my family, and he got the Local-Girl Tour: for every 5 minutes we spent at the typical tourist stops, we spent several hours at the off-the-beaten-path locations that I frequented as a kid. He wasn’t even aware that he held on to stereotypes about Hawaii until he met my 6-foot tall, skinny, VERY caucasian father and admitted he expected to meet a shorter, darker, VERY Polynesian man. He got to know the REAL Hawaii and saw that it was very different (and I daresay, better) than any movie or book image he had seen.
Many years later, when I suggested to Matt that my 14-year old son, Jack, and I travel to London (to visit my sister who lives there) and Paris (my absolute favorite city in the world), he was a travel-religion convert and was all for it. Jack not only visited these foreign cities, but he EXPERIENCED them. We visited a Sunday livestock market in the shadow of the Notre Dame; we fed the homeless on the cold streets near Buckingham Palace; we shopped in neighborhood groceries in cozy neighborhoods; we ate in out-of-the-way cafes and stands. For the rest of my life, I think I will forever remember the look on my firstborn’s face when he saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time.
As if I need additional reasons to get out and see the world, studies show that people who travel can be happier and healthier. I serve as anecdotal evidence of those claims: when I travel, I suffer from less anxiety and am more in the moment. I’ve never taken a blood pressure cuff abroad with me, but I’m willing to bet those numbers drop a few points over a roadside crêpe or authentic café crème. And you don’t even need to leave the country, or even the state, to get these benefits — even just a day trip out of town has been known to refresh us.
I realize that such trips are a luxury, and as such we budget accordingly. Our family has a savings account specifically for vacations; I am a coupon and rebate addict; we don’t drive the most luxury of vehicles or wear the highest-end designers; we have a pretty strict eat-out budget and instead bring our lunches to work with us. None of these feel like huge sacrifices, and are worth it for the memories that our family has shared.
So get out! Get the kids out from behind the electronics and re-learn how much you enjoy one another. Years from now, you’ll think back on those memories and probably won’t remember what you were wearing, or what you might have had to give up to save. I’m willing to bet, though, you WILL remember the sense of awe, the feeling of contentment, and the joy of discovery that comes with going somewhere new.