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Bruce Kirkby: Why Family Vacations Are Worth The Headaches

Bruce Kirkby: Why Family Vacations Are Worth The Headaches

Trekking through the Himalaya, with a short stop at Mt. Everest’s base camp, sailing the Ganges River, crossing the North Pacific Ocean on a container ship, meditating with monks in a Tibetan monastery – these are not the typical activities you might expect during a family vacation with two young children.  Bruce Kirkby took an extraordinary adventure halfway around the world, and has invited everyone to come along. His new reality television program, Big Crazy Family Adventure, is a nine-part series that takes viewers through the most intense and eye-opening moments of the family’s expedition. The show’s first episode airs Sunday, June 21. Below, Bruce writes for The Wall Street Journal on why it’s important–and can even be magical–for parents to travel with their children:

We woke our boys, ages 3 and 7, before dawn and, after a hurried breakfast, stepped out our back door. Frost crunched underfoot, and to the east, a silver luminescence gathered over the Rocky Mountains.

Launching canoes in the nearby headwaters of the Columbia River, we paddled northward through British Columbia for five days before taking a train to the coast. From there, a 77,000-ton container ship carried us across the Pacific, and a swirl of bullet-trains, tuk-tuks, riverboats and ferries bore us onward; through Korea, into China, across Tibet, down to the jungles of Nepal, before spitting us out onto the baking plains of India. Upon reaching the Himalayan foothills by narrow-gauge train and jolting jeep, we loaded our duffel bags onto donkeys and set out to cross the great range by foot.

Ninety-six days after leaving home, we arrived at a Buddhist monastery where the four of us would live in an 8’ x 8’ earthen room with a senior lama until the winter snows departed.

My wife and I have hit the road with our boys since they were born, often against the advice of others. North Americans seem to hold an increasingly jaundiced view of family travel—seeing it as something to be endured, or better yet, avoided.

That’s a shame.

When our first son, Bodi, was 2 months old, we carried him into the granite spires of Canada’s Bugaboo Mountains. At 8 months, he explored Argentina and tramped through southern Patagonia with us. Before he was 3 years old, he’d joined us on a biking tour in the French Alps. (To those who inevitably ask: I’m no pediatrician, but I do have extensive first-aid training and we always carry a medical kit.)

When our second son, Taj, arrived, all four of us flew to Tbilisi, Georgia, where we bought a chestnut mare and set out on a 60-day traverse of the Caucasus Mountains. With camping gear lashed to the horse and the boys on our backs, we followed dusty footpaths and lived off honey from beekeepers, yogurt from herders, crusty bread from villagers and vodka from everyone.

We are not rich, but we spend what money we have on travel, investing in experiences.

Many foreign cultures hold a reverence for youth (and for elders) that is too often missing from our own. Kids can sense that. On our first day in Buenos Aires, a group of burly construction workers wearing orange vests and reflective sunglasses dropped to their knees to tickle my son.

Cachetes! (Cheeks!)” they cooed. “lindo.” (How cute.)

Affection like that makes children blossom. Back home, it’s heartbreaking to watch them continuing to wave to strangers, eventually giving up when few return the attention.

Another thing traveling parents hear again and again is that it’s a shame the children won’t remember their travels. Such sentiment is understandable: It’s hard to imagine that steaming across the Pacific, or watching a corpse consumed atop a funeral pyre in Varanasi, could be as profound and enduring for a 3-year-old as for the same child at 21. Yet every shred of developmental evidence suggests the early years are the most influential.

Of course, family travel holds its own challenges, the most notable being an unsettling abundance of time—hours and days that cannot be filled with the usual distractions of home. There will be meltdowns—just as there are at home. You will miss iconic sights, and instead find yourself watching cartoons on a hotel television. Peanut butter and jelly (always on hand, along with wipes) will likely become a dietary staple. But you will find that you are holding your kids’ little hands longer, and more often, than at home and listening to them in a way you can’t amid the demands of daily working life.

The truth is our kids are much tougher than we give them credit for. Keep them well fed (mine eat anything, from moth larva to Peking duck), properly dressed and rested, and they can handle almost all of travel’s uncertainties.

The hardships pale before the rewards. On our recent journey halfway around the world without taking an airplane, our boys bargained in the markets of Lhasa and devoured fried scorpions in Beijing. They visited the Great Wall, Everest base camp and the Taj Mahal. Yes, Bodi missed a few months of school, but he learned things he never could have in a classroom. More important, I’m still aware of how the time we spent together deepened our relationships—even now, half a year after returning home.

Bruce Kirkby/WSJ/June, 2015