While out to dinner a couple weeks ago, my younger son commented, out of the blue, that he really missed our recent family vacation. I looked at him with surprise—and delight. 

“You do?! Me too,” I sighed, fighting back tears. You see, we had just returned from a bucket list vacation and I was pretty sure I was the only one who really appreciated it. To be honest, as we prepared for the family vacation, there were many times when my husband and I debated whether travel with kids was worth the time, expense and scheduling inconveniences it involved. Was taking them on a trip a waste of money? Would they remember it? Could they even appreciate it?

Related: Motherhood didn’t take away my love of travel so I take my son on adventures

My response to all of those questions: Travel is never a waste, and it doesn’t matter if they remember it or appreciate it. For me, travel is absolutely worth the time, money and hassle. Here's why... 

Family vacations are happiness anchors

Family vacations have been called “happiness anchors” because they provide a lasting source of feel-good memories that can be tapped in the future. But it wasn’t until recently when I truly understood this and truly appreciated that my own childhood family vacations were happiness anchors for me as an adult. I hope this is true for my kids as well, even if they don't realize it until many years down the road.

Rest assured: you don’t need to spend gobs of money or go on weeks-long vacations to reap the benefits of family travel. Experts say that a weekend camping trip or couple days hiking at the state park near your home can create happiness anchors as much as a European vacation or a Caribbean cruise. It’s all about the change in scenery, letting go of our routines, and spending time together away from everyday distractions. 

Two boys looking at lake
Christine Organ

"The notion of having to spend vast amounts of money to go away is not necessarily part of the package," Colman Noctor, a Dublin-based child and adolescent psychologist, told the Irish Times.

Traveling with young children can hardly be called a vacation; it’s a trip. And a challenging one at that. But even those struggles and travel mishaps can be happiness anchors. “Adversity gels us together,” Noctor reminds us.

Traveling makes kids (and adults) more empathetic

As reported in Quartz, child development experts and psychologists say that cross-cultural experiences can boost a sense of connection and empathy. “Traveling to and engaging with people in developing nations exposes children to socioeconomic diversity, causing them to become more curious,” writes Cindy Lamonthe in Quartz. “Nurturing and encouraging this kind of curiosity has a number of important benefits, especially at a young age.”

For instance, studies have shown that international travel increases cognitive flexibility, enabling our brain to move more efficiently between different ideas.

“Engaging with another culture helps kids recognize that their own egocentric way of looking at the world is not the only way of being in the world,” Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School, told Quartz. 

I’ve seen this firsthand. While my kids weren’t able to fully understand the politics, systemic racism and colonialist history of places we’ve visited, they were able to see and experience these places with their own eyes. They were able to meet the people and hear their stories. They were able to appreciate that what the stereotypical assumptions about a place are often inaccurate. And they better understand the world as a result.

Family vacations change who we are—even if we don’t know or appreciate it at the time

Many of my most vivid memories—both good and bad—are from those family vacations. These trips, whether it was a weekend near home or week-long adventure, changed the way I see the world and the people in it. They taught me things that a book or classroom never could. They cemented family bonds through shared experiences.  And they shaped who I am as an adult by implanting an unquenchable thirst for adventure and wanderlust. In other words, our family vacations changed my life.

Related: Why I travel the world with my kid 

Now that my kids are older, I'm sure they will remember the trips even if they don't appreciate them. But for me, their appreciation is irrelevant.

Mom and two boys sitting on a large rock, looking at lake and mountains
Christine Organ

Though I was fortunate to travel on family vacations as child, I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t always know just how fortunate I was. As a young child, I probably lacked the language or skills to understand the impact of family vacations. And then as a surly (and selfish?) teenager, I certainly didn’t express any gratitude I might have felt. Even now as a parent myself, I’m afraid I haven’t adequately expressed my appreciation. (Mom, if you’re reading this, thank you. Those family vacations literally changed my life and I am so very grateful.)

I don’t take my kids on family vacations so they will one day thank me. I don’t even take them because they will remember the details of these trips (or when they were really young, remember the trip at all). 

I take my kids on family vacations because I will remember. Because enjoy and appreciate them being there. And because it is impossible for travel and family vacations not to change who you are. 

Related: I travel with my young kids to build their hearts, not memories

But let’s be real: family vacations can be a real hassle. They cost time and money. They are exhausting. And sometimes (most times?) we need a vacation to recover from our vacation. But each moment is captured in some way. These moments are like grains of sand that add up to something bigger, something that changes a person—parents and child alike.

I’ll be very honest: even though I believe with my entire heart that taking my kids on vacations—whether it’s a bucket list vacation or weekend getaway near home—is worth it, there are still moments of frustration. When I was a new mom sweating because my toddler wouldn’t stop screaming on the airplane. When I was schlepping suitcases filled with gadgets and toys for a three-day trip to see family. When I was shushing my kids and telling them to stop bickering. When I heard my son complain (again!) about the lack of reliable WiFi or that he was missing football practice.

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But then I’m reminded that what seems like a frustration in the moment is actually part of something bigger. Family vacations are the framework for the “happiness anchors.” They are nurturing a sense of curiosity and empathy. They are teaching life lessons about the world and my kids’ place in it. And these family vacations are seeping into my kids’ hearts and minds in ways that we might not even realize. 

The day after my son made me tear up with his comment about missing our vacation, my other son—the one who spent a lot of time Snapchatting friends and worrying about missing football practice—spent the better part of an hour sharing photos with my grandma, telling her interesting facts he had learned while on our vacation. 

And that’s all I needed to be reminded, once again, that travel and family vacations are absolutely worth it.