Have Kids, Will Travel

Three seasoned international travelers on the benefits they reap by bringing baby along.

Above: Karen Merzenich has traveled with her family to 15 countries on five continents. Photograph by Smeeta Mahanti.

Each summer, anthropologist Cheryl Knott embarks on a journey that few able-bodied adults could endure: She flies across the country from her home base outside of Boston and crosses the Pacific Ocean on her way to Singapore. The next day, she puddle jumps throughout Indonesia—making stops in Jakarta and Pontianak—before alighting in the small city of Ketapang. She camps out there for a couple of days while arranging travel documents and supplies for her upcoming month-long stint in the rainforest, and the final leg of her journey begins when she steps into a dugout canoe for a 10-hour journey upriver to her field site, Gunung Palung, where she has been studying wild orangutans for more than 23 years.

Oh, and she’s been taking her two kids with her since her oldest was 11 months old.

“Our philosophy is to just bring our kids with us,” says Dr. Knott, an associate professor at Boston University. As the director of the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program, heads to Borneo annually with her husband, wildlife photojournalist Tim Laman, who is frequently on assignment for National Geographic, and their two kids, Jessica and Russell. “Most parents feel like once the kids are grown up, I can travel, or once I retire, I can have a life. But you never know. You might as well live your life the way you want and try to figure out a way to make it work.”

In theory, it’s an ethos worthy of imitation. How we engage with new experiences—by exploring them, enjoying them, and adapting to them—sets an example for how our kids will grow up to interact with the world around them. “It broadens their horizons,” Dr. Knott says. “My kids’ teachers tell me that they can see a real difference in terms of their life experience—they’re more aware of what’s out there in the world,” she says.

“Honestly, I didn’t think much about traveling or not traveling. It was simply what we had to do for family, work, and school,” says Elizabeth Enslin.

The reality of dealing with sleep deprivation, diapers, and questionable food options, however, makes even formerly enthusiastic travelers wary of setting off with young children.

So we enlisted three seasoned travelers to share their experiences traveling in remote regions with their kids: primatologist Cheryl Knott, who schools her kids on the ecology of the Bornean rainforest; Karen Merzenich, who has traveled to 15 countries on five continents with her son, Lazzaro, who is barely three years old; and author Elizabeth Enslin, who raised her infant son on the plains of Nepal and wrote a book about the experience.

Their experiences are extreme, but the surprising benefits of travel—gaining more independence as a parent, learning to let go of things you can’t control, meeting new people—can be reaped through even small-scale, local trips. Plus, says Merzenich, “You’ll be sleep-deprived at home anyway. You might as well be sleep-deprived somewhere else.”


Here’s what our three experts have to say about the benefits of traveling with your kids:

1. You get more autonomy
Traveling socializes and stimulates your kids. Even if they’re young, exposing them to new places, people, and cultures will help your children build independence as they adapt quickly to new situations. Quid pro quo: Parents of self-sufficient kids get more freedom.

“Traveling impacts their whole worldview, and makes them think they can do stuff on their own. They’re not afraid to go travel or pursue interests when they’re young adults. Russell has being doing photography and has won some awards, so traveling also gives him places to take photos. One time on our way to the research site in Borneo, he said, “My friends are probably all at home right now playing video games, and I’m pulling a canoe up river in Borneo! They recognize that what they’re doing is special.” —Knott

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“We lived in a village where relatives and neighbors came by every day to see my baby. The American in me was alarmed at first, but I got used to it. And eventually, I felt lucky. Having so many people eager to look after my child and entertain him made it easier for me. It also socialized him to being comfortable around many people. He never had anxiety about sleep-overs or play dates. In fact, he craved them.” —Enslin

“Jessica really likes writing and does it on her own. She uses the places where we’ve been to help inspire her creative writing. It’s really interesting. She’s writing a book right now. And I mean, she’s only 11. I wasn’t that focused at that age.” —Knott

2. You’ll stop sweating the small stuff
Traveling in third world countries means letting go of doing things the “right” way. It often means letting go—literally—of your child.

“Out first day in Bangkok, we went to a massage school inside one of the temple sites. I got a foot massage instead of a full body massage so I could hold Laz, who was only 8 months old, but a man who worked there just came up and took him out of my arms and away from me and disappeared. I had a protective feeling and started freaking out a little bit, irrationally thinking, ‘Are they going to kidnap him and sell him into slavery or something?’ Then I heard all this arguing behind the walls, and it was because all of the women who worked there wanted to hold Laz and the man wouldn’t give them a turn. I realized that I needed to be more open hearted, and I saw that this was not a scary thing—it was a cool and connecting thing.”—Merzenich

“You often can’t get to US-level safety standards. But you should do what you can—try and make the effort. For example, I’m kind of aggressive about seatbelts. We take extra time to really look for cars that have seat belts. I try to insist, but even so, we didn’t use car seats in Borneo for as long as we did in the US,” says Knott.

“There are so many places in the world where a stroller is more of a hassle than a help, like places where there are cobblestones or where everyone eats out on the sidewalk. My husband is rabidly anti-gear when we’re going on a big trip, and we find we are always happier when we pack as light as possible, so we have almost never brought a stroller or car seat with us. It makes it so much easier and more pleasant not to lug those things around. You can usually rent a car seat and use a front or backpack carrier instead of a stroller.” —Merzenich

“We had no health insurance until we returned to the US. My son received his vaccinations from the local health post, same as other children in our village. I relied heavily on Where There is No Doctor by David Werner, a book I highly recommend to anyone spending time in remote areas where medical care is unavailable or not fully trusted.” —Enslin

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3. You’ll meet more locals
A baby is The Great Unifier: a cherished creature to be fussed over by anyone within a 20-foot radius. Expect it to be a bit exhausting, but also expect your kid to kick off more conversations—and dinner invitations—with local parents, grandparents, and admirers than you ever thought possible.

“We got to meet more people and talk to so many people—we got a completely different feeling. That’s something that’s really hard to convince people of, that traveling with a baby doesn’t have to be something you’re suffering through. It can be an amazing experience. You’re seeing everything as a completely different person. Everyone talks to you. All different kinds of people.  When we traveled before, nobody ever talked to me. Then you strap on a baby, and everyone talks to you. In Bhutan, the locals kept telling us that nobody brings a baby there, and they gave Laz a Bhutanese name, “Sonam Dorji,” which means lucky power. Everyone would know who we were, even when we went out hiking. So many of my great memories are related to connections and bonds we were able to make because our kid was with us.” —Merzenich

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“Families in Nepal spent days and evenings outside on their verandahs—chatting, singing, shelling beans. So, my son had a constant stream of fans fondling his fingers and toes, lifting him up and wiggling him, taking him for bouncy walks, blowing raspberries on his tummy. In his first eight months, I noticed he had a particular fascination for the faces of elders. He’d stare at their deep wrinkles and smile, then track their eyes the way I’ve seen young ones now track movement on smartphones and computers.” —Enslin

“There’s so much more openness when you have your children with you. In Italy, we met up with my sister-in-law and my brother-in-law and their toddler. With the kids running around the piazza, we met way more people—our kids would play with other kids, and steal their toys, then before you know it, you’re being invited over for dinner,” says Merzenich. 

“No matter where you go, an old woman is lurking nearby to chastise you for dressing your child incorrectly for the current weather conditions. This happened multiple times on every trip we took. Whether it’s a lack of hat in a cold place, not enough sun protection in a hot one, or anything in between, the one thing that is a certainty in all of humanity is a random grandma’s ability to spot you and express her disappointment in you for letting your kid out of the house like that.” —Merzenich

4. You get more caretakers  
Outside of the US,  strangers don’t hesitate to lend a hand in terms of childcare.

“In some ways, traveling with a child was easier in South Asia. In the US, I noted frowns and head-shaking when my son or other children cried in a restaurant or grocery store. In public places in Nepal, such as meetings, buses, small shops, women (and sometimes men) asked what was wrong and if they could do anything to help,”  says Enslin. 

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“When you’re with a baby, the local staff at just about any restaurant will pick him up and carry him to the back room to hang out while you eat. It’s not always immediately comfortable, but especially in places where we’ve been a few times, we just say, ‘OK.’ And we go on with our meal.” —Knott

5. You earn revered status—and less sexual harassment
In cultures where it’s commonplace for men to get handsy, Enslin says that a “reverence for motherhood” cut down on instances of harassment.

“When my son was two months old, we flew from Kathmandu to Patna and then took a train to a small town further south where my husband was working. In the Patna railway station, I steeled myself for what I’d encountered in other crowded places in North India: men’s hands pinching my bottom or feeling up my legs. But with a baby in my arms, I was only pinched once. On the train, women and men went out of their way to help me get tea and snacks and make sure I got off at the right station. That reverence for motherhood has its downside too, but during that first trip, I felt so vulnerable that I was grateful for the kindness of strangers.” —Enslin 

6. You still get to travel
Altering your routine presents unique challenges to parents of young children, but if you’re prepared to step outside your comfort zone, you’ll feel the familiar payoff of an unforgettable experience.

“The number one negative thing I hear from people is, ‘Why would you bother taking a kid on these cool trips when he won’t even remember it?’ And to that I say, ‘Yes, but WE will remember it,’” says Merzenich. 

“Many of my husband’s and my fondest memories of our family time together are from trips—and it doesn’t really matter to us that Laz may not remember, because we remember and cherish those memories immensely. Because these memories are made and experienced in new places, they are more indelibly inscribed in our brains. Besides, if you have to change a dirty diaper anyway, wouldn’t you rather do it at the top of Macchu Picchu?” —Merzenich

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