The number of Israeli children and teenagers who travel abroad has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. Figures published by the National Council for the Child show that in 1995, 305,000 Israeli children and teenagers (15 percent of their age group) traveled abroad. Just over two decades later, In 2017, the number had quadrupled to 1.3 million. Nearly half of Israelis in this age group (In Israel, children and adolescents account for about a third of the country’s total population of nine million) travel abroad each year.
Is a family vacation abroad that much fun? Is it good for the kids? For the parents? Is there any other choice? Is it a wise investment or a huge waste of money? What sort of memories do children retain from these trips? What motivates parents to take the family on a trip abroad?
I think about my parents’ travels abroad. I don’t remember exactly where they went, but I have vivid memories of the accommodations where I spent those summer weeks. Grandma Nechama had me stay with her several times. Aunt Zehava and Aunt Rivka consented to enjoy my company on other occasions. I have fond memories of those times.
I enjoyed being with them, and at least two of those times, there were houses with a large backyard and trees to climb. Then came several vacations where I accompanied my parents on trips abroad. Those trips I recall with mixed feelings: There were problems, tensions, quarrels about money, stomach aches and more. I missed my friends, I missed playing soccer with the other kids in the neighborhood. I wished my parents would just let me be.
‘I hardly remember anything’
I recently posed these questions on the family WhatsApp group, which consists of my wife and me, our three children and their partners who are all in their thirties and all have children of their own. When they were young, they traveled abroad with us a number of times – to Europe, to short vacations on a Greek island, to Euro Disney, on an RV trip to various parks in Holland. That was many years ago. I asked them to write and share what they thought about those trips as children.
Yasmin: “On the one hand, I really appreciate the attempt to turn us into lovers of culture, to show us the world, to teach us new things and introduce us to new landscapes. Some of that even worked, to a certain degree. On the other hand, I hardly remember anything.
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"I remember how annoying it was to always sit in the back seat, in the middle between Amitai and Nimrod. I remember how much I hated Paul Simon and how angry I felt about how little time we had for Disneyland and shopping while we had to visit an endless number of monasteries and ancient ruins.
“As an adult, I can appreciate that there were more monasteries and ruins than Disneyland and shopping. But I wonder if the huge financial investment and the tremendous fortitude it must have required for you and Mom to sit in the car, the plane or the restaurant with three cranky kids who were bickering nonstop was worth it.
“Yes, now the three of us all like to travel and are curious to see new places. But unfortunately, I really remember so little of those family trips. I also think that because you like trips that are jam-packed with activities, where you keep going from place to place – that sometimes made things harder. It might be better to just stay in one place, and not necessarily abroad either.
“Of course, the trips helped us bond as a family – and the fruits of this are apparently still with us – but as a kid, I hated my brothers and hated traveling with them. Today, we actually like traveling together, as you can see by the fact that we choose to do it again and again. To me, the destination doesn’t matter. The activities are more important. Will I take my children? Most likely I will. Even though I know that my toddler daughter won’t remember anything, just as I hardly remember anything. I understand the desire to share these experiences with her.”
Nimrod wrote something similar: “You spent a fortune to take us on those trips and we remember so little. I remember that we complained a lot and got into fights, because seeing antiquities was boring and what did we care? But I get that a lot of parents don’t have anywhere to leave their kids for a week in the summer and that you can’t expect the parents to give up traveling. On the positive side, I remember that I felt good when we talked about the Eiffel Tower in school after we had been there. Maybe expanding the child’s horizons is something to take into account.”
Amir had a different point of view: “I think it’s worthwhile from age 15 on, but not before. Just before the kid becomes an adult. It’s a good thing at this point for them to meet people who look different and speak a different language. And if it’s also fun, then all the better. From our family trips abroad, I remember some good experiences and some not so good experiences. I remember that I liked the music on the radio, the different soft drink cans, the roads and road signs that looked different.
“The choice of destination is important. It has to suit everyone and be interesting for everyone. Otherwise, it leads to grumbling that leads to whining that comes from boredom. Family bonding? I don’t remember it helping with that. That’s an ambitious mission. Will I take my children on trips like that? Only if I know that I’ll enjoy traveling away from home with them, possibly going camping, and I would try it in Israel first.”
Have realistic expectations
My wife Iky summed things up this way: “The aspiration was to collect moments of joy. We traveled abroad with the kids in order to amass family stories, to open the kids’ minds, to get a little out of our comfort zone and create an adventure for everyone in a new and challenging environment with no distractions. Now I know that there’s no point in traveling with them when they are too young. They say that they don’t remember a lot, but nowadays it’s easier to remember things, because you take a million times more pictures. And there were also times when we traveled alone, just the two of us. That’s important.”
Yehudit Oliver, a parenting counselor from the Adler Institute and mother of four, says about the whole thing: “Our children remember experiences from the context, from the interpersonal relations. They won’t remember how tall the Eiffel Tower is, but they’ll remember the jokes we told when the car got stuck in the mud.
“One thing that happens to parents when traveling with the kids is that they’ll say: ‘We spent 40,000 shekels, we took you to Austria, and you’re just fighting all day long – is this the thanks we get?’ It’s important to remember that we’re bringing the same family, with the same relationships, to Europe. The most basic thing to do is to have realistic expectations. If the children fight a lot at home, having a backdrop of the Alps is not going to make them fight any less. It’s also important to remember that while you’re traveling for yourself and not just for the kids, you have to pick a destination that will be suitable for the kids. A tour of Athens at the height of August is not a good idea. Kids are not so interested in the difference between Greek and Corinthian columns. And you don’t have to be constantly sightseeing.
“Before the trip, it’s a good idea to discuss expectations with them, to say to the kids: ‘What would you like us to do? Let’s think about it together.’ The kids want to participate in the decisions, to have some say about the trip. It’s good to involve them in selecting the destination, and in the general planning where appropriate.”
Does it come at the expense of traveling as a couple?
“Within a family trip, too, it’s important for the parents to find time for themselves, to have an hour where they can sit on the balcony with a glass of wine. A lot of parents forget about carving out time for themselves as a couple. They make it ‘all about the children’ and that’s a mistake.”
Does family travel bring everyone together?
“Yes. We’re all there together, but the bonding won’t happen just because we went on a trip. It will happen if, on the trip, we do things as a unit. Personally, I’m well aware that it’s easier for me to be fully present when I’m abroad. At home, it’s harder to take my mind off the daily tasks. For that, I need a greater feeling of separation, the sort you can only get when you’re away. And when you take the kids abroad and they don’t have their friends around, they are more fully present too. They’re a captive audience. There’s no television and you’re doing more things together. There will be disputes and disagreements, but it’s different.”
Nitzan Yisraeli, a clinical psychologist and mother of four, just returned from a family vacation. “Traveling with children is a relatively new thing. My parents didn’t take me on trips abroad. The current generation has totally adopted the idea of traveling with children. It creates good moments, you find new things to enjoy together, but it is also a source of a lot of tension. It’s hard to find something that everyone likes and wants to do. A lot of parents end up feeling like they’re busy compensating their kids — now it’s this one or that one’s turn — which is something you want to stay away from.”
Where does the tension come from?
“Traveling is expensive and stressful, everyone is waiting for it with great anticipation and they bring expectations of what the vacation will be like. There are parents who don’t do any planning because that worked for them when they traveled without kids, and then they find that it makes things even more complicated. A family vacation can be very gratifying, but you have to prepare yourself and know that it’s going to be a lot more difficult than it is fun.”