We have taken our children on a lot of bonkers vacations, right from the get-go. I am the kind of person who, given maternity leave, will book a trip. (Not in the first two months, though! I’m not a total idiot!) I have pictures of me wearing my firstborn infant in a baby carrier in Colorado and photos of my second infant being pushed in a stroller around Disney World, both trips that required taking kids on a plane from our home base in Brooklyn.
Disney World has been a particular passion, and though we have not gone 500 times, we went pretty reliably once a year until the pandemic hit. Doing annual visits with my kids — who are now young adults, ages 18 and 20 — puts me in a position to ask them for their first vacation memories.
When can kids start to really remember vacations? Honestly, we’re talking about age 9 or 10.
Forget what Google says, which — when I search — is age 5. Who remembers more than fleeting moments from kindergarten?! Could you really reconstruct a whole day? If you want your kids to have not just flashes of vacation memories but to remember a lot of a trip, that starts at about age 10. Photos from earlier vacations can jog some recall, but you probably have to be in fifth grade or older to remember a lot of details.
My first kid, Henry, is able to describe pretty much everything about the Disney World trip we took when he was 12. He can also fondly remember a Turks and Caicos beach vacation we took earlier that year, as can my son Joseph, who was 9 at the time and says that the island trip was his favorite of our many excursions. That doesn’t mean that both kids don’t remember trips from when they were younger, the memories are just not as clear.
Is it worth it to take a young child on an expensive vacation, like to Disney World?
Abso-freakin-lutely. Though Henry can remember being there at age 12, I can tell you, as his mama, that he had a lot more fun when he was there at age 3, just losing his mind over meeting the characters and being immersed in the make-believe. The magic is real until a kid hits maybe age 7 or 8, at which point meet-and-greets with people in costumes are taken with more of a sense of humor than a sense of awe. True, the older kids are, the more fun they will have on the rides. But while older kids gain the bravery and all-important height requirement for attractions, they lose the wonder.
“While younger kiddos may not remember every detail, they often can recall their own highlights years later,” says Francyne Zeltser, PsyD, a child, adolescent, and adult psychologist at Manhattan Psychology Group (and a mom herself). “Those highlights may not be the ones you, as the adult, would expect. Experiences that trigger all the senses and emotions are the ones that last. Kids might remember a silly bird eating a sandwich on the beach, but may not remember much of the hotel you stayed in.”
Stop thinking about your kid’s vacation memories and lean into your own.
I am not the first to argue that your vacation memories are just as important as your child’s, but people still seem obsessed with waiting “until kids can remember the trip.” I’m not sure if this is because parents want forever gratitude when they lay out the dough (understandable) or if they want those memories sealed in because relatives, like grandparents, are involved (totally valid). But as far as I’m concerned, your memories should come first, since you’re doing the planning and the paying. Snap pictures in your mind of your baby touching sand for the first time, of your toddler riding a ferryboat, or of your preschooler trying new foods in some other city.
“Parenting is hard work; parents should do things that they look forward to and enjoy with their kids even if their kids may not remember,” Dr. Zeltser says. “They are only young once.”
If you need more convincing: It’s surprising how many “firsts” might happen on a vacation. Given a new surrounding, a baby might take first steps or first bites, a toddler might speak new words and a preschooler might make a new poolside friend. It was on a Delaware beach vacation that my eldest learned to pedal a bike around the quiet neighborhood we were in. All of this makes a trip with a young kid thrilling, even though you’ll be clocking the events more than they are. And then you’ll forever have a cool story, like my friends who can brag that their son took his first steps in a hotel room in Japan.
Also, let me be your terrible warning that full memory starts to kick in just as preteen sass does. I’ve written before about how the joke’s on you if you wait until your children are old enough to appreciate a trip. Your kindergarten kid flipping out and jumping up and down is going to be more immediately rewarding than any sign of happiness a teen is likely to give up. Teens are hardwired to be, at best, blasé. They still have fun, they just won’t show it.
The golden age for traveling with kids might be between ages 9 to 12. But if you can swing it, travel whenever you are ready.
Writing this has given me the chance to look back and realize that probably the “golden age” for traveling with my kids — they were gleeful enough, and they remembered things — was between the ages of 9 to 12. But honestly, I enjoyed a lot of the trips we had when they were babies just as much as I enjoyed traveling with them when they were in elementary school.
Ben Franklin said, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” If there is somewhere you want to go with your kids, go when you can afford it and have the time because who knows what might happen down the road. Kids join activities that suck up time and money; you may lose the vacation days or bandwidth; grandparents aren’t getting any younger. “Parenting is an unpredictable journey,” Dr. Zeltser agrees. Go when you can go, and take a lot of pictures — with your camera and with your mind.