Melanie Gow explains why having kids shouldn't stop you from travelling adventurously – and why you should actually travel more.
We were two metres underground and ten metres into an old mineshaft. The tunnel entrance was like a full moon behind us. All the sound from outside was cut off, but the still air, around us was alive with quiet clicks.
The local Luhyia tribesman, Wilberforce Okeka, silently motioned us to crouch and crawl under a collapsed support through to the end of the tunnel. We stood up into a cold, dark blackness that began to move, the clicks grew insistent and something brushed through my hair.
We flicked on a torch.
Caught in the beam a foot above our heads were hundreds of bats. Two-inch, big-eared, and very rare Mouse Bats.
At that moment my two and a half year old son kicked to get down off my back and reached up into the air. Suddenly the bats took flight swarming past us, and he was caught in a whirlwind of chiffon thin skin so close their membrane-wings skimmed his face on the way past.
We were about an hour’s walk into Kakamega forest, the last remnant of rainforest in East Africa, in the remote western province of Kenya; and glad we had not hung up the backpack just because we had acquired a pushchair.
That little toddler is now aged 17 and has a 14 year old brother, and they have travelled the south east of Australia, ridden for 96 hours on trains north to south down India, tramped bits of Africa, taken a road-trip across America and still gone to school, had bouncy-castle birthday parties and watched too much television.
There are so many reasons why travel shouldn’t stop just because you have kids; you just need to parent daringly.
With a few minor adjustments in expectations you can still do something off the beaten track. In the beginning simply switching from public transport to a car makes everything possible. With a 3-month-old baby in a car seat we did 1,300 miles around Scotland with all the stuff we needed to hand. Imagine peeling fresh langoustines on the deck of the ferry to the Isle of Mull, while the waves rock the baby to sleep.
It’s more gratifying now because you have someone else to share it with, who matters to you. You can see the wonder through their blazing innocence just as much as you are showing them the world you understand. Imagine how much more fun hunting for Easter eggs is when you’ve hidden the chocolates in the gardens of the Taj Mahal.
Children make great ambassadors; everyone the world over has them so you have something in common immediately. You share the same hopes and frustrations, and children speak a wordless language that everyone understands.
They are irresistible to serving staff, market stallholders, passersby and other families. Imagine being taught to set a campfire and roast S’mores by local construction workers, on a beach by a lake in Michigan.
Traveling with your kids is hands down the best possible way for parents and children to bond with each other. Your experiences take on a legendary status and create an enduring family narrative.
It is a direct way of showing how important they are to you, it is the most powerful feeling to have someone choose to spend one of the most valuable things - time - with you. Imagine doing that while watching elephants at a watering hole in South Africa.
It inevitably provides a host of teachable moments, unintentionally they will learn things like economics, politics, history, geography and sociology, but you can organically build in practical things like decision-making, map reading, compromise, endurance, patience, self-discipline and acceptance.
The world will teach them that there are different normals, and simple empathy. Imagine witnessing your child spontaneously share their meal with a street beggar in Nairobi city.
In the tender struggle with the unfamiliar, in collaborating with chance they will develop their sense of self-worth. In learning to accept uncertainty and dance with the unknown they will also have practical experiences to call on all their life. Imagine being ill on the side of a mountain 20 kilometres from the nearest town, believing you can’t go any further and having to do it anyway.
Our world is growing in its demand for globally-minded people and, whether they are A*s or Es academically, they are going to need more to stand above the fray.
We can get them a top education, ride their homework, enroll them in extracurricular activities, helicopter over their clothes choices, get them good dental care, and feed them, the same as everyone else. Imagine their university application form after they have walked 500 miles across a country; that’s a personal statement that will stand out.
Travel is actually a space in which you can let them fail, make decisions, think, be, gaze at the cosmos and understand our place in the universe. There is more to the human condition than the expectations a secular life can offer. Deep inside It changes their idea of living, and what life is about.
Travel makes your children wise, fully-engaged and centered. It raises them not to have more than you have, but to be more than you are. It raises them not to collect more but to connect more, to doubt themselves less and dare more. To have more serenity at their core, but to be strong in their hearts. To be soft in their touch but truly resolute; purposeful, and determined in a beautiful, measured way.
There is no greater test of what you can do, or more exceptional self-development, than to parent daringly. Taking your kids out into the world builds your leadership skills, challenges strengths, exposes weaknesses and grows your confidence. It gives you a trust in yourself that is priceless; it strips away everything that has made you who you have become and reveals who you are.
Why would you give up something you are passionate about? The most important reason is the reason you think travel is important to you, that is the reason you need to travel with your kids. Travel becomes part of your legacy.
War zones may be on your no list, but as to the rest? In today’s connected world a smart phone is a great safety net, a credit card and insurance will cover the rest. if you start out small with sensible health precautions, gradually everyone becomes a better traveler. With a little imagination, a bit of patience and a lot of resilience, you will see the world with your children. And they will become lifelong companions, whether on the road or not.
You will be exhausted, I’m not going to lie, but kids are tiring so you may as well spend your 40th birthday watching the a sun set over Pushkar, in Rajasthan, northern India than stay home and be sleep deprived. We did all this, you may do more, go farther, dream bigger, but In less time than you can imagine they will be the ones who ask you to do something extraordinary with them.
One day you too may find yourself walking with your 12 and 16 year old, for 33 exceptional days over the Pyrenees and across Spain for 800km, and it’ll be their idea - if you have played it right.
So go through the pain, pack those kids on your back, and parent daringly.
Melanie Gow is a writer, speaker and photographic artist who believes life is a brief shot at something incredible. Her book, Walking With Angels, is the inspirational story of walking the Camino de Santiago with her sons, aged 12 and 16, and is available on Amazon. For more details about Melanie and her book, visit her website, www.myofficetoday.co.uk.