Things Don't Have to Be ‘Kid-Friendly’ to Be Kid-Friendly

Feb 13, 2018 at 11:00 a.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

As parents, it can feel like we're expected to abide by certain unwritten rules. Many of these "rules" are just common sense — but it is also healthy to challenge commonplace parenting ideas every once in a while. For one thing, it's about time we reconsidered — even did away with — the term “kid-friendly," especially when it concerns family travel.

When you see an ad for a kid-friendly travel destination, the scene is always the same: Jubilant kids are playing in a colorful, artificially constructed, totally fun playground environment. Clean-cut, über-friendly staff members are dancing and playing with the kids. Parents are lounging on the sidelines, clinking their cocktails and reveling in the respite from trying to keep their kids entertained. This is all well and good, but it has absolutely nothing to do with traveling to and spending time in Mexico (or Florida or Jamaica or Indonesia or you name it), which you would need to do in order to achieve this scene. You've essentially been sold a sanitized experience for your kids and a glorified date night for parents.

You might be visualizing some sort of Disney vacation here, but my intention is not to knock Disney specifically. Rather, the idea is to challenge the whole ethos surrounding what has been commonly sold and marketed as "the kid-friendly vacation experience" and to ensure parents understand what may be lost by restricting family travel to such destinations.

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In short, a place does not have to be kid-specific or even marketed as kid-friendly to be appropriate — or better yet valuable — for humans under age 18. There is a way for parents to expose their children to authentic and uncensored experiences of new people, foods and cultures around the world.

Visiting new cities and countries provides kids with a unique learning experience that cannot be duplicated in the classroom. For example, when I took my kids on a 60-day road trip across the U.S., they engaged directly with historical exhibits on slavery in the South, the Founding Fathers in Virginia and early prisons in Philadelphia. Sure, much of this material may be taught to my kids eventually in school, but that will pale in comparison to their real-life experiences and interactions traveling the country themselves.

If you're lucky enough to have the time and money to take your kids on a trip, why would you take them to a homogenous, sugar-coated, "kid-friendly" resort that feels like it could be... absolutely anywhere?

Sure, a downtown bar with live music isn't marketed as kid-friendly, but who says it isn't kid-friendly? If kids are allowed in the door, guess what: It's kid-friendly. Some parents may feel uncomfortable at this thought (kids in a bar?!) but there can be great educational value in taking kids to certain places they may not otherwise see.

Another example: In Edinburgh, Scotland, I desperately wanted to take my kids (who were both under age 5) on a tour of the catacombs under the city. I called several different tour companies, but none would permit kids under age 13. Finally, we found a company that didn't have a strict age requirement — but it was a torture chamber museum tour. Yep, we all got to experience the catacombs and our kids got an early education on medieval history. I took my kids to a torture museum, and I see no problem with that whatsoever.

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If you restrict your family travels to specifically kid-friendly vacation resorts, what are you missing? For one thing, the richness and authenticity of experiencing a real place with real history. By navigating a bustling city or a foreign country, kids will learn to adapt to new environments and appreciate the richness and diversity of life experiences in a variety of places. Their worldview will inevitably grow.

Second, if you keep your own entertainment separate from your kids’ entertainment by simply dropping them off at a resort's kids club, you will inevitably miss out on shared moments of discovery and adventure that so often occur naturally when you travel as a family. Why not plan an adventure with your kids? That way, you can engage in enjoyable activities together — such as dancing and listening to live music or visiting unique local museums and historical sites.

Of course, people travel for so many different reasons. Simply getting out of the house with your kids can have tangible benefits, improving family connectedness and even health. And if your travel goal is simply to escape the daily routine, that's great. But if your goal is the purposeful expanding of your kids' horizons, you are less likely to find that on a "kid-friendly" resort vacation.

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Ask yourself this: What do you really expect your kids to learn at an amusement park or any environment that's been constructed purely to deliver constant thrills and entertainment? Then ask yourself: What might those same kids learn by exploring the streets, sights and natural beauty of cities and towns all around the world — each with unique locals, languages, customs, foods and cultures?

I believe it's time we parents abandoned the notion of "kid-friendly" and instead embraced the infinite potential of experiences that exist in the real world. If you step outside that kid-friendly box, you'll likely discover a more rewarding and fulfilling travel experience — for you and your kids.

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