I took my five-year-old on a trip to Paris

Guest post by Steve Leroux

Some of you may remember Steve — I linked to his perspectives on talking to a child about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell a while back. This new post originally appeared on Steve’s blog, steveleroux.com, home of the wonderful Papa Tips. -Ariel

Eiffel Tower

Ruby and I returned yesterday from a 12-day trip to Paris (with a dogleg to London). The vacation was amazing: Ruby is an energetic, enthusiastic, resilient, and amiable travel partner.

Planning a trip like this with Ruby was a little daunting. I was excited to take her away to a foreign culture and experience it through her eyes. The Eiffel Tower! Walks along the Seine! Stepping into a tiny shop, sampling the wares, exploring the bits and pieces of life that make that somewhere else so exciting… but as a single dad, I was also nervous: how would she handle the two long plane rides there and back? Would we find a way to meet in the middle of how a child experiences a foreign place and how an adult does?

Well, the answers are mixed.

The Plane Rides

I was so nervous about the plane ride — just she and I for 10 hours trapped in tiny seats — that I splurged on an iPad 2 and loaded it up with movies and games. The iPad turned out to be a great travel computer anyway, but on the long international flights it mostly supplemented the in-flight movies. Ruby watched the Yogi Bear movie 3 times in a row on the flight out of Paris, and only turned to the iPad between showings. Still, it was the perfect distraction and Ruby could explore whatever movies and games she wanted at her pace, leaving me to nap and read. A few minor inconveniences (and inevitable exhaustion) aside, the flights were painless.

Attitude

I’m still in awe at Ruby’s attitude and energy. She was, for the most part, a non-stop bundle of go-go-go. Whatever we suggested, wherever we wanted to go, she was up for it. The movement of travel appealed to her; riding the metro and tube and train and plane were all exciting. It was a simple joy to hold her hand and just walk the streets of these big, crowded, foreign cities. At times we both wore down, of course, and got too hot or tired or crabby. But in general, this trip really did reinforce what a special kid Ruby is: she can take something like a 15-hour travel day totally in stride and still be perfectly pleasant and social at our first bistro dinner in Paris. Damn, I’m one lucky Papa.

Travel and Play

Even though Ruby loved the trains and planes and (to a lesser extent) just walking, the destinations didn’t really impress her quite as much. Travel is so much about context that it’s really hard to appreciate why we should go out of our way to see the Most Famous Painting In The World when it looks just like all these other ones. Our trip up the Eiffel Tower was terrible; it was hot and crowded and the lines took forever. As soon as we were at the top, Ruby wanted to descend again. “But,” I said, “this is the Eiffel Tower! It’s… it’s the Eiffel Tower!” And the same happened for the Mona Lisa, and the Venus de Milo, and Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” and London’s Buckingham Palace and Crown Jewels, and a score of other destinations. We’d get there and I’d try to explain the significance and context and why it’s so cool that we are currently at This Important Thing, but a five-year-old can’t relate.

A five-year-old wants to play.

Headstands in the Jardin des Tuilieries

So we did: Ruby spent a lot of time each day at a playground, running from slide to swing to bouncy thing, just being a kid. It’s hard to be a kid when you’re in a strange city and your parent has an iron grip on your hand so that you don’t get dragged under a bus or smear snotty fingers on the Picasso. It’s hard to understand why this tiny butcher’s shop is any different than the meat case back at our local Safeway. But a swing and a slide: now that’s something Ruby understands.

Independently Traveling

My parents and sister met up with us in Paris and they took Ruby to parks and gardens and playgrounds as well, leaving me free to explore Paris’s museums and cafes and tiny shops and just walk and sit and go at my own personal, grown-up pace. There really is a difference between how a kid and an adult relate to being somewhere new; and making sure we each had room to take care of our needs really made the trip worthwhile. I couldn’t really explore the modern art of the Pompidou with Ruby by my side; I wanted to do the audio tour and read every placard and really absorb as much of it as I could. Dragging Ruby through the museum for several hours would have been a terrible experience for both of us. And meanwhile Ruby really needed to run around with other kids at a playground, but several hours each day watching her climb the exact same equipment we’d find in Seattle would have made me regret the $2000 plane tickets. Getting some time apart was necessary.

If It’s Important, Be It

The Mona Lisa! It’s an inevitable attitude of parenting: you want to do something special with your child, but you want to make sure he or she is old enough to “really appreciate it.” It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it’s something you need to fight against. If something is important to you — if an activity espouses the values you hold dear — then do it. And then do it again. It doesn’t have to be Paris every time, but if you want to raise a traveler, you need to be a traveler. If you want to raise a hiker or camper, you need to get out in the woods. Don’t wait to read her your favorite novel; read it to her every few years.

The question of whether Ruby would remember this trip often came up when discussing it with friends. I think that’s a bit of a red herring; 33 years later, I remember just a few tiny snatches from a Disney world trip I took with my grandparents when I was five. But to me the question isn’t whether she’s going to remember this trip in 30 years: it’s how it’s going to color her life next week, next month, and next year. She’ll carry the confidence of having traveled well. She’ll have the context of knowing what real-life Paris looks and sounds and smells like.

And, most importantly, we’ll both appreciate and cherish the bond she and I reinforced every day we spent together, holding hands, walking the crowded streets of Paris.

Comments on I took my five-year-old on a trip to Paris

  1. This was great! It actually made me kind of teary-eyed b/c I can’t wait to travel more with my little ones (now almost four and almost two). We took our older child to Europe when he was one and had a great time but traveling with two is a bit more daunting. I think your advice to expose your kids to the things and values you love no matter how young they are is very wise. Just pay attention to how many adults you know who tell you they love cooking or gardening or camping or classical music or art or whatever because of their parents. Wonderful piece.

  2. Wonderful! Despite our shoestring budget, my mom did everything she could to expose me to travel early, and it’s instilled in me a life-long love of exploring. Some of my best memories are of a trip to Denmark when I was a child; even though they’re patchy, they’re still so important to me! Ruby is a lucky girl, and it’s so encouraging to hear about your travels together.

    And sidenote: Copenhagen is AMAZING for kids. Legoland, Somerland (which is essentially a GIANT playground with huge slides and trampolines!) and the little mermaid statue.

  3. Great post, it sounds you two had a great time! So recognizable too! especially the part of travel times are often better for children then destinations itself. We stayed two years ago in an small artistic hotel near the moulin rouge with hubbie and 3 year old son. Traveling by train (we’re from holland)and metro in paris was the best adventure for him. He is still talking about it, and about the castle called Notre Dame. we visited disney land but left after 2 hours of horrorific business wich was no joy for all of us and moved on to visit graveyard pere lachaise (to see graves of e.g. jim morrison, edith piaf) we all had better times there. (does this makes us weird?). There were free carrousel rides in Paris in winter time which were great, and nothing better for a three year old then to get fresh croissants every morning with breakfast! Traveling with children makes you realize that joy is really in the small things of life.

    • Hi Marjolein,
      I don’t think that’s weird at all. I have expressed my desire to my boyfriend several times that I really want to visit Edith Piaf’s grave when we go to Paris together next year. I am a HUGE fan of hers. 🙂

  4. I took my then two-year-old to Barcelona a few years ago, and this has made me quite nostalgic for the trip. About -ahem- nine months later she got a little sister and we haven’t pondhopped since but I’ve been craving another trip like that lately. About the remembering thing – she doesn’t, obviously, but she asks me to tell her stories about it all the time, and loves looking at the pictures (she’s almost 5 now). I have lovely pictures of her on the wall strolling with me in El Born, posing in front of the sculptures at Parc Guell, sleeping on the train to Valencia…

  5. The last paragraph is so beautifully stated! People often ask that same thing of us “is it really worth traipsing your baby all around the world at 6 months?” and I think yes. It is all about how it shapes him here and now. And it does shape a 6 month old, just as much as a 5 year old, just as much as a 30 year old. Thanks for this post!

  6. This is great, I really enjoyed reading about your trip.
    I took my then 10 month old daughter to Italy on a work trip for a month and since then we’ve been back twice and she’s also been to a handful of other countries. I think it’s always worth taking your kids when that option is possible. My parents did it and I appreciate it so much! My daughter has been a wonderful traveler and made my time abroad so much more interesting!!

  7. Thanks for this post. I’m pregnant with our first child and already have dreams of taking her on trips at a young age! It’s nice to hear from you and other commenters as well that it can be done.

    I also just realized that my parents did the same with me when I was young. We lived in Spain when I was a toddler and I have LOTS of memories of picnics by the road, castles, tobogganing. True, the memories are snatches, but I think the experiences contributed overall to my general interest in travel and history.

  8. Great article. I was fortunate enough to have the chance to travel as a child. My parents worked in international health planning. I grew up in Cairo, Denver, Sudan, Cyprus,Yemen and Geneva. I think it helped me see that there are so many ways to live. I think my parents rule of always having a “courtesy serving” no matter what was served fostered the future foody in me.
    I totally agree with you about memory. I don’t remember it all but I still have these little cherished snapshots in my minds eye of many of the places and things we did. My wife and I are expecting in October and we’re looking forward to traveling with our little one. We are also considering living overseas for a while too.
    Thanks again for sharing this.
    Seena

  9. I was a lucky kid, and traveled to Europe 6 times between the ages of 11-16 (my dad used to find “cheap” airfares over President’s Day weekend, and we would literally go to London or Paris or Amsterdam for 4 days, plus some longer trips to visit family in Ireland). I don’t have clear memories of everything, but the travel bug bit me, badly. I went to Australia and New Zealand at 19 for a short study abroad trip, and now in my mid-20s I always take time to explore the cities I have to go to for work. On the downside, I wasn’t as interested in things then as I am now; I was much more interested in visiting the Virgin Megastore and Hanson St as a 14-year old in London than I was in seeing King’s College, but I saw enough that it stuck with me. My husband and I don’t travel much on our own, but we do go to Disney frequently-specifically during the Food and Wine festival so we can eat and drink exotic stuff. 🙂

    That’s really a long way of saying that I am so, so glad that my parents took me abroad before I was really old enough to appreciate the trips themselves; they had a profound effect on me, and I really hope we can do the same for our future kids.

  10. A word of caution here – I feel my parents dragging us round historic landmarks at too early an early age actively put me and my sister off exploring off such places for a long time.

    As a kid, this temple or that museum mean nothing to you, as you haven’t learnt the context yet – you would much rather run around and play with other children. For a very long time, my association with sightseeing was sitting in churches and galleries bored out of my skull whilst my parents got upset with me for not being as interested as they were. And this association continued all through my teenage years, when I think that I probably would have started becoming interested had I not already decided in my head that all sightseeing was ‘boring’ (I was very interested in visual arts otherwise). It took me till my early 20s before I started to change my thinking and get genuine pleasure from seeing new places.

    So kudos to you for understanding that a small child is not going to be interested in the Pompadour or understand why the Mona Lisa is important. This is truly not meant to be an insult to anyone in the comments, but my parents also thought that if they took us to these places at an early age we would have a love of travel installed for life, when in fact it actively put us off for a while.

  11. i’m poor. 🙁
    but if someone can take their kid to paris and splurge on an ipad2, theres no reason why i cant drive a few hours away and splurge on some crayons and paper. this was sweet.

  12. Love this! I took my 5 year old to Paris in April! She loved it! I fell in love with it too. It was amazing just walking around, like, this is really real, not just stuff in history books! I got an awesome deal and our flights were only about $750 total round trip….for both our tickets! I can’t wait to go back!

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