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How Much Should You Push Your Children When You Travel?

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One of the major reasons my husband and I travel with our kids is to broaden their horizons.  To do that, we have to encourage them to do things on trips that sometimes makes them a bit uncomfortable.  But there is always a question of degree.  How much is too much?  Knowing when to push your child and when to pull back is a very tough tightrope to walk.

Pushing Kids During Travel - Grand Canyon 2

Moments before the epic bike crash.

On my family’s recent spring break road trip, we pushed our daughter, seemingly to the limit, a few times and wondered whether we went a bit too far.  The first episode took place at the Grand Canyon when we decided to take a bike tour of the South Rim.  We rented a bike trailer to pull our then 18 month old son, but decided that our almost 6 year old could bike it alone.  She had recently become quite cycling expert back home.  We knew we were pushing her, but thought she was ready for the challenge.  When we arrived to rent our bikes, we discovered that the available children’s bikes only had hand brakes.  Back home, my daughter used pedal brakes.  We were in completely new territory on steep terrain where braking was very important.

Pushing Kids During Travel - Grand Canyon 1

Smiling through the scrapes at the Grand Canyon.

While we didn’t fear there was any real risk she was going to bike herself right off the Grand Canyon’s edge, I was worried all was not going to go well.  Unfortunately my fears proved valid.  While heading down a steep hill, my daughter took a pretty serious face-first spill when she pulled on the handbrakes too hard and skidded out.  No stitches were needed, but she still has a scar on her chin 2 months later from the fall.  We had a harrowing time trying to get her and her bike back down to our hotel while she was fairly inconsolable.

Lesson learned?  Not yet.

Pushing Kids During Travel - Sedona

Sliding Rock in Sedona in spring.

A few days later, we pushed the boundaries with her again in Sedona, Arizona. We made a stop at Slide Rock, a natural rock slide fed by snow melt runoff.  In the spring when the runoff is the greatest, the current is quite strong.  My daughter was by far the youngest child braving the frigid rushing water that day.  Although she’s a good swimmer, her experience has mostly been in the pool.  At our urging, she went for it, with my husband nearby for water safety.  The experienced frightened her a bit (perhaps more due to the temperature than to the current), and we had a few tears and a lot of protesting at the end of it all.

Pushing Kids During Travel - Sedona 2

Dad and daughter post-slide in Sedona.

After our trip, I second guessed these two decisions for awhile.  Did I push her too much?

With the benefit of a little time and perspective, I have ultimately concluded that the mishaps were well worth it.  While she was upset in the moment, she is certainly not emotionally scarred by any of these experiences.  The only lingering ill-effect is probably going to be a slight scar on her chin when all is said and done.  But a few scars are the marks of a childhood well-lived.

In fact, she seems to have been empowered by these experiences.  Our next family trip a few weeks later was to Walt Disney World, where she was ready to ride every coaster Disney could throw at her.  She had confined herself to the more moderate thrill rides in the past.  Tower of Terror?  No problem.  Rock N Roller Coaster?  Let’s go.

Pushing Kids During Travel - Rock N Roller Coaster

Determined to go on the coaster but perhaps second guessing that decision in the moment of blast off!

How do you know, however, when something is too much for your kids?  I think my success (or perhaps, more accurately, my avoidance of major failure) ultimately came in knowing and respecting my daughter’s personality.  Some kids are more resilient than others.  Some will be turned off from an activity permanently if they have an early traumatic experience.  Some will rise to the challenge even while fussing and complaining in the moment.  My daughter is fundamentally bold.  She wants to do and experience things.  She is okay being pushed even though she will voice her complaints mightily in the process.  We ultimately respected her personality and helped her grow by challenging her.

Could I have done these experiences much better?  Heck, yeah.  If I had it all to do over again, I would have done my research so I could have known how much objectively I would really be pushing her.  While I’m usually a planning junkie, I didn’t do enough planning to recognize what risks we were facing in these two destinations until we were there.  Both of these situations would have been better if I had prepared more.  That’s the lesson I learned for next time.  We’re still going to keep taking risks, but perhaps just more informed ones.

Have you had a moment in your travels where you have pushed your kids too far?  Leave your stories and words of wisdom in the comments.

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Tuesday 22nd of March 2016

I appreciate such honesty! Thank you. I, too, think I push my kids to their limits! But I've learned that We all won't know what our limits & capacities are unless we push through challenges. Needless to say, my 9 yr old seem to be fearless & resilient in a lot of stress that normal life throws at her. And yes, we are there to catch her in case she fails. This is the time, for when she's 25, I'd like to think she'll come to me but y'know how that goes.....Thanks for the great article! Karla G

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Emma Day

Friday 26th of June 2015

Wow, what a little superstar! My 8year old couldn't cycle that far. We don't tend to push our daughter that much but she's pretty fearless anyway. We've been known to play-down the odd rollercoaster to encourage her to get on it before and she usually gets off shouting "can I go on again?"

Kids are very resilient and whilst obviously putting their safety first, if they do have an accident it's important they get back in the saddle so they don't build up a fear. When they complete things that push them a little, the sense of pride and achievement on their faces is priceless.