Have Child, Will Travel

Bringing my kid on my around-the-world adventures helped me see her in new and unexpected ways

By Diane Selkirk from the toronto star Published Jun 17, 2024 12:23:28 IST
Have Child, Will Travel photos courtesy of diane selkirk

The first time my daughter, Maia, realized I was leaving on a trip without her, she was alarmed. She was three, and as a new travel writer, I was excited about a solo visit to South Carolina. Seeing photos of where I was going, she didn’t hold back her toddler despair. “Why did you even have me if you were just going to leave me behind?” she sobbed.

I tried to tell her that someday she’d understand the lure of travel. But as my husband, Evan, pried her off my leg so I could leave, I wondered if my solo trips would be worth the effort of going without her.

Returning home after a few days away, I felt energized and inspired. The mini jars of hotel jam I brought back were a hit, and Maia was happy to hear about my trip. But this was the age of learning about compromises. As in: “You have to wear a coat, but we’ll compromise and you can choose which one.” She told me I could keep going on trips for work—but we’d compromise: She’d come with me.

Travelling is something Evan and I hoped Maia would love. She was born on our sailboat, six years into a slow adventure through 12 countries, Mexico, Panama and Guatemala among them. Wanting her to know her grandparents, we headed back home to Vancouver when she was 14 months old.

Our goal was to set out sailing again when she was seven, an age when she’d be able to remember the voyage, as well as be independent enough for us all to enjoy extended family travel. Until then, the plan was for me to travel on my own and build a writing career while we took Maia on short family trips.

But then, a year after that pivotal trip to South Carolina, an invitation came to experience the Rocky Mountaineer on a parent-child journey through the Rockies. And as terrifying as it seemed to take a preschooler on a luxury train, the trip sounded too good to pass up.

Dressed in her fanciest train-riding clothes, four-year-old Maia watched me take notes about the scenery as we chugged along the Fraser River in B.C. Wanting to prove her worth as an assistant, she began interviewing the Australian couple across the aisle from us. Unable to spell more than a few words, she drew their answers in crayon.

The woman told Maia she’d dreamed about a train ride through the Rocky Mountains ever since she was little, when a Canadian relative sent her a scenic calendar for Christmas. A photo of a mountain with a bighorn sheep in the foreground fuelled a lifelong travel goal.

Determined to help our new Aussie friends spot the exact mountain and sheep (no one had the heart to tell Maia it had likely moved along), we sat together at lunch. Turning down the kids’ meal, Maia requested the salmon. She explained that ever since she was little, she’d dreamed of travelling the world with her parents, and because kids’ meals might not always be available, her food motto was “try everything.”

I was surprised when Maia ended up being such an easy travel companion. Even though I loved my solo trips (and she still accused me of abandoning her), we found a special rhythm on the road together.

When she was six, we flew to the Riviera Maya in Mexico. I was impressed by how cheerfully fearless she was when we swam in cenotes—underground chambers of water—or snorkelled along a reef, and bemused by how she cleverly worked out that she could order chocolate cake from room service. But it was on the flight home, when my glued-to-my-hip kid said it was okay that the airline didn’t seat us together, that I realized how much travel was shaping her.

Research, including a 2016 study by the Student and Youth Travel Association, says that travel can expand a kid’s world, helping them become more empathetic and adaptable while boosting their creativity and imagination. As we set off sailing again on another circumnavigation—this one to almost 30 countries and eight years long—we saw this in action.

In Fiji, nine-year old Maia was captivated by the compassionate women chiefs we met and decided she wanted to become a leader. During a trip to Sri Lanka when she was 13, she learnt how the coin flip of your birth country can affect your opportunities in life. By the time we were in the Maldives a few months later, she was more interested in how a democracy can thrive or fail than she was in the beaches.

When we finished up our travels and returned home to Vancouver for her high school education, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to learn that our daughter had other ideas: Maia was thrilled when, after months of interviews, she was awarded a place to finish high school at Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa in Eswatini. It was my turn to be left behind.

My mother told me I should have expected that a kid raised sailing around the world would develop her own wanderlust. But during that first airport goodbye, I wanted nothing more than to grab her leg and beg her not to abandon me.

Compared to the goofy 17-year-old I’d bid goodbye to, the 21-year-old woman who came home from Eswatini and, later, from university in France, seemed mature and unfamiliar. It was a trip to Tofino, B.C., in April 2023 that helped us reconnect. Travel has always helped me see Maia more clearly. It’s as though by stripping away everything familiar, all that’s left is her.

Over a plate of herring roe on hemlock, I saw that her “try everything” motto hadn’t changed. As her eyes welled up while watching a heart-wrenching Tla-o-qui-aht dance about the loss of Indigenous identity that was performed during the naauu, a series of events that included a gorgeous traditional feast, I realized that her compassion had only deepened.

The next day, we travelled by boat to the Big Tree Trail at Wanachus-Hilthuuis (Meares Island) Tribal Park. Shaded by the towering spruce, hemlock and cedar, she listened to the guardian—a steward who manages the land according to traditional and contemporary Indigenous law—tell the story of the ‘War in the Woods’, a series of Indigenous-led blockades in the 1980s and ’90s to stop clearcutting on the nearby Clayoquot Sound, north of Tofino.Looking up at the monumental old-growth trees and then back to me, Maia recalled some of the tales I’d told her about attending the protests to save the ancient forests when I was her age.

I could see myself come into focus for her—not just as her mum but as a fellow traveller. She grabbed my hand and I waited for her to speak, but we just walked among the trees, absorbing the moment, making another memory.


© 2023, Diane Selkirk. From Travel has helped me see my daughter more clearly, The Toronto Star (13 May 2023), thestar.com

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