Will little kids remember big vacations? Probably not. And that’s OK. Just remember the story an 11-year-old girl told Oprah after she’d traveled the world with her dying mother. She said her favorite moments were not visiting the big places, like Disney or the Eiffel Tower. It was eating Cheerios together at 2 a.m. on the back porch.

Will little kids remember playing on the beach in Puerto Rico?

Photo by Jamie Bartosch/Suburban TravelingMom
The kids enjoying the beach in Puerto Rico, which they don’t remember.

Will Little Kids Remember?

A question asked often when considering a family vacation: “Will little kids remember?” What exactly do they remember? What do they forget?  Is there a golden age when children start banking memories in their little minds? What is the best age?

While debating out loud whether to take my 6- and 3-year-olds eco-camping in Hawaii or sightseeing in Panama, my brother-in-law started laughing. “It doesn’t matter where you go,” he said mockingly, “because you know what they’re going to remember about these trips? NOTHING!”

I stared back at him in horror. Was he right?

Do my children get as much out of a trip to Wisconsin as they do from a trip to Belize?

And why didn’t I think about this $5,000 ago?

Will little kids remember big vacations?

The kids were so excited, they misspelled Wisconsin.

Will little kids remember big vacations?

When I was a kid, my travel-loving parents schlepped us all over the world. Buried in my mom’s closet are albums filled with photos of our adventures. Some are Polaroids.

We rode lifts to the top of Pikes Peak. Leaned against the pyramids in Egypt. Stood in front of Mt. Rushmore, wearing matching American flag ponchos my mom knitted for the occasion (so very 70s!).

These old photos do trigger memories of those family vacations – they didn’t take many movies in those days. But sadly, most of it’s pretty fuzzy now.

It’s the moments, not the places.

What I remember are moments, not places. I don’t recall the coastal scenery during our drive down Highway 1, but I remember stopping at a Denny’s in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where the entire staff was named Carol. I don’t remember our historical site-filled “Spirit of ‘76″ bicentennial road trip, but I remember my little sister, out of boredom, mooning a passing car on I-76 (ah, the pre-car seat era).

Are those the kinds of things my kids will remember from our expensive but interesting family vacations? Probably.

I wholeheartedly believe travel teaches children (and adults) important lessons and values that can be hard to learn here in well-to-do suburbia. It teaches them to appreciate, or at least be accepting, of other cultures. They learn to place less emphasis on material possessions and to judge someone based on the kind of person they are.

Perhaps most importantly, traveling has taught my kids that sometimes you have to go with the flow and try to make the best of a bad situation. Because things don’t always go as planned. (Flight cancellations teach that lesson real fast!) Now, isn’t that one of life’s most valuable lessons?

Videos help trigger memories.

When my kids watch videos of themselves on these trips, they seem to remember more about the experiences. Take just two words of advice from this blog: TAKE MORE VIDEOS.

Even if you do, will they remember everything? Let’s be honest: probably not.

Maybe, the reality is, I’m just taking these trips for myself. Maybe I want to go to Panama or Greece rather than to Kiddieland USA. So I convince myself that “it’s beneficial for the kids” in order to justify towing them along with us. I’m not super proud of this.

Eight years later, the kids have no memory of playing on this exclusive beach in Virgin Gorda, in the British Virgin Islands.

Photo by Jamie Bartosch/Suburban TravelingMom
The kids play in The Baths on the Virgin Gorda beach in the British Virgin Islands.

What do children remember?

In 1997, Oprah did a show featuring a dying mother, who in an effort to make her final days with her kids special, trotted them all over the globe. They went to Paris and Disney and all of the places a kid would ever want to go. They had lots of fun.

After the woman died, Oprah interviewed the kids and asked them about their favorite times with their mother. And you know what they said? It wasn’t the Magic Kingdom or the Eiffel Tower. It was the ordinary moments.

The 11-year-old daughter said something that still makes me cry every time I think about it (or watch the clip). Her favorite moment with her mother was when they both woke up in the middle of the night and ate Cheerios together on the back porch.

I think about this every time I plan a family trip now because when it comes to what little kids remember from big vacations, it is 100 percent true.

While I’m not ready to completely concede to my brother-in-law’s “They won’t remember anything” theory, I will say that Wisconsin is starting to look better to me (and my checkbook). And I’m definitely going to pack Cheerios.