When my daughter was two years old, we planned our first family trip to Disney World. Being an overplanner, I did hours of research to ensure we got the most magic out of every moment. I remember reading one comment on a trip-planning message board that said something to the effect of, "Be prepared to spend hundreds of dollars and hours of planning, only to find that your child 's most magical moment is seeing real ducks in the moat around Cinderella Castle."
Indeed, the biggest smiles on my daughter's face on that trip came as we waited for the ferry boat to take us back to the Magic Kingdom after a mid-afternoon break. It had rained, and she jumped around, splashing dirty water all over her arms and legs, looking up at us with a radiant smile that no giant mouse or flying elephant could inspire.
It's an important lesson that I seem to re-learn every time our family travels--you can't predict the important moments, but you can prepare for them. For ultra-planners like me, it can be hard to set aside expectations and go with the flow. Spontaneity and flexibility are not my strong suits. But, now that my kids are older, I have the gift of looking back and recognizing the unpredictability of magical moments from our travels:
- While visiting family in Delhi, India, I assumed our trip to the Taj Mahal would be the most memorable experience. But it's the chai and cookies we shared with new friends in their tiny one-room home that made the biggest impact on my kids.
- When we went to Arches National Park last summer, it was the hotel pool, not the park, that my son was most excited about.
- A routine drive to visit family in Alabama became an unexpected lesson in kindness when our transmission died and we hitched a ride in a stranger's car.
- A silly play in Colonial Williamsburg that my son had to be dragged to gave us the inside joke of quotable phrases that bring laughter every time we quote them.
- When my mom and I shared breakfast at Animal Kingdom Lodge at Disney World, the food and the animals were great, but it was hearing about the effects of apartheid from a South African animal guide that gave us a new perspective we needed to see.
But there are also the unexpected negative memories, like on that trip to Arches when my daughter got up early to hike to Delicate Arch with me, and it was my impatient pushing that she remembers more than the arch itself. I was so insistent in seeing this wonder of nature that I missed the importance of the wonder entrusted to my care, standing right in front of me. When I try to force the magic, I end up angry at everyone for not having the fun I wanted us to have.
What I'm learning is that sometimes the most important memories are the ones where we stop to care for each other--to take a break, swim in a fun pool, share a meal with new friends, listen to someone's story. Because at the end of the day, I should be far less concerned with what fun my kids experience, and far more concerned with what kind of people they become. Their character, like mine, is forged in unexpected moments.
Traveling is the perfect opportunity for all of us to learn to deal with disappointment, to make new friends, to look for ways to share the Love we've been given. As we embark on several new trips this summer, I want to prepare to be surprised. Who knows what real magic awaits?
Catherine Parks writes and lives in Nashville, TN with her husband, two children, and a cute dog named Ollie. She's the author of Empowered and Strong, collections of biographies for middle-grade readers. You can find more of her writing at cathparks.com