Kids Living

Want Happy Kids? Experts Say Take That Trip

Written by Carolyn Moore

The swimsuits are still in a heap in the corner of my dining room. Two weeks later, they’re the only remaining physical evidence of our recent family vacation to the ocean, one we counted down to with our kids for weeks ahead of departure from our home in the Midwest.  

And gosh, we had the best time—relatively easy air travel with four kids in tow; no one got sick or hurt; we swam and laughed and giggled and played and recharged as a family. It was the kind of trip filled with memory-making and experiences that brought us closer together and will, I hope, result in lifelong memories for our kids. 

New research from the Journal of Consumer Research shows it very likely will.  

The April 2018 study found giving kids experiential gifts—like a trip or family time— has a longer and more formative impact than buying them things. And from a parenting perspective, it makes total sense—just think of how excited your kids get to ride on an airplane, or swim in the ocean, or visit faraway relatives. Then think about the last toy you bought at Target . . . do you know where it is? I sure don’t. 

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It’s not that gift-giving in the form of material things is bad practice; as they say, everything in moderation. But so often, we parents fall back on excuses to wave off taking vacations: “Oh, buying plane tickets is so expensive, maybe in a couple years,” or “It’s such a hassle to pack for the whole family to go to the beach, maybe we should just take the trip alone and leave the kids with a sitter.” 

And while financial responsibility and time as a couple are important considerations, they shouldn’t stop families from ever taking the plunge and spending time away from the regular routine of life at home together. If making the time can foster lasting emotional gains and stronger family relationships, who wouldn’t want that for their kids? 

Thinking back on my own childhood, I can see the truth of this approach. My parents used to load my two brothers and me up for long car trips and the occasional airplane ride, and the memories we made on those excursions are still treasured today. In fact, so many of the stories and touchstones my siblings and parents and I share now, as adults, center around those vacations and adventures—but I couldn’t tell you what our favorite Christmas gifts were or what presents I got on my 10th birthday. 

There was the night my mom barricaded our family of five into a tiny Super 8 bathroom when she was sure she’d heard a gunshot from a raucous party down the hall. 

And the way my big brother would, without fail, plunk himself down in the backseat of the car long before the rest of the family was ready to go and heave loud, irritated sighs.  

Then there was the time my dad tried to toss coins for the toll out the window of our still rolling car and missed the basket, and we kids spent the rest of the trip absolutely positive the state of Florida would track him down and haul him off to jail.

We weren’t rich in a monetary sense—and my husband and I certainly aren’t either—but my parents made sure we were growing up rich with experiences and love and time. We spent time laughing, playing, bickering, learning—and we did it together. It’s those memories, that time, that adds color and context to my childhood—and purpose to my own parenting. 

And now, it’s just a bonus that research backs it up. 

You might also like:

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Why Tired Mothers Stay Up So Late

We Do Family Outings Even When Money is Tight

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About the author

Carolyn Moore

Carolyn traded a career in local TV news for a gig as a stay-at-home mom, where the days are just as busy and the pay is only slightly worse. She lives in flyover country with her husband and four young kids, and occasionally writes about raising them at Assignment Mom