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Eight-year-old Julian Elia stands in front of the Taj Mahal and assesses the magnitude of the white marble wonder towering above him.

"It's bigger than the things I've built with Lego," he says.

The Indian mausoleum is one of eight destinations he has visited as the co-star of the Canadian show Are We There Yet?, in which a brother and sister travel to exotic locales no plastic block can recreate.

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But Julian is not the only youngster getting a first-hand view of the wonders of the world, places previous generations of children would have seen only in picture books.

Even preschoolers are accompanying Mom and Dad on Nepalese treks and deep-sea dives, African safaris and European art tours - trips once considered appropriate adventures for midlife, not March Break.

"In the last two years, we're definitely seeing more of a trend towards taking kids on more exotic trips," says Allison Eaton of Flight Centre North America. "[Parents] see it as a great opportunity to kind of open up the world for their children."

But do junior jet setters really have something to gain from trading Wiis for wanderlust? Or are they simply being dragged along by a new wave of affluent, affected parents who wouldn't be caught dead at Disneyland? (Sure, the neighbours take an annual trip to Hawaii, but my family summers in Ulan Bator.)

All of which prompts the question: Is it time to leave the kids at home?

"I just don't understand it," Arthur Frommer says of travelling with children. Yes, that Frommer, the founder of the famous guidebooks. "How does the child benefit and how does the parent benefit?"

He believes that taking children, and even young teens, overseas interferes with adults' ability to enjoy the trip and bores kids themselves, who would rather be at home with their friends.

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According to the Kids Say Vacation Survey, conducted by travel industry experts YPB&R, the majority of kids aged 6 to 17 just want to go to theme parks, the beach or on a cruise - suggesting that more exotic trips hold little appeal.

That's why Frommer has for years discouraged parents from taking their families abroad, writing "NO!" in big black letters in his replies to readers asking whether it's appropriate to pack kids' bags.

GAP YEAR GIFTS NO MORE

But parents aren't heeding his advice. Travel agents are noticing that trips to Europe are no longer saved until after university, but given as bar mitzvah gifts or high-school graduation presents. A 2007 American Express survey found that 68 per cent of children had travelled internationally before the age of 17.

And a whole new travel industry is evolving around far-flung family vacations, with products, custom tours and even guidebooks designed for little eyes taking in the big world.

In January, The Rough Guide to Travel with Babies and Young Children appeared on shelves, offering advice on when to take time off school, how best to breastfeed in foreign locales and why kids will love Russian dumplings called pelmeni.

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Online, travel cots and portable bed rails are marketed to parents who want to bring the toddler along to that Thai guest house.

Family blogs chronicle round-the-world journeys, with snapshots of eight-year-olds beaming on the beaches of Mozambique and sampling the fare in Santiago, Chile.

"I was quite calm when I found myself checking in for a 10-hour flight to Kyrgyzstan with a three-month-old baby," writes Saffia Farr, a British blogger living in Egypt. "Children are more adaptable and capable than we give them credit for."

In fact, exotic adventures are now the stuff family vacations are made of, travel experts say, as parents look for unique experiences to share with their kids.

And forget booking the family into a safe chain hotel. Eaton says many families are now looking for rental homes in Europe, South America and Asia. They're also signing the whole family up for cooking classes, language lessons and even foreign volunteer gigs.

"To go all the way to Southeast Asia and stay at the Hyatt kind of takes away from what they're trying to show their kids," she says. "We're in such a world of consumption that a lot of parents want to show their kids, 'This is how lucky you are.' "

This is the lesson that Pauline Frommer says was instilled in her by her father, Arthur, who reluctantly took her with him on his travels when she was young as he and his wife built their guidebook empire.

'KIDS CAN HANDLE IT'

Now the author of her own award-winning travel books, all of which include chapters on bringing the kids, Pauline takes her two daughters on many of her trips. Her nine-year-old, Veronica, has visited China, Brazil, Italy, Ireland, the Czech Republic and Costa Rica. And she hasn't shielded her from the harsher realities of the places they visit.

"Seeing the horrific poverty, people living in shacks ... it allows her to realize in a very visceral way that we in North America have very different lives than the vast majority of people in the world," she says. "I think it shapes her whole perspective and makes her a better person."

J.J. Johnson, the creator of the series Are We There Yet?, agrees. He came up with the concept of the show to demonstrate just how adaptive kids like Julian are when they travel, and says they undoubtedly understand and enjoy the world around them.

"The fact is kids can handle it, and every trip they take doesn't have to be to a theme park," he says.

Mind you, on trips to every exotic destination imaginable - from Paris to Peru, Kenya to Cambodia - Johnson admits that his stars don't always react with enthusiasm. There have been tantrums, boredom and confusion.

"The Eiffel Tower is a beautiful building, but it's not always going to hold their attention if they can't climb it," he says. "A lizard on the ground is more interesting than Mayan temples."

So will the kids remember anything other than exotic animals and general ennui?

About the only thing I retained from my regular travels to Britain as a child is an enduring fear of pigeons, instilled in me when my older sister poured a cup of birdseed on my head during a trip to Trafalgar Square.

However, Johnson believes that just the act of exploration, the journey itself, can expand children's horizons and improve their attitude.

When Julian and his six-year-old sister, Rosie, returned from a trip to Kenya with the show, they did a presentation about the country at school, prompting their classmates to raise money for African students. "Just the fact that they're saying 'Kenya' at age 6, that's what we were hoping for," Johnson says.

CONTEXT VERSUS CACHET

But not everyone buys the educational explanation for taking kids travelling at a young age.

Arthur Frommer says that, until the age of 14 or 15, kids lack the ability to contextualize what they are seeing and that they retain little from the experience.

When the Kids Say Vacation Survey asked children what activities they most enjoyed while travelling, the majority said swimming, staying in a hotel and staying up late.

Frommer believes that parents are simply buying into a consumer trend and that the travel industry is pushing the beneficial impact of childhood travel to increase the average ticket price of family vacations.

In a survey done by National Geographic Traveller and

Yahoo! Travel, 44 per cent of respondents said the budget for family trips has got bigger since their own youth, and Frommer doesn't think this added expenditure is having any impact.

"Not until they reach an age of thinking and reflection at which they can take in the fact that other people are following different lifestyles, different religious theologies, does it have any impact," he says. "I'm not sure that the child understands that."

Dr. Michele Borba, a parenting expert and author of Don't Give Me That Attitude! and Building Moral Intelligence, takes the middle ground. She says kids can internalize lessons about different cultures, classes and lifestyles, but families don't have to travel to have those conversations.

"There's nothing wrong with introducing your child to another culture, another experience, another way of life. That's wonderful," she says. "But you don't need to take them around the world to do that. You can probably take them 10 miles down the road to get the same thing."

Having kids volunteer, visit museums or just read books about other cultures can expose them to new ideas and attitudes, she says, without the high price tag of having the whole clan board a plane.

And Borba says families who can afford such trips should think about why they're taking them, whether they're just trying to build their child's résumé or win their affection, or to encourage genuine interests in foreign cultures.

"If people can't give you the specifics of how they're going to broaden their kids' horizons, then it becomes a great first-class trip and the child learns that they can get a Club Med encounter," she says. "So you have to look in the mirror."

There is also the danger that children can absorb unintended lessons during their travels - those of class and exclusivity.

Trips abroad expose children to a service industry dedicated to picking up their towels, lifting them onto elephants and keeping them entertained. "We all get spoiled during travel," Borba says. "I think you should say up front, this isn't going to be happening when we get back home."

TODDLERS IN BUSINESS CLASS

And what about other travellers, ones who might be making a once-in-a- lifetime pilgrimage to the Pyramids and be surprised to find a toddler on their tour?

Just as many moms and dads now believe that it's acceptable to wheel their king-sized Bugaboo through a restaurant, some travellers fear that the sight of strollers will become commonplace at the Great Wall or on business class flights to Tokyo. (Bugaboo, in fact, offers tours in cities such as Rome, Barcelona and Sydney.)

Which is why Pauline Frommer says parents should think about the enjoyment of other travellers when considering a trip with children, as well as the attitudes of locals.

Before taking her older daughter on a group tour to China, for example, she worried that she would act up and annoy others on the trip. "That's why I don't go to fancy restaurants with my kids," she says, "because I don't think it's fair to the other diners."

Then again, on a visit to Italy when her daughter was 14 months old, waitresses at restaurants would often take care of the baby for the duration of the meal.

"It's like all cultural issues: You need to be respectful of the place you're going and you need to do advance research about what the issues will be," she says.

"In some ways, it broke down barriers and, in others, it created a big barrier."

As for the kids? Pauline doesn't think far-flung childhood trips create snobbery. Or that they will ruin kids for travel as adults.

One reader of her guidebooks wrote a letter saying she was considering taking her 15-year-old to Paris, but worried that the girl wouldn't have the experience of visiting the city as an adult for the first time.

"Paris is not going to be the same when she's an adult," Frommer says. "There's always something new and exciting to discover."

She remembers travelling with her parents as a young girl and is dismayed by her father's belief that she gained little from the experience.

"It's always odd to me that he feels that way because I'm a product of that," she says. "I think I must have been a real pain in the ass when I was a child and totally soured him on it."

Siri Agrell is a reporter with Globe Life.

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