Paddling with kids is pretty hard and it takes a lot of energy and patience. A simple afternoon outing takes far longer to pack and unpack from than the outing itself. The experience is not one you might call "enjoyable" in the standard use of the word. However, the rock-star parent feeling lasts longer than any frustrations, and little-by-little you'll condition them for longer trips. In this post I'll cover some of the things I've learned over the years of "enjoyable" short day outings. Another post will cover multi-day canoe trips.
Age and Ability
My daughter was around 18 months old when we did a canoe trip, and honestly it wasn't awesome. Kids that young have no concept of balance and zero patience. Fortunately, older cousin, Emily, was along for the ride. If you're going to paddle with toddlers, you really must bring a super cousin along. I continued paddling with my very young kids, but I started to enjoy it more when they were 4+ years old. I'd say a kid can start making a noticeable contribution to the paddling effort at around age 9 or 10. Up until then they are best at creating drag or paddling backwards.
Real canoeing ability doesn't come along until... I'll let you know when. I guess we'll find out this summer on the Allagash when the 10, 13, and 15-year olds rotate out into a canoe by themselves.
So what I'm saying is, you'll get good at paddling a full-sized canoe solo.
A canoe is hands-down the easiest vessel of choice for paddling with kids. Plenty of room to spread out and space for multiple kids in one boat. Most of this blog post will be focused on canoeing, but it's totally possible to kayak and paddleboard with kids. In fact, some of our most fun outings included an assortment of vessels that the kids swapped around.
Here's an area where I'd advise investing in the good stuff. The higher-end PFDs are simply more comfortable, and that's critical when trying to convince a kid to like something. I look for PFDs that are short in the torso. They end up being thicker, but there's a huge benefit to not having the PFD ride up to their ears. Both the NRS Crew and L.L.Bean Discovery PFDs have served us well.