Family Vagabonding: Why long term travel is good for children

There was a time when I lived a ‘normal’ life. My husband and I had the mortgage, the career, two cars and 3.5 kids. We had a house full of furniture and nice things. It was an okay way to live. I was relatively happy.

Walking on the beach in the Dominican Republic

Then somehow that all changed. Today you’ll find me exploring from Alaska to Argentina in a veggie powered truck, now with five kids — homeless, wandering, a vagabond family with few possessions — and strangely more fulfilled. Life isn’t perfect, but it holds much more adventure and fascination.

Of course, the idea of nomadic living with children doesn’t fit into society’s ‘norms’. Children need ‘stability’, routine, friends and school. As one man put it, “I think this is insane. Fast forward 20 years. You are going to have 5 messed up kids. You can’t comprehend this. Most people can. Stop this insanity and give your kids some stability, friends and a life. [Traveling] is selfish, irresponsible and idiotic. Grow up.”

This man worded it more gently when he said, “I happen to think it is a bit irresponsible of you to put your kids’ futures in jeopardy to satisfy your need for travel.  What [you are doing] is just risky.” Despite his more tactful approach, he still depicts the preconceived notions our culture regards as true. How will your children get good grades, go to college and find a good job, if their childhood is spent wandering the globe? Certainly vagabonding can’t be good for kids. Can it?

Of course the purpose of this article is not to contend that every family should be nomadic, but to tackle some of the misconceptions in regards to traveling long term with children. In Rolf’s book, Vagabonding, he outlines some of the many benefits of a wandering lifestyle. These advantages are not just beneficial for adults, but for children too.

Is this an unorthodox way to raise children? Yes, and isn’t it great? Why not create a new definition of what ‘normal’ family life looks like? We need more kids who grow into adults with an expanded global awareness, developed creative thinking skills and the ability to effectively handle change. Our kids don’t have to follow the formula of graduation, career and mortgage (and vagabonding doesn’t prevent them from doing those things, either, if that’s what they really want.)

Here’s some of the biggest reasons that long term travel and vagabonding as a family is good for children:

1. It gives them permission (and the tools) to follow their dreams


In Huehuetenango

For many people, long term travel seems like some ‘pipe dream’ that exists in that nebulous ‘someday’. In Rolf’s own words, “we see long-term travel to faraway lands as a recurring dream or an exotic temptation, but not something that applies to the here and now. Instead — out of our insane duty to fear, fashion and monthly payments on things we don’t really need — we quarantine our travels to short, frenzied bursts.”

When we travel long-term with our children, we help them to see that we can pursue the things we really want now — experiences that are memorable and meaningful — instead of waiting for a someday that will never come. It also helps them to get perspective on what truly matters in life — such as experiences over possessions — creating a strong foundation that will guide them in making long-term lifestyle choices. Vagabonding creates a unique outlook on life. It helps your children to increase their options and expand their possibilities.

2. It gives them more options for earning money when they become adults

In American society today (as well as other cultures), our ability to earn a decent income is dependent upon our capacity to ‘jump through hoops’. We have to get the grades so we can get the degree so we can build the resume. However, this is rather a limiting system. If you don’t fit into the holes just right, you become essentially unemployable (which can be a great thing).

Vagabonding with children teaches them to think outside of the box of money=job. When you travel to foreign countries, you see first hand that the majority of the world’s population earns a living from running a small business. Whether they fix cars, sell goods or offer personal services, their personal economy isn’t dependent on large corporations, but only on their own ingenuity. From Rolf again, “Vagabonding is about gaining the courage to loosen your grip on the so-called certainties of this world… It’s taking control of your circumstances instead of passively waiting for them to decide your fate.” In reality, this offers more security than the alternative.

Hiking in Guatemala

Hiking in Guatemala

As you slowly explore the world with your children, their creativity for earning money is ignited. They’ll open their own businesses (and it’s very easy to do so abroad), selling popsicles or home made goodies, teaching English or music lessons, or even writing about their experiences. They become independent, and learn to look to themselves to provide for their needs, rather than to some company who can give them a job.

3. It teaches them to live simply and let go of ‘stuff’

Naturally, if you take off to travel the world long-term, you can’t take everything with you. You have to leave some things behind, maybe things that you’re emotionally attached to. This is especially true for children.

Yet this experience in and of itself is one of the major benefits of vagabonding. It forces you to reevaluate your relationship with stuff. “Travel by it’s very nature demands simplicity.” And your children can learn to do it too — naturally and happily — if it’s approached with the right attitude.

When we first began to travel as a family, our oldest child was only four, our youngest two months old. They were attached to some of their things, but as we prepared for our upcoming move to Costa Rica, my and my husband’s enthusiasm for the adventure outweighed the discomfort of getting rid of stuff. We allowed them to choose a few prized possessions, but then reminded them that the other belongings we were eliminating so we could go have fun together as a family on the beach, or exploring jungles and waterfalls.

Fast forward six years (my oldest is now 10) and while they still enjoy owning things (although it’s not very much) they’ve learned to value the experiences that travel offers. Anytime we need to eliminate once more so we can begin a new adventure, resistance is minimal, and the excitement for exploring a new place takes center stage. They’ve learned this as a direct result of our vagabond lifestyle.

4.  It teaches them how to live in the world

Coconuts DRAgain from Rolf’s book, “The discoveries that come with travel, of course, have long been considered the purest form of education a person can acquire. ‘The world is a book,’ so goes a saying, ‘and those who do not travel read only a page.’ Vagabonding is all about delving into the thick plots the world promises, and the more you ‘read’, the better you position yourself to keep reading.”

Travel, and specifically long-term travel, is addictive because it is a process of discovering the world and learning to see it in a new way. It helps you develop an attitude of open-mindedness toward life, people and learning. It lessens prejudices and preconceptions, and helps you to find balance between planning and unpredictability. It develops confidence by teaching you that you don’t have to know exactly how you’ll do something, just that you will.

Vagabonding teaching children to set their own pace and find their own way. It teaches them to respect themselves and others, regardless of differences. It trains them on how to comfortably handle change and new environments — and to enjoy it. Long-term travel instructs kids on how to stop fretting about life’s possibilities, and instead have the courage to seize them.

5. It shows them the true meaning of stability

One of the biggest arguments against traveling with children is that they need ‘stability’, routine, structure and the security of a familiar home. But what happens to the child who is raised in that environment, and then it’s all taken from him, due to death, job change or other external circumstances?

How about the child that has all those ingredients, but lacks loving parents, or whose home is filled with abuse. Stability is not a result of staying in one place and having predictable structure day after day (in fact, you might argue that that creates instability and the inability to effectively handle change.)

Stability comes from within, and is nurtured in children by loving, caring parents who help their kids learn how to deal effectively with change (that will inevitably come), and to rely on what (should be) unchangeable — our love for one another. This can be taught to kids anywhere in the world.

Onion HikeRoutine can also be a regularity. I can read to my children every night whether we’re in a hostel in India or renting a house in Guatemala. We can share breakfast each morning, spend time pursuing our education, and explore the nuances of a new destination. Home can be wherever we are as a family, as long as there is love and mental stability on the part of the parents, and family rules that are clearly understood and lived by.

Long-term travel as a family is not to be confused with family vacations. Vacations are often short, hurried and stressful, where the goal is to fit as many fun things into as short a time as possible, or to ‘escape’ from regular life.

Contrast that to vagabonding where slow travel is the ideal. You might spend months, or years, in a destination exploring it’s nuances, becoming fluent in the language, and being immersed in the culture. Travel is life, and life is travel. There’s very little separation. It’s an ongoing experience where the duality of life is united as you rediscovery reality, and you learn to be sensitive to what is taking place in this very moment.

Isn’t that a perspective you would like your children to have?

Rachel Denning is mother to five incredible kids, long-term traveler and family travel expert. She’s currently slow-traveling from Alaska to Argentina, and blogs about The Art of Family Travel as runs a How to Fund Your Travel Interview Series. Rachel is co-author to the book, Living Deliberately: How to Create a Ridiculously Awesome Life

Posted by | Comments (8)  | February 19, 2013
Category: Family Travel

8 Responses to “Family Vagabonding: Why long term travel is good for children”

  1. Family Vagabonding Says:

    i think summer vacation is the best way to travel in many country and enjoy children and normal health and chaildren is very happy to travel another wonderful country so contrast that to vagabonding is where slow travel is the good ideal..

  2. DEK Says:

    While I don’t have a dog in this fight, I won’t let it stop me from pointing out that there is a growing literature on why an educational system designed to turn the children of the poor into good factory workers is not for everyone and that the rich and upper middle class are bailing on school. An introduction to this line of thought is at:

    The focus of this piece is pre-school, but she gets to schooling in general as the article goes on. A take-away is that if kids miss something from the traveling lifestyle, it is unlikely to be education.

  3. Sean Says:

    I love Dek’s quote “if kids miss something from the traveling lifestyle, it is unlikely to be education”. Brilliant!

    I also love that Rachel points out that “stability comes from within, and is nurtured in children by loving, caring parents”. If anything, having a more mobile lifestyle means you have to actually interact with your kids! Not just drop them off at school and soccer.

    I recently said that if the normal life is commuting, cubicles, and Costco, then it’s not for me or my family.

    Great post!

  4. Jennifer Miller Says:

    Love this Rachel! Well done. Dek, I’m stealin’ that quote… so well put!!

  5. Anastasia Olashaya-Grill Says:

    I would love to live a life like that. As it is, I have an international love affair–my boyfriend of 5 years is Australian and I am an American and we both live in our respective countries. We’d love to have stability and a family, but mostly we just want to have comfort in each other being together no matter where we are, sharing every adventure.

    I really want to get to that point. I still want to work on novels and short stories but this is looking so soul-fulfilling.

  6. renee Says:

    If I listened to anyone’s advise, I would have never left my hometown, much less live in a van and travel across America several times! The difference between a traveler and a vacationer ♥

  7. Living Outside of the Box Says:

    Wonderful article, Rachel! Although you point out that vagabonding isn’t for every family, you touch on so many great reasons why vagabonding could be beneficial for anyone and everyone (adults alike). Most of these points you bring up are lessons that are hard to learn when not traveling abroad, and we can certainly attest to these personally with our family of 5 that has been wandering the globe. And yes, vacationing is DEFINITELY different than vagabonding. Perhaps those people who argue that traveling can be so “bad” for families are ones who have never experienced something other than a vacation!

  8. Lizabeth Says:

    Hello, new to the site and just learning but could use some advise. I (female, 44) would like to take my daughter (girl 9) on an extended trip this summer but I don’t know where to start. Any suggestions on location (Panama, Caribbean, South Pacific, etc.) or reference (books, articles, websites) would be greatly appreciated.
    About us: would like the trip to be 1-3 months long, beach, nature, history and/or culture themes are all good, Im a designer by trade, budget is important (the less the better), safety for traveling is important, would be happy to do some work or volunteering. Would like an area that would allow us to easily travel to a couple different places (maybe a ferry or bus system).

    thanks so much for any advise you can give me!