When families first announce their plans for extended travel, many of them are hit with repeated questions about their child’s education. Too often, the parents of traveling kids are seen as selfish. Adults feeding their own desires at the expense of their child’s education and “normal” school experience.
The reality is that most traveling parents have thought long and hard about what their child’s education will look like on the road. The vast majority are traveling to enhance the education their youngest family members receive. Socialization, academics, and personal growth are on the minds of every parent who chooses a traveling lifestyle for their children. No one has “forgotten” about math, higher education, or socialization but all of them have some up with creative ways to meet these needs.
The educational logistics of traveling with children are challenging but hardly insurmountable. No two families will ever do it the same way but there are a few main paths traveling parents take when designing nomadic educational experiences for their children.
1. Homeschooling – This is a favorite option among the traveling community. Homeschooling your kids on the road allows for flexibility. Curriculum and lessons can be designed around a child’s interests, a family’s current location, or the needs of the child in that moment. There is nothing that says ancient Egypt must be studied in 3rd grade and traveling homeschoolers know it. They use location dependent resources to their advantage and really dig into a topic. Many, but not all, traveling homeschool families carry books and other educational resources with them and complete lessons while waiting for planes, trains, and buses. With the rapid growth of technology, lessons in art, music, and dance can all be taught via video conferencing. Everyone defines homeschooling differently. For some, it’s a structured path that leads to directly to university. For others, its a child-led exploration of life with no ultimate aim as defined by the parents. No matter what, the biggest challenge for traveling homeschoolers can be creating and maintaining a schedule that suits their needs and lifestyle. Worried about socialization? Don’t be. Homeschooled travelers generally finish their lessons in a fraction of the time it takes their school bound counterparts to finish the same, leaving them ample opportunity to socialize with local children, other travelers, and their own families.
2. Local Schools - Some families choose to enroll their kids in schools as they go. Not everyone likes this option as it can require starting in a new school relatively frequently. Still, some families like the experience their kids get from a structured school setting. Their are two main options in this category. Truly local schools are the schools attended by the general population of a given community. While the quality of instruction, methods used, and general practices can vary greatly from one location to the next, the benefits of this option include full immersion into a culture and language with children of a similar age and exposure to what the general, local population experiences as “education”.
The second option, international schools, are another option within this category and can be found all over the world. Generally taught in English and with a rigorous course load, this isn’t an option for everyone. However, many parents find international schools to be a good option for their kids, especially for those traveling slowly or for students with big ambitions for university and beyond. These schools tend to have a fairly high price tag attached, which may be the biggest negative of this particular option.
3. Undefined- For travelers who are traveling long term but with the intention of returning to “normal” life in a set amount of time, taking time away from a defined experience of education may work just fine. A year of unstructured learning and completely free exploration is highly unlikely to alter a child’s educational course too drastically, especially for younger children. In fact, many children whose parents forgo the workbooks and structured writing assignments for a year find that, when their children return to school, they are on par with their peers, and sometimes even ahead. Most families do not choose this option for continual travel as most people develop educational philosophies as they go and the “undefined” label eventually no longer serves them or their children. But for long term travelers on a defined schedules, this might be exactly what they need to really get out and dig deep with their young travelers.
Every traveling family meets the educational needs of their youngest members differently and none of them takes off without a thought to what education will look like on the road. Within these categories is a myriad of options for tailoring the experience to each child and family. No option is set in stone and as situations and needs change, many will shift course and try something different. That’s part of the beauty of education on the road- it is ever changing and flexible to the student. In a world with vast educational resources and ample opportunities for exploration there really is no reason to worry that a traveling family “can’t” meet the educational needs of their children.
Families traveling the world with their children get asked a whole lot of questions. Topping the list are questions about their children’s education. It seems everyone wants to know what these traveling kids are learning, how, and with whom. And these questions don’t really stop as the kids get older. Ask any young adult taking a gap year abroad and they will inevitably tell you that one of the biggest fears expressed by those closest to them was a fear that they would “miss out” on a year of college or other form of higher education.
However, travel in itself is one of the best forms of “higher education”. Not only are practical life skills put into practice everyday on the road, but experiences had while traveling generally serve to enhance any education. Some of the deepest thoughts, biggest questions, and most divergent problem solving happens while journeying.
So, how exactly can travel be it’s own (or enhance) education?
Communication Skills- Learning a new language is the most obvious way this skill is developed. There is no down side to knowing a second language- even just the basics- in an increasingly global society. But consider all the other ways you need to communicate when traveling. Language barriers and cultural norms are just two major hurdles to navigate when communicating abroad. You need to have a pretty good grasp on body language in order to communicate effectively and without offense in a culture that isn’t your own. Hand gestures and charades become refined skills for use in challenging situations. Clarity and intentionality become increasingly important when communicating across language barriers. Knowing how to communicate effectively across language and cultural barriers is a serious benefit for anyone hoping to function in our current world.
Cultural Awareness- Trust me, there is a huge difference between being lectured on cultural sensitivity and developing an awareness of cultural norms through first hand experience. There is nothing quite like being the odd man out in a foreign culture to create a space within yourself to feel empathy for people who are often overlooked or treated poorly. Likewise, navigating the ins and outs of a foreign culture in person is far more informative than reading about it in a book. Being forced to adjust to unfamiliar cultural norms can be challenging but it also encourages the traveler to become increasingly aware of social cues, norms, and expectations. This all happens while making personal connections with the people you are learning from and about, making the development of awareness far more likely to be internalized. It’s an incredible synchronicity that offers lessons in navigating cultural differences more confidently.
Adaptability – Traveling, especially long term, offers no shortage of opportunities to adapt. From trains that don’t come to baggage that never arrives, when you have no “extra” time, space, or things- you adapt. Just getting out into the world, away from the creature comforts you have come to know and love, is a lesson in adaptability. What is the hottest temperature you can stand without air conditioning? What time can you pull yourself out of bed to catch that bus? What is the least amount of sleep you can run on? How many times can you eat the same dish before you scream? How an you communicate your needs to this host family without offending? The ability to operate outside of your comfort zone is something that most educators would say is a benefit to any student.
Self- Reflection- No education is complete without the ability to self-reflect. Why? Well, if you aren’t able to apply what you have learned to your own life, philosophies, and choices, have you really internalized the lesson? Sitting in a classroom, discussing oppression is one thing. Having the ability to reflect on your own words and actions and how they might be adding to the systemic oppression of certain people is a whole other ball of wax. Self-reflection is what separates the good students from the truly educated. In order to perfect the art of self-reflection, you need time and space. Travel provides plenty of that. Not only that, but sometimes getting outside of your home county provides just enough distance to contemplate your role in the world thus far and what it might look like moving forward.
Perspective- Sometimes, in order to gain perspective on your needs, goals, and actions, you need to get some distance. Even a seven year old, sitting on the beach in El Salvador, is aware enough to notice stark contrasts between how the world functions in a developing nation and a developed one. Learning about the developing world from a book is nice but actually seeing it brings it to life. Perspective often creates space for a student to “connect the dots” so that history and economic lessons are no longer just words on a page.
Awareness- It could be argued that this is the key ingredient missing from a lot of standard educations. Travel makes it impossible not to recognize that other people matter. It breaks down the barrier between “us” and “them”, even just little. As mentioned above, travel also creates space for intense self-reflection, which helps creates a deeper awareness of self. Awareness of your own needs and the need of others is something that isn’t focused on in the fact and results based education most students receive today. But an enhanced awareness of others and of yourself can lead to a more engaged student, one who understands the real-life ramifications of her lessons learned.
Problem Solving- This one almost goes without saying. Who in the world has ever traveled and not had to solve some problem that cropped up? Anyone? Hands on experience in problem solving is almost a given when you are traveling. Any kid who is on the road with their parents (or taking a gap year) is going to have an incredible abundance of opportunities for practicing and witnessing problem solving- sometimes extremely creative problem solving. The ability to think outside of the box is something that is often not practiced enough in the era of high stakes testing. Adding this skill to any students’ tool kit is going to go a long way.
Initiative- This one is something not everyone recognizes right away as a benefit of travel. What happens to a kid when they see their parents take the plunge into an alternative lifestyle, one that bucks the system and involves long- term travel? What happens to the teenager who, against all advice, takes an entire year (or more) to put college off and do exactly what their gut tells them is imperative to their development? These kids become go-getters. They learn that taking initiative is not a bad thing. They learn to go after what they want and blaze their own trails. As far as education goes, the ability to take initiative is incredibly beneficial! It means knowing when to ask questions, where to look for resources, and not waiting for others to tell you how to do it. Initiative creates life-long learners that continue to educate themselves long after the last school bell.
Time- Time isn’t a skill but it is a gift that all students should have access to. Time to explore, think, question, interact, and just be. In this world that places a high demand on the constant pursuit of “success”, time is often sorely lacking. As a result, lots of students have forgotten how to just be without doing work (or actively trying to avoid it, as the case may be). Stepping outside of the norm and purposely carving time for all of those things leads to a richer, fuller experience of life. That richer, fuller experience in turn leads to more content people who actually enjoy learning and truly internalize the lessons that come their way. Every teacher looks for a student who is eager to learn. Give a student the gift of time and even some of the most reluctant learners will start to resemble that ideal student.
While every traveling family or student will find their own ways of addressing education on the road, there is no need to be worried about anyone “missing out” on education while traveling. These are just some of the ways travel supports and enhances any type of education- there are many more! Can you add to the list?
How young is too young to travel? It’s a question that comes up whenever the subject of family travel arises. Some worry about the risk of illness for infants on the road. Others have fears that their child will reject every food option that isn’t chicken fingers and starve. Concerns about water, weather, and boredom keep lots of families from traveling with young kids. Of all the reasons, the reason most often cited as the reason for not traveling with young kids is, “they won’t even remember.” Are these concerns, any of them, justified?
In my experience, not really.
There are precautions for illness and medical care all over the world, no child will starve themselves because chicken fingers are not on the menu, and boredom is, in my opinion, an essential element to the development of any human being. But the big reason, the one about the kids not remembering, is the one that I think deserves the most attention. After all, traveling with kids is hard, right? And babies won’t remember it anyway, right?
Can traveling with children be challenging? Yes. Are there moments that are harder than others when traveling? Yes. But the answer to both of those question is no different than if I were to ask the same questions of a family at home. There are so many things parents do on a daily basis that are “hard”, but no one shies away from them because their kid may not remember. We recognize, as the more experienced beings, that sooner or later, children will internalize our consistent messages- even the ones we didn’t intend!
An infant may not remember seeing the Taj Mahal and a four year old may forget the name of the kid he played ball with for hours in Bali. However, it is also possible that they won’t remember making cookies with Grandma for the holidays, snuggling with the family dog for naps, breastfeeding, or learning to read. Would you deny any of those experiences to your child because they might not remember? Of course not. We recognize the benefits of these experiences, whether or not our kids carry forth conscious memories of those moments. Travel is no different.
I realize it is scary to plop down a whole bunch of money on an experience your kid may or may not be able to recall. But babies “remember” things in all kinds of ways. Even if your baby won’t consciously remember all of the kind people who fawned over her in Thailand, she may have internalized, without you even realizing, that love transcends language barriers and that people with skin different than hers are not to be feared. That’s powerful stuff. More powerful than being able to recite the places you visited to aunts and uncles.
We do lots of things with our babies that they won’t consciously remember. We sing to them, read to them, play with them, smile at them, and talk to them. We don’t do these things so that they can make a collage of it one day to share with their class. We do these things because it lays the groundwork for what we want our babies to internalize as they grow- kindness, love, and connection.
Traveling with little kids is never a bad idea. Before you know it, babies become children and children become teenagers who are moving towards their own, independent life. Wait until it’s “easier” and “they’re old enough to remember” and you might miss your opportunity. Traveling early begins the intentional creation of family culture- culture built around an active involvement in life and a joy of exploring.
Besides, even if your kid “doesn’t remember” the way adults do, you know who will? You. You will forever remember watching your baby take her first steps at a Mayan temple, hearing your two-year-old sing along in Hindi to a new favorite song, and watching your four-year-old climb atop a surf board for the first time in Costa Rica. You will remember what your daughter looks like with sand all over her face and what your son looks like as he combs the beach at sunset.
There is no such thing as “too young to travel” so, what’s stopping you?
Traveling slowly with my husband across Southeast Asia has been a great way to leave our jobs and lives in Canada behind to explore the world on a small budget. It also means we spend a lot of time together. Every meal, every walk, every bus ride to a new city, is together. Where once we saw each other only in the evenings and on weekends, we now see each other all the time. Where we once had schedules and habitual activities alone, there was now a much more shared and aligned schedule. This is fine, really, but we don’t always agree that something is worth our time or energy. Sometimes we need to split off and spend some time apart.
When we were living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I felt the need to take our scooter to some neighboring towns to see other temples, other roads, other food stalls. This little adventure interested only me so I took off down the highway with the scooter and left the husband behind to revel in his alone time with his fantasy football activities. I put a single earbud in, had Google maps speak directions to me and put on some music. I immediately got lost on a small residential road due to my inability to grasp the distance of 200 metres and turned too soon. I almost ran over a chicken that was literally crossing the road (why it was crossing the road is beyond us all.) Once back on the highway, I decided to trust the navigator voice and made my way south on Highway 106 to Lamphun. The drive passed under towering rubber trees that lined the road and went in and out of clouds of incense and smoke from barbecued pork. Each rotund tree had an orange swatch of fabric tied to it, indicating it was blessed by monks, therefore protecting it from logging. The roots had overgrown past the road and were pushing up the pavement along the edges. I took it slow and drove only as fast as I wanted with Blood Orange’s Chamakay setting the mood.
I stopped at a couple of different wats (temples) in Lamphun: Wat Phra That Hariphunchai and Wat Kukut respectively. The first was almost deserted compared to the wats I had visited in Chiang Mai. No more than four tourists and about five or so Buddhist monks were wandering the grounds. This was a much more peaceful way to visit a wat than pushed around in a throng of tourists, constantly moving and talking over each other. Little bells blew around in the wind and broke the silence with soft tinkling sounds like wind chimes. Wat Kukut was completely deserted. The only human I saw was a Thai man who came into the front gates briefly to release a small bird from a tiny wicker cage and then leave. I had a great opportunity to take my time and photograph every small detail that fascinated me: small wooden elephants casting long shadows, tiny figurines placed in flower pots and along walls, standing Buddhas along the walls of the chedis, catching just the right amount of light on my lens.
On the way back to Chiang Mai, I waited at a stoplight and saw a small girl staring at me from the car beside me. She shyly opened her window and waved. I waved back from my scooter with a big smile and saw the delight in her face right as the light turned and I sped off up the rubber tree highway, Kanye West’s Bad News taking me home.
Had my husband been with me, this day trip would have looked quite different. On the back of our scooter I would have been navigator, looking at my phone and directing rather than driving at my own pace, stopping whenever I wanted, and taking my time in the deserted wats. I probably wouldn’t have had my headphones in. Sometimes it’s nice to have a soundtrack of my favorite music to accompany an experience. It was nice to have a day that was my own with my own agenda. If we had been on a short two-week vacation, we would have been rushing to maximize our time and fit as many activities into our schedule as possible. A day trip to Lamphun wouldn’t have been considered when there are flashier attractions nearby that we would both enjoy. It’s a healthy exercise to spend time alone and be forced to rely on your own strengths and spend time with your thoughts as you travel. Growing up as an only child, this was standard. Spending time alone used to come so naturally to me. Since being married, I can sometimes forget the way my brain works and thinks differently alone. While it is an incredible journey my husband and I have taken on together, having a solo adventure here and there has enriched the overall experience.
To read more about Maryanne’s travel adventures check out Unknown Home.
Granted, the question has never been asked by anyone who’s actually met our children. Spend an hour interacting with them and you’ll know a few things:
Well, they do know they’re kids, obviously, but they don’t really see why that matters. They have friends of all ages, and that seems very normal to them. Perhaps because, it is.
What people mean, when they ask that question, is, “What do you do about your kids’ need to hang out with other kids?”
And that’s a fair question.
Obviously, they’re not in school 8 hours a day, 5 days a week with 20 other urchins of exactly their same age and experience, so there must be a social deficiency, right? They must be missing out on hanging with their buddies and doing “kid stuff,” right?
Erm… no. Not really.
The first thing I’ll freely admit is that being a family of six is different, socially, than being a family of two.
My kids are friends with each other, so each of them travels with three unique friendships in their backpacks. They hang together sometimes, they pair off sometimes. They like to be alone sometimes. If we had just one kid, it would be much harder to provide the diversity of friendship and interaction that happens quite naturally with six of us.
Just this morning, as Hannah was crouched by the woodstove, hanging her hair over the vents trying to dry it, I asked, “So Peep, what are ya going to do today?”
“Well… I’m going to work on my book project with Jessie… then I think I’m going to do something with Ez.”
At that very moment Ezra and Elisha were talking through an elaborate lego game that I do not understand but that they love passionately.
Where was Gabe? Out the door to work for the day. He’s got a gig working with an older man who’s become his friend while they haul brush, cut stuff up and rake.
So the first answer to that question: They have each other, and siblings really can be good friends.
My kids do too.
I often wake up to updates about Will’s progress on his novel or how his trip to the Czech went. (Will lives in Germany.) I get daily reports on the status of the Wood children and their little ones’ antics. (The Woods live in the USA.) Gabe occasionally plays games with boys spread between three continents at the moment. Emails fly back and forth around the planet like notes passed in my seventh grade homeroom behind Miss More’s back. The classroom has just gotten exponentially bigger!
The second answer: Technology helps
Everywhere we go, and across culture and language barriers, they make friends. Some of their friends are people they’ve never even met!!
A list of people considered “best friends” that we’d never have met if we hadn’t started traveling:
More “buddies” they wouldn’t trade:
When one of the kids reads this post I’m going to get in trouble for forgetting someone important, but honestly, I can’t keep track. I should also note that the age range of the above set of friends ranges from five to seventeen and my turning 13 year old would be FIGHTING mad if you suggested that he can’t really count the five year olds as his real friends. Age only matters if you let it.
Please note: these are ONLY their traveling friends, there are, of course, the long list of their long term bestest friends who they keep in touch with religiously, and who send us sweet little packages and cards and who we Skype with whenever we can.
There’s another factor at play though: Our kids have “friends” they’ve never met.
These are kids whose blogs they follow, or who live in other traveling families that we haven’t crossed paths with. These are the kids they are sometimes in classes with or that we get updates on via Facebook.
Ezra is quite keen to meet a child we are sure to be his brother from a different mother, they’re the same age, the same “bent” and are equally traveled. For now they snicker at each other’s antics from afar.
The whole tribe is on the edge of their seats this week worrying about a boy who took a nasty fall from a horse in Mongolia this week. He’s being airlifted to Hong Kong for surgery. He’s Elisha’s age.
The second week we were in New Zealand our friends, the Alboms, hosted a dinner party for a group of traveling families. We are all converging on Auckland for one night, taking flights in and out, weaving our threads through the same city for one day. There were about ten kids between 7 and 16, none of whom had met in the real world. All of whom hugged hard when they left and swapped emails like day traders. The parents got on just as well.
It’s not that our kids don’t fit “in the box.” Au contraire; I’ve never seen our kids in a situation where they couldn’t find common ground and enjoy their compatriots, even when they’ve visited “school” for a day. It’s that we’re raising our kids to be able to box hop, and peek over the top to realize that there is this whole space between the boxes that is also fair game.
Other traveling kids get this. No one told them. It has never been explained. It’s just part of their reality as what is sometimes called “Third Culture Kids.”
You know how, when you get together with people you went to high school with, you all start swapping stories about this teacher, or that clique, or that time SOMEONE dressed the Virgin Mary in a bikini with a lei and propped a sign behind her praying hands that said, “Mother Mary goes to Hawaii!” there is instant camaraderie?
It’s like that.
Okay, maybe not giraffes and whales.
I love those moments. Those moments are the BEST because those are the moments, and the friendships that are happening in the space between the boxes, you know?
It is the family joke… kind of… that the only real social downside of our travels is that Ezra is quite convinced that his peers are the 24 year old backpackers we hang with in hostels. And they are… and since one day he’ll be 24 (and then 34, and 44) we’re not worried. It will all come out in the wash.
They would tell you that they have no desire to be “normally” socialized teenagers. Hannah and Gabe shudder at the thought.
No. There’s no deficiency… just difference; and difference is okay. It’s better than okay, in fact, it’s good.
Because they’ve been socialized differently they aren’t uncomfortable in the same ways that many teenagers are. They like the “teen box” but they like the other boxes too.
Their favourite place?
Running amok between the boxes with the handful of other kids who they love more than life and live there too. And the adults they run into between the boxes, now those are the people who are socially challenging and inspiring. Those are the folks I hope my kids crash headlong into whilst playing hide and seek and shouting from box top to box top and careening around corners out there in the real world.
So what do we do about the social needs of our kids?
We introduce them to the world.
Originally published on Jenn’s blog: Edventure Project
While not everyone grew up in a traditional family structure, this article can apply to anyone who has a loving relationship with a family member who was part of your upbringing. For me, that was my parents, but I recognize that some people were raised by foster families, the parents of your childhood friends, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or siblings. This article still applies no matter who was an integral part of your childhood or who you consider a parent or family.
Growing up, my family took a lot of camping trips. We could never afford to take trips outside of North America, so we stuck close to home in the mountains and forests of the Pacific Northwest. Traveling together as a family was such an important part of my upbringing since it taught me a lot about living simply and enjoying each other’s company as well as the world around me.
As adults, we carry these memories and values with us, shaping us as travelers, friends, spouses, and lovers. We have our own travel stories that range from road trips with friends, camping trips with spouses, and solo long-term trips abroad that redefine travel for the rest of our lives. However, there is something to be said about coming home and re-experiencing time with our loved ones. Traveling with our families, as adults, kicks this up a notch in a really special way.
Your parents can still pass on travel wisdom
You may be well-traveled by now, having taken your own adventures, maybe even becoming an expert in the art of travel. You may have surpassed anything your parents may have done when they were younger. You’re the travel expert in your family. This doesn’t mean that you have nothing left to learn from your parents. Taking a trip with a parent as an adult allows your parent to get back into their own travel groove. They’re not tasked with caring for you like they were when you were a kid and this lets them shine in an area they may know well.
This last summer, my cousin was coming back to California and I hadn’t seen her in twenty-one years. A family reunion was organized, so my dad and I decided to make it into a camping road trip and stop at many of the national parks on the round-trip trek from Vancouver. I was reminded how good at camping my dad really is. He had packed things that I never would have thought to pack, and those things ended up being small comforts and luxuries that I really appreciated. He even brought small pieces of sample carpet to put in front of our tent doors to help us brush our feet off when getting in and out of the tent. They were all particularly useful things that I’d incorporate into my next car-camping trip.
Exiting your context
You likely know your parents in a particular context. You see them in their home for holiday meals, you go out for dinner at your favorite Mexican place, or they come over to help you with your taxes. These places and situations have become so familiar that each interaction is usually quite similar to the one before it. The familiarity is comforting and your relationship can become strengthened by this. One thing that may surprise you is that once you exit this context by traveling, you may not recognize your parent or you may see sides of them that have been tucked away for years. Traveling with my dad reminded me that once upon a time, he was a young man who did exciting things. He shared memories of camping with his uncle in the 60’s, setting off firecrackers from the roof, and encountering bears in the woods. These stories didn’t always have a context at home, but in Yosemite Valley, memories came flooding back and I was there to hear about them.
Creating new memories
If you have had the chance as an adult to travel with your parents, the memories you share will be held dear to you. The snapshots and stories from those experiences stand out in your mind from the rest you had as a child, and your parents will feel the same way. They have an opportunity to spend time with their children in a new and exciting way and they’ll cherish that as well. I not only have the memories of the familiarity and the usual but the memories of an incredible two-week road trip through three states and six state and national parks. I have the wonderful memory of my dad and my husband trying to see who could keep their feet in a freezing river the longest, contorting their faces in pain as I watched and laughed.
My dad was capable of camping, hiking, and driving for days on end, but not all parents are. Travel can still happen in many different ways. For example, a week in Hawaii at a resort, a cruise through Europe along the winding Danube, or, for the more adventurous, even a camel trek through the deserts of India. The possibilities are endless and the memories are waiting to be made!
To read more about Maryanne’s travel adventures check out Unknown Home.
Over the course of my traveling years, I have made a fair number of trips with children, teens, and young people. I am a huge advocate for the benefits of travel on developing minds and souls. Many people recognize the benefits of getting outside of the comfortable bubble of Western adolescence and digging into new cultures, new customs, and new values. It is certainly satisfying to greet a young person, fresh off the plane from their first international trip, and hear them say just how thankful they are for what they have. Likewise, it’s refreshing to have conversations with well-traveled teens who recognize that designer jeans and name brand electronics are not the things to hang one’s entire being on.
But it’s more than simply “being thankful for what you have”. Not all travel happens in the developing world, where materialistic needs are quickly pulled into question. Not every trip to the developing world yields such a simple realization as thankfulness for one’s material possessions back home.
It’s so much more than that.
Here are six wonderful things young people have told me they gained a new appreciation for after traveling.
6. “I am so grateful that my parents trust me enough to let me do this.” There is something incredibly liberating for a young person when the adults in their life make the decision to let them fly on their own, even for a brief time. Anxiety is ever-present in parenting these days. There is an almost relentless push to make us believe that danger lurks around every corner. Culturally, we make a sincere effort at keeping our kids absolutely “safe”. But, fairly or not, when Mom drives you everywhere, Dad takes two years to let you go to the movie alone with your friends, and everyone keeps telling you about all the “creeps” out there, you begin to wonder if they really are trying to keep you safe or if they just don’t trust you to make good decisions. In my experience, the most “rebellious” teens are the ones who are wrestling with this question the most. They are also the kids who get joyfully teary eyed when describing how it makes them feel to know that their parents have enough trust in them to allow them the freedom to explore this vast world. Being grateful that the people who care about you most also trust you is a huge building block in the creation of a confident, capable adult.
5. “I am so glad you told me to bring less stuff!” Funny, but true. When you have to carry everything around on your back, suddenly there are a whole lot of creature comforts that seem very, very unnecessary. Hair straighteners, expensive clothes, jewelry, and extraneous electronics continually try to wiggle their way into the backpacks of my young travel companions. Those who choose to heed my advice and put thought into each item they pack not only have an easier time boarding planes, buses, and trains, they also realize that “needs” beyond the basics are subjective. They don’t just learn to be “thankful for what they have”, they learn that “stuff” does not define them and that they actually could live without much of it.
4. “I chose my college/thesis/after school activity/job/partner partially based on my trip.” This happens more often than you think. Shaking up the norm sometimes leads to clarity. A young person who previously felt unsure of what they might be headed toward might discover a new interest they may not have been exposed to at home. New languages, customs, and flavors might spark interest in the world around us. Like other big experiences, international exploration can have positive reach far beyond the dates of travel and many young people express gratitude for the experience when they realize the far reaching influence of their experiences.
3. “This is so cool! I have friends in _____ now!” In this age of technology, keeping in touch with friends made at the far corners of the earth is easier than ever. Teens and young adults are known for being quite interested in their friend groups. Broadening that friend circle to include people from different countries, races, religions, and cultures has an enormous benefit in the long run. It’s not a magic pill for reversing stereotypes or ending racism but being thankful for having met people from backgrounds different than yours is certainly a step in the right direction.
2. “I can’t believe I am here. This is… amazing.” This planet is full of awe-inspiring adventures. Exploring the Taj Mahal at sunrise, navigating ChiChi market in Guatemala, snorkeling in the Red Sea, and sharing a chai at a road side stand in Kolkata are just some of the big and small exploits that can make a kid say, “wow”. Connecting with people across cultures is often eye opening for young people seeking their place in the world. Realizing just how many experiences there are to be had in a lifetime can be freeing for young people, many of whom were just beginning to wonder if all there was to life was the familiar daily grind of their hometown. Recognizing the infinite possibilities in this world is something to be truly thankful for.
1. “I am so incredibly glad to be home!” Believe it or not, I love this one. Learning to “be thankful for what you have” is one thing, realizing with utter clarity that you are thankful for the “home” you come back to is quite another. Most often when a young person says this, they are referring to home cooked meals, playing games with siblings, and laughing with friends. Sure, some of them missed their cell phones, but that’s generally not the focus of their gratitude. Sometimes distance really does make the heart grow fonder.
The writer Frank Herbert once said, “Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken.” This could not be more true for young travelers. New experiences feed their souls and make it possible for them to awaken to a new view of their own lives and the world around them.
Have you ever traveled with young people? Did they express gratitude in surprising ways?
Travel is ruining my kids.
And me, for that matter.
All of our well meaning efforts for a broad education, liberal experiences in the “real world,” and our sincere efforts to raise kids who are cultured, multi-lingual and have some perspective on the diversity of the history, geography and human family of the planet have back fired.
Sure, they’ve been to the big museums in Washington DC, London, Paris, Berlin, Prague, and beyond. They’ve hit the culture highlights of Bangkok, Vienna, Jakarta, Singapore & Boston. They’ve learned their history first hand climbing pyramids in Central America, peering into American bunkers in Vietnam, and playing gladiators in the ruins of Roman colosseums in Tunisia. But instead of making them better people, people with depth of understanding and perspective, it’s ruined them
Case in point: Ezra, at six years old, standing in the middle of Notre Dame de la Guarde, the fantastic fisherman’s cathedral in Marseille says with authority, “Well, it’s nice, but it’s no Sistine Chapel.” He then proceeds to go out and play in the courtyard instead of marveling over the boats hanging from the ceiling.
They’ve made the classic American road trip, with seven of their best friends, no less. Ridden their bicycles nearly 10,000 miles and are au fait with the finer points backpacker culture (the good, the bad and the ugly.) They know how to haggle for hats and cab fare and they know, from experience, why they should pay top dollar for T-shirts and olive oil. But their privilege is completely wasted on them.
Case in point: Ezra (again… poor kid, perhaps he’s the worst because he’s been traveling the longest, proportional to his age) after a magical boat ride through a cave coated with glowworms, the likes of which are found few places in the world, he shrugs and says, “That was cool… but… well… it’s no Carlsbad Caverns!”
They’ve had fresh buffalo mozzarella in Rome, mole in Oaxaca, and Pad Thai on the island where it was invented. They’ve eaten a wide swath across continents, like the locust-teenagers they are. But it’s ruined us all. Thirty cents a kilo for clementines in Africa, twelve cents a piece for avocados in Guatemala, a buck a kilo for kiwis in New Zealand, mangos that melt in your mouth in Mexico, dragon fruit in two colours in Thailand, black bread to die for in Germany, meringues as big as your head in France. My mouth is watering as I type… we’re doomed forever to culinary disappointment.
My children have been ruined for food forever by their travels.
They’ll never be satisfied with a slice of American cheese. They’ll always compare the cost or the quality with that place in the world where the absolute glut on the market drove the price through the floor and we gorged ourselves until we couldn’t eat one. more. bite.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, to have their first Shakespearean play be at the Swan Theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon and their first opera at Sydney’s opera house. Now I realize that those were just two in a very long line of terrible parenting decisions that have doomed our kids to disappointment forever. How will adult life ever measure up?!
Are they going to spend their whole lives trying to replicate that perfect winter of learning to make coffee and chocolate from scratch, or in search of a mango that just doesn’t exist outside of the tropics? Probably. Are they going to be perennially disappointed by local theater and back yard adventures? Not likely. If there’s one thing traveling kids get a grip on it’s the precious nature of “local” and “back yard.” Will they appreciate the gift of what they’ve experienced? Eventually. I was about 20 before the gift of my childhood dawned on me. Would we do it any other way? Definitely not. In this case, the ends definitely justify the means.
We’re sneaking up on our fifth anniversary of full time travel with our kids. When we left on our bicycle trip around Europe and N. Africa they were five through eleven years old. They are now ten through sixteen, and as comfortable in the livestock market in Tona Toroja as they are in a department store in the USA.
We travel specifically for the education and development of our children; we want them to grow up in the real world and become citizens of it in a way that transcends borders. There are so many things they learn in a classroom without walls, here are three of the most important:
1. People Are People
You can preach tolerance and multi-culturalism in a classroom until you’re blue in the face, but it’s so much easier to just take your kids to a park in every country you pass through, have as many guests in for dinner as you can lay hands on, and accept every offer of food or shelter from strangers as you go. Before long the kids stop seeing skin color, stop worrying about what kind of food hits the table, and get over stressing out about the language barrier. Pretty soon they’ll take off to play with the Indonesian kids and carry a soccer ball so that they can always draw in kids to play with.
I remember, when I was young, hearing my Dad say that it was good for my brother and I to have the experience of being, “The only white people within a couple hundred miles.” What he meant by that was that it’s a very good thing to experience life as a minority, perhaps to even be discriminated against a little bit. It builds compassion in a way little else can. It helps a developing person to see the commonalities, instead of the differences: We’re all doing our best to keep a roof over head, feed and clothe our families, celebrate the beautiful things in life, and leave the world a better place for our children.
It’s hard to hold on to an “us vs. them” mentality when you’ve eaten a meal with “them,” and count “them” among your friends. One of the primary benefits to liberal travel with children is that this lesson is absorbed organically, you won’t have to say a word to teach it.
2. Live Generously
We are not rich people, but on a world scale, we are fabulously, ridiculously, filthy-stinking rich. Just the ability to make American dollars as we travel and spend them in places that they go much further is a huge lottery win on the international economic scale.
We have dear friends who live in huts with dirt floors and metal roofs rusted through with holes. Others who support families of seven on less than $5,000 USD a year; some far less.
There is a lot of talk in traveling circles about how to give, and where to give, or more specifically, where NOT to give, so as not to exacerbate the problems. Careful consideration must be given to that balance.
In our experience, it is always better to live generously. When a need is presented, we try to find a way to give into it to fill it in a way that empowers instead of enables. We hope that our children will recognize their extreme privilege on the grander scale and do the same. We see glimmers of it, in their willingness to share the little they carry in their packs with kids who have far less. Their willingness to stretch a buck or do with less so that we can give more to someone else. And sometimes, they’ve seen us get taken advantage of too. But there’s a lesson, even in that: the “takers” are in the vast minority, and living generously is worth the risk.
We have so much, how can we not give?
3. Tread Lightly
The invention of plastic was simultaneously a boon and the bane of human existence. Trash is strewn from horizon to horizon across Tunisia. Barefoot children pick through heaps of plastic detritus in the margins of virtually every paradise. Plastic grocery bags are caught, like limp jelly fish on the coral of dying reefs in even the “best” of the world’s dive destinations. Jakarta is a fetid cesspool. Walking out in Beijing puts your lungs at risk. We can talk “green” all we want, but these are realities, and realities that are hard to remedy in places where money, education and resources are lacking.
It’s easy to look at the global problem and throw up our hands. We talk about that, in various arenas, with our children on a regular basis. But the answer lies in our own two hands. Understanding that every choice we make has consequences for the planet, and every piece of plastic anything that we buy will end up in a landfill somewhere eventually.
It’s not just about the three R’s, reduce, reuse, recycle, although those are important. We have to learn, as a race, to “need” less. To be happy without consuming more “stuff” and to tread lightly on the planet. One of the easiest ways to “teach” this is simply to travel. To allow kids to see the consequences of our over consumption first hand, and to connect the dots between the first world usage and the prices paid for that in other parts of the world. With global eyes, perhaps the next generation will do better.
What are you learning from your travels?
Cost/day: $2 for adults, $1 for children
What’s the most exciting thing that’s happened lately?
Today was our first outing since she’s been born. We went with grandma and grandpa to the Children’s Museum (Museo de los Ninos) in San Jose.
Describe a typical day:
We’re staying in the mountains of the Central Valley, with a gorgeous view of the ocean waaaay off in the distance. Grandma and grandpa have come to visit, for the birth of our sixth child.
Before she was born, we took a trip to the chocolate farm.
It’s been a couple of weeks since Saige Journee was born, so we’re ready for another (little) adventure — the Children’s Museum in San Jose, about 45 minutes away.
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
Like: This is our second time living in Costa Rica. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful, friendly people, idealized in their most common saying, ‘Pura vida’ (pure life).
It’s a country with a lot to offer — mountains, beaches, cities, country. Living in the mountains, we’re not too far from all the conveniences of a major city.
The museum was wonderful. So much to see and do, and lots of learning — chemistry, biology, natural history and tons more. An old helicopter to explore, a ‘banana plantation’ to work, a big mouth with teeth chairs… a great time was had by all.
Dislike: The mountain roads from the house down to the city are windy… I feel a little nauseous.
Describe a challenge you faced:
There was some confusion about how to get to the museum, but after asking directions a couple of times, we found our way.
And we should have gone earlier in the day… we didn’t have enough time to see everything before the museum was closing up!
What new lesson did you learn?
Sometimes we put labels on countries — first world versus third world. But all countries have cities, towns and ‘states’ that are in varyied levels of development.
Culture, refinement and fantastic infrastructure can be found in many countries that are labeled ‘third world’.
And the worst internet we’ve found in our travels (so far) was in Homer, Alaska, USA — a ‘first world’ country.
Don’t be too quick to judge.
Staying put in Costa Rica, but we’re having a humble lunch at the home of a Nicaraguan friend.
Learn more about Worldschooling, Education and Funding Travel here.