Trying to learn from the countless sources of parenting advice is a lose-lose situation. One day you might take a look at a study that suggests children lack problem-solving skills due to helicopter-style parenting. The next day you could read about the police being called on a kid who was simply riding a bike around her own neighborhood. It’s hard to know where the acceptable middle ground can be found, and whether we’re really doing right by our children.
So in this era of constant critique, are there any tried-and-true approaches to raising kids who are resilient and prepared for the many challenges that the modern world presents? You bet. It’s called travel. Vacations are more than just an opportunity to relax and bond as a family (although this is certainly important, too). They’re also a way to form essential life skills in your children.
I’ve been traveling around the world with my children for nearly a decade now, everything from tent camping with a 5-month-old to visiting a luxury beach resort with a 9-year-old. Learning opportunities happen the moment you step out of your front door, whether it’s a quick day trip close to home or a month-long voyage around the world. Children are remarkable observers of their surroundings. Sometimes what they’ve learned shows up in a school essay, but more often than not, it’s in the valuable life lessons that grow in them instinctively from the various experiences they are exposed to while traveling.
Children are pros at seeking instant gratification. They see something they desire, and they want it now. It’s actually quite normal developmentally. But it never fails: You’ve survived that multi-hour international flight, only to be greeted by another long wait to get through passport control. Or maybe it’s the jam-packed amusement park, or the dozen or more people ahead of you in line for gelato on a hot afternoon in Italy. There’s no sugarcoating this. The first few times young children have to endure a long wait, there will likely be meltdowns, tantrums or at the very least, whining. And yet if you keep traveling, children will begin to demonstrate a remarkable amount of patience, sometimes even more than their parents have.
Two days before we left for a week in Central America, my kids were bemoaning the fact that a nearby school had a playground twice the size of the one at their own school. Needless to say, the first dozen or so schools we drove by on our trip opened their eyes to their incredible privilege. Most were simply a series of one-room cinder block buildings, with iron grates covering the small holes that let light in. There was typically nothing but a dusty open patch of dirt and a rusty slide or two to play on during recess. I’ve never heard another complaint about their playground since that trip.
This shift in perspective applies just as much to parents as it does kids. I’ll never forget being stranded on the side of the road in rural Portugal, steam coming off the hood of our rental car. I was so frustrated that we were going to lose a full day of our vacation dealing with this. But my children were downright giddy about riding in a tow truck back to the rental car office. I merely needed to view this temporary setback through their lens to realize that this was just another memorable adventure.
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It’s perfectly natural for American children to think speaking English and snacking on Goldfish crackers is universal. It’s probably all they’ve ever known. Take them outside their comfort zone for a few days, though, and they’ll begin to realize that kids at the foreign park may play just like them, but they do it while speaking Mandarin or nibbling on crepes. Instead of feeling threatened by these differences or feeling fearful of the unknown, they’ll begin to grow comfortable with those who look, speak and live in ways that differ from their own. Opening your children’s eyes to the fact that they are not the center of the universe is absolutely essential if they are to be successful in today’s global economy. This open-mindedness will also make them curious and want to experience even more. So be warned: The moment you get home from one trip, they’ll be asking where you’re taking them next.
If there is one universal rule of travel, it’s that things will go wrong. Even the most perfectly planned trip will need to withstand unexpected circumstances like bad weather, sudden closures, horrible traffic or lost luggage. These are the moments when you and your kids will embrace the value of a positive attitude. Ciao Bambino clients experienced incredible flooding while they were in Venice, but didn’t let it slow them down. They simply pulled on their rain boots and splashed their way through sightseeing. Undoubtedly this will be the moment they long remember from that trip, even if it wasn’t at all what they envisioned. This positive approach tends to carry over into everyday life, too. Don’t be surprised if, on the next rainy day, the kids ask if they can go splash in puddles instead of staying cooped up inside playing video games.
Travel enough with your children, and it won’t take long for some of the world’s problems to be put right in front of their faces. Melting glaciers due to global warming are evident on a trip to Alaska. The scourge of homelessness is readily apparent in most major cities around the world. Poverty is quite visible in many regions, even if your family only witnesses it en route to a resort or hotel. Yes, your children will ask you difficult questions, but this is an opportunity for them to see that we are all human. The only way to solve the world’s problems is to care deeply for those who are affected most and to see the entire global population as our neighbors, not our enemy.
Family travel is never perfect. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you a bill of goods. But its imperfection is exactly what makes it so valuable to children. Family vacations are an opportunity for parents to instill a love of adventure in their children and a desire to make the world a better place. Fortunately, kids who travel are equipped with the qualities that will prepare them to be the world-changers we so desperately need.
Editor’s Note: Photo courtesy of Kate Roberts.
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