6 Ridiculously Simple (but Effective) Ways to Raise Travel-Savvy Kids
One of the greatest gifts of my life has been raising 3 daughters who love to travel and experience other cultures! I honestly believe that this will add a richness and texture to their lives that no other experience truly can. And, my hope is that as they learn to appreciate faraway cultures, they'll also come to better appreciate their own.
Travel expands your horizons, grants you wisdom, and builds your self-confidence. Honestly, who doesn't want these things for their kids? And, in a world where they (and we) can tweet, post & vlog out to the entire planet within literally seconds, cultural isolation is really not an option. In fact, it's a liability. Our kids need to be equipped intelligently and contextually to approach the ways in which their global peers both resemble and differ from them, because in the digital age... they'll be talking to them all the time. In a world that communications technology has woven into a single tapestry, our future will be determined by those who understand the different threads that weave it together.
As our kids were growing up, it wasn't always clear that they'd become confident world travelers. Our middle daughter Christi had bouts of anxiety throughout most of her childhood and struggled with being away from home for any length of time. There were many nights when we'd drive across town at 2 am to pick her up from friends' homes where she'd been invited to sleep over. These sleepovers went from fun to frightening, and neither she - nor we - knew why. As a family, we rode this out, encouraging her not to give up or beat herself up...she would get the confidence, with time and patience. And she did. As a college student, Christi now flies internationally, visiting faraway cities where she doesn't even speak (or read) the language, and she does it with ease.
Of course, Christi gets the lion's share of the credit for this growth. But, I think David and I tried to be pretty intentional about nurturing certain qualities that we knew could help all 3 of our girls grow into self-reliant and worldly adults. As I think about what makes a great traveler - someone who's comfortable in the world, understands the "big picture" and gets the most out of the travel experience - I think there are certain qualities that stand out:
- respect for people and nature
Here are some ways to reinforce these travel-savvy traits in your kids.
Kids who feel rooted in their own positive identity are just better equipped to meet and learn from people of other backgrounds, without losing their own values. When you're confident, you don't feel threatened by those who are different from you.
For our family, this started with faith. Our kids grew up knowing they belong to Christ. They are rooted in Him and loved by Him, no matter what they do or where they go - good or bad. This is HUGE!
Over the years, my kids have done things that made me over-the-moon happy, and things that made me hopping mad (sound familiar?) I did my best as a mom to show them consistent love and and separate their behavior (good or bad) from their inherent value to me. But I screwed up along the way, too. I think the fact that they knew they had a deeper identity, rooted in a higher authority than mom & dad's approval, really helped them form their sense of individual worth.
Why does this matter for purposes of travel? Because it frees them to appreciate people who are very different from themselves, without any threat to their own identity or the feeling that they have to become like them. There's no threat in opening your life to a wide array of humanity, when you're securely grounded in a personal sense of self-worth that doesn't waiver. Praise God!
- Kids are naturally curious. They are sponges. If you're a parent, give those darling little sponges lots of different ways and opportunities to soak up the world around them. When our kids were little, we didn't have the budget to travel very far. So what? There were tons of places right in our own community that we could explore and have new experiences together. I remember planning "Terrific Tuesdays" "Wonderful Wednesdays", "Thrilling Thursdays"...(I came up with all kinds of silly names in a shameless campaign to spark enthusiasm) and took my girls on mini-adventures. We often did this as a family, but I also made a point of doing things with them each individually. It's a great way to see the place you live in, with new eyes. The outings can ve as varied as your creativity:
- Children's museums to learn about science, nature, and how kids live in other lands
- Petting farms - experience varieties of wildlife and learn about their habitats
- A community garden or arboretum - we caught caterpillars and tadpoles, brought them home, and grew them into butterflies and frogs. Along the way, we read stories together about nature, climate, the planet and the vast variety of beautiful creatures living all around it
- Ethnic bakeries, groceries and restaurants - we'd sample food from faraway places and experience what people from other cultures like to eat
- Local ethnic festivals - again, we'd sample interesting foods and enjoy the costumes and performances of other cultures
These mini-trips rarely took us more than a few miles from our house, but they opened our kids' eyes to the diversity right within our own community, and encouraged them to ask questions and wonder about the bigger world beyond our backyard. Plus...it was fun!
...Something else kids have a lot of! My girls tell me that their inner travel bug was born on the second floor of our house, in a rocking chair. That's the place where they'd climb into my lap and we'd read fairytales from around the world. Two of their favorite books were a collection of Italian fairytales that my own dad had given me as a child, and a book of Japanese children's stories that David had from his years growing up overseas. We read lots of bedtime stories too, and their imaginations would take them on adventures as vivid as any of the actual trips we've been on. There's something very special about reading with your kids, and it's an awesome opportunity to spark conversation and curiosity about the world. Your children will see with their mind's eye the distant lands that someday, they'll want to visit for real.
Another way to unleash the power of imagination in your budding world travelers is to put them in charge of planning part of your next family vacation...or your Saturday morning outing! When I was 9 years old, my parents took my sister and me to Europe. We each got to choose a city on the family itinerary to research and come up with a couple of activities/sightseeing destinations.
I chose London! LOL - I had no idea how ambitious my choice was until I actually started reading about it - & this was way before the internet! That experience really stuck with me, though. I guess, at a very impressionable age, I got to be the 'family expert' on one part of a trip that was going to be a big deal for us all.
Fast-forward to 2012, when my own two younger daughters researched and put together a presentation about Dubai, as a proposed destination for a trip with their grandparents. That's where they ended up going together, and it remains a highlight of their many travel adventures.
Even if your kids are put in charge of planning a trip to a local park, I think it's a huge boost to their sense of independence because you're trusting them with your time and engagement. It also teaches them fundamentals about how to plan, what to bring and how to organize their time: skills that are the core of any travel, near or far!
I think that to really enjoy travel, you have to have a certain amount of empathy. After all, you'll be around people who may be very different, who may not even speak your language, and you have to be able to interact positively with them.
Much of international travel hinges on etiquette: knowing what's appropriate and gracious behavior, even when a culture is very unfamiliar to you. And, that knowledge springs from the instinct to be kind to those around you. So, encourage empathy in your kids. When they meet other kids who seem odd or different, remind them not to rush to judgment, because no-one really knows what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes.
I think we live in a world where the crush of digital communication - texts, tweets and Snapchats - doesn't really leave time to form empathy with others. So, we have to be intentional about it.
One thing that helped us in this area was seeking out volunteer opportunities as a family. We'd tutor students for whom English was a second language, pack and drop off groceries for food-insecure families through our local food bank, and collect supplies for faraway communities in need. I recall one Fall when we saw a news story about a village in Uganda where the kids didn't have shoes, and were exposed to foot injuries and infections. The girls and their friends mobilized a Crocs for Uganda shoe drive at their school and collected over 400 pairs of Croc shoes that were shipped out to the village. I don't think they had any idea where Uganda was before this...but they sure knew a lot about it after! Another travel seed was planted.
Yes, this is very much related to kindness, but it deserves its own shout-out, in my opinion. Kids who know how to speak and interact respectfully with others will fare far better in foreign cultures than those who don't. In my travel experience, the locals will show grace and go out of their way to help an outsider who behaves respectfully, even if that person stumbles at the language, is unfamiliar with local etiquette, and doesn't have a clue how to get around. Respect is a universal language.
Simple things like giving up their seat to an elderly person on a subway, learning not to interrupt, holding the door for someone, or helping to pick up a dropped item: they're such simple gestures, but I've seen many instances where they made a huge difference in how an American was perceived and treated by the locals. If your kids learn how to behave respectfully, they will have allies everywhere they go.
Respect for the environment is equally important. We share one planet with 7 billion other people. Encourage your children to see and value the beauty in it. Plant a mini garden together. Recycle. Set a timer so everyone takes shorter showers, and contribute to a water charity (water.org is one good one). Learn about the scarcity of drinking water in many parts of the world - not to make your kids feel guilty - but to make them aware. Go camping. And try eco-tourism, a growing niche within the travel industry. Kids who notice and appreciate nature will have much richer travel experiences later in life, and may venture further outside their comfort zone to amazing places that are more rustic than home.
To really enjoy life, you've gotta be resilient. And, the same goes for travel. To experience the variety the world has to offer, your kids will have to be able to get out of their comfort zone. They'll need to bounce back when plans change, flights are delayed, the food is weird, the accommodations are sub-par. Those things can ruin a trip for the person who doesn't rebound well. But for the resilient person, they're challenges to be overcome in the pursuit of bigger adventures...and they make great travel stories later on!
How do you help your kids to be resilient? Be an example to them. Don't sweat the small stuff. Don't angst over changed plans...don't freak out over bumps and bruises. Do get out of your comfort zone as a parent - and as a family. This can be so fun...we've done family outings like high ropes courses over the years, gotten sweaty building backyard projects that didn't quite come out as planned, tried and failed at sports activities... and kept on going. One way that we all built resilience as a family was by opening our home and having international students live with us for awhile. This challenged us, taught us how to communicate and accommodate despite language and cultural barriers, and showed us all the ups and downs of living with someone from a completely different background. Good stuff.
So there you have it!
Handled intentionally, all of these things are powerful tools for equipping your kids for a life of adventure and exploration. When I was starting out as a mom, I knew I wanted my kids to love travel as passionately as David and I do. And, if you're like this too, then chances are very good that your own kids will follow in your adventure-seeking footsteps!