I love talking to traveling families because they’re so excited about seeing the world and teaching their kids in a hands-on way. If you’re a family who travels frequently with your children, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re not, maybe you wonder what all the hype is? Why are you hearing about people taking off for a year or more–with their kids in tow–to see the world?
Having been a family who, a few short years ago, only ever took one-week vacations to “kid-friendly” locations, I must admit that I used to believe extensive, world travel should be reserved for the time when our kids left the nest and my husband and I were retired. But then there’s that little voice that spoke to me at odd times of the day and night… you know, the one that said, “Follow your dreams now! Who knows what tomorrow will bring?”
Yeah, that one. Does that voice ever speak to you?
And then the Universe butted its beautiful head in with a Travelzoo flight deal to Costa Rica and my thoughts were transformed. Not only is it possible to travel more deeply with children–but kids get so many benefits when they travel!
Benefit #1: Kids Learn to Be Themselves
Kids are malleable creatures.
Before our traveling days, my kids were super-busy with sports, friends, school, and iPod time. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these things, I felt that my kids were growing to be… well, just like everyone else.
Of course every parent wants her child to be a rockstar. The best at anything he tries, the highest grades, admission to the most prestigious university. Those are all great things to brag about in the Christmas letter. As I grew older and wiser and began to find my own voice, however, I started to see that I was raising my kids based on other people’s values!
My values had nothing to do with teaching them to be competitive at soccer. I didn’t really care what their grades were, as long as they were truly learning. I wanted them to be happy more than I wanted them to be the best at everything. So why was I following along with what everyone else was doing when it came to my most important role: parenting?
Travel took us out of our regular life, away from the people we saw day-to-day.
We met different people who were doing things differently than the people back home. This helped us all–kids included–learn what was really important to us. If we’d stayed in our same rut, we might not have seen that we were being led by the culture around us instead of creating our own lives.
Benefit #2: Kids Learn to Try New Things
Probably every parent has that story of the kid who wouldn’t eat their dinner. So we made them sit there, whining, “But I don’t liiiiiiike it!!!” Our second child would not eat his fish one night when he was about 8 and, as the family legend goes, he loudly and tearfully kept asking, “Why can’t I just have a samwich?” The irony of this story comes in the fact that when this same boy was 11 and living in Belize, he tried everything. And by everything, I mean everything! Including the many meals of fish served to him in restaurants–with the fish heads on!
When it comes to food, I’ve found that kids will do what they can get away with. I’ve had friends who made a separate meal for their kids (things like macaroni and cheese or grilled cheese sandwiches) every night because they wouldn’t eat what the parents were eating. What happens to these kids as adults? Well, I’m not sure. But I would guess they don’t like to try new things. What do you think?
When traveling, kids are exposed to a lot of new experiences, new foods, new people, and new sights and sounds. They sleep in a different bed, maybe even without the wubbie, if you’ve forgotten it at home, maybe. And, you know what happens? They learn to adapt. It’s amazing, absolutely amazing, for a parent like me, who thought everything had to be just so in her kids’ lives, to realize that the only habits and security blankets my kids need are having me and their dad with them. Everything else is negotiable. So what happens then is they learn to do without the familiar stuff, they get out of their comfort zone, and they try new things.
It’s a miracle, really.
Benefit #3: Kids Learn to Speak Up For Themselves
Speaking up “loud and proud,” as we advise our kids, is not something all kids do. Lots of children I’ve met hardly look at me when I speak to them, let alone are able to carry on a conversation with manners and poise. Experiences like travel, however, can give kids the confidence necessary to break through their fears of talking to people. Hey, if you can fly to Belize, backpack through the jungle, and attend school in a foreign location, you can do anything, right?
Travel is not the only self-esteem builder, but it certainly offers a lot of opportunities for kids to learn to speak up for themselves. Asking for directions, ordering their own meal in a restaurant, making a friend at a public park, or asking a question on a tour are all ways kids get the chance to practice using their voice. At any rate, travel encourages them to put down their iPads and mingle among people in the real world.
Benefit #4: Kids Learn How to Be Curious
When you step off that plane, all of a sudden, you and your family are in a new world. Everything is different for your child: the climate, the people, maybe the language, certainly the excitement flowing through your fingers as you grip his hand. His senses, like yours, are turned up. Everything is interesting. And he’s watching and listening and smelling with all his might. He’s paying attention.
As he pays more attention, he’s asking questions. Why does everyone speak this language here, Mom? Why do the buildings look like this? What is that animal? What kind of food is this? It’s a proven fact that travel sparks creativity in us. And that creativity begins with natural curiosity about the world around us. Seeing places in real life is so much more engaging than reading about them in a textbook or on Instagram.
Benefit #5: Kids Learn How to Spend Time With Their Family
Our family was never as much of a team as we were when we were on our 6-month Belize sabbatical. We had each other, day in and day out, to rely on for comfort, security, and friendship. The kids didn’t bicker nearly as much as at home because they were engaged in what was going on around them. Either that, or they were exhausted, I’m not sure which! At any rate, they stuck together like glue in the face of bullying in the school yard. And when we discovered a fun, new waterfall that was perfect for sliding down, they were each other’s best friends.
Also, at this time of enlivened senses, we took lots of one-on-one time with each child and talked about life. We’d stepped back from the things we had been doing, so a walk around the park in San Ignacio was the perfect time for my son to discuss how it was for him back home. My daughter and I walked into town one day and had a ‘girl’s’ day: breakfast, inexpensive pedicure, and a little window shopping. We do these things at home, too, but through the lens of our unique experience, the time together somehow seems more memorable, more special.
Parents raise kids in lots of different ways. Good parenting and a happy childhood don’t necessarily depend on where you take your children on the globe. You can give them love, security, and a great education right in your own hometown, if that’s your thing. But, if travel is something on your bucket list, and you can figure out how to get away from your life for a little while, I would absolutely recommend taking a family sabbatical. It will be an experience neither you nor your kids will ever forget.