Have you heard of that parenting book How to Raise an Adult? It’s both enlightening and a little bit alarming. On the one hand, it imparts a whole host of life skills your child should have acquired before leaving home; on the other, that sounds like a big ol’ to-do list to me! Our kiddos will learn these important life skills (time management, tolerance, balancing a budget), over time and with our guidance, but there is one short cut to at least a few of these necessary proficients: travel!
Whether it’s from a young age or not until they’re teens, near or far from home, budget or upscale, travel teaches children vital life skills that they can start using even before they leave home. And here’s the great part – they don’t even realize they’re learning anything. The more we seamlessly weave travel into our lives and meet other people and cultures, we all become better global citizens – and our kids pick up the abilities they’ll need to be successful and happy adults.
Perhaps the most efficient teacher around, travel can teach your kids the following life skills:
Take travel as a chance to push your child out of her comfort zone when speaking to new people. Stand back as they buy subway passes. Urge them to raise a hand and ask a tour guide their burning questions about ancient Greece. Teach them to make eye contact, make small talk and communicate gratitude to the various folks you’ll meet on your trip: waitstaff, hotel staff, taxi drivers, tour guides, those selling food at the farmers’ market, etc. Build up their confidence and you’ll have a little chatterbox in no time. (Of course, keep “stranger danger” in mind and give your kids explicit constraints about who they can approach and who they should avoid.)
Delayed flights and hours in the airport, uncomfortable hotel beds, rainy beach days – we all know that travel is never as perfect as we imagined it to be. This is a great opportunity to teach that buzz word of the 21st century – resilience – to our kids. They’ll learn patience as they wait in long amusement park lines or never-ending passport control after a long flight. Rainy day? Seek out some fun umbrellas and splash in the puddles in a new city – you never know what surprises you’ll find and they’ll discover a resilience they never knew they had. This is a good reminder for parents, as well, to – even when it’s hard – teach through actions, not words, and display your own resiliency.
3. Respect and Tolerance for Diversity and Other Cultures
It doesn’t take long when you’re traveling internationally – say, to Central America – for kids to get a glimpse of how some other children live. They see tiny cinder-block homes on dirt streets or a dilapidated school building with one rusty old slide. There’s a perspective shift that can come from seeing a lifestyle so different than your own – an appreciation for what one has and respect for the challenges others may face on a daily basis. Kids will also see people of other races and religions, with traditions they’re not used to, and being the little sponges they are, they can observe, ask questions and be completely bias-free – something adults have a harder time with when faced with new cultures.
4. Problem-Solving Skills/Critical Thinking
Teens, in particular, can benefit from encountering new people and new destinations. As they do so, they start to examine their own lives and positions from the perspective of a new culture. Dr. Jessie Voigts, author of Bringing the World Home: A Resource Guide to Raising Intercultural Kids, states, “Travel encourages critical thinking (especially when comparing intercultural differences), problem solving (in so many ways—money, transportation, food, events, cultures, languages, etc.) and communication (both verbal and non-verbal, which is key to any communication event, globally). It also encourages collaboration (working together with your travel partners or locals to fulfill your basic needs), creativity (finding a creative solution to a travel problem) and innovation (whether it’s a way to hold your luggage together with whatever is on hand or finding a new route in an unfamiliar town past a parade to get where you need to go).”
The first time your son or daughter heads off for an overnight camping trip with their class or to a week-long summer camp, you may wonder if they’ll ever brush their teeth or change their clothes. And the first time or two, the answer is likely, no. However, the more they travel, they can become attuned to what they felt like in those circumstances, items they wished they had with them or what might feel better next time. Encourage kids in upper elementary grades to start packing their own suitcase – you can help by providing a list of number of shirts and pants, toiletries and fun items, like stuffiest and books. The more independence you give them – and allow them to forget something and learn from their mistakes – the better organized they’ll be next time. Baby steps.
6. Money Management
Even the youngest kids can learn about money management when they’re on vacation. Offer them a set souvenir budget and help them strategize how they will use it. For older teens, this may come into play if they’re planning to be part of a big school trip to another city or country. Help them make a budget by looking at all the involved costs (new luggage, appropriate clothing, phone adapters, souvenirs, food and drinks). Then, let them come up with ways to make the money to cover the costs – babysitting, yard-work, a nicely written letter to relatives explaining the importance of the trip and asking for donations). In this way, teens are learning that travel obviously comes with a price, but when they get home and can’t stop talking about how fantastic it was, all those hours of chores will be a distant memory.
Whether they’re sitting down to tea in London or learning not to interrupt and wait their turn to ask questions of a museum docent, kids will get an automatic manners lesson when they travel. They can be encouraged to ask questions in a curious, but not obtrusive manner. They can be taught to acknowledge different culinary habits or traditions in an open-minded way without calling out differences. If faced with an elderly passenger on the train, they can offer their seat. And, yes, when you’re dining out at nicer restaurants, it’s a great time to review those table manners.
When we remember we are “raising adults,” sure, it can ignite anxiety that our kids will leave home without knowing how to talk to people they don’t know, or how to think critically about the world around them. Rest assured, however, that they can and will learn these valuable life skills – from you, from their community and through travel. By planning and prioritizing family travel, you’re offering them a real-life classroom full of teachable moments. Just another reason travel is the gift that keeps on giving!