On day six of our recent two-week holiday adventure in Panama with our two young daughters, I watch my headstrong three-year-old narrowly avert her seventh disaster of the day and query my husband, “Remind me why we do this again?” At this point in the trip, my oldest has yet to be bitten by that crazy monkey on the jungle tour, and I still haven’t visited four paramedics and a Panamanian emergency room for stitches after my finger was slammed in a taxi door. Remind me why we do this again?
Wasn’t that all-inclusive in Mexico—the one with the kids’ club, where we didn’t have to think about a thing except which fruity drink to order—a slice a pure heaven, a real vacation? Ahh yes, it was, and we’ll probably do another like it again soon. We also love those lazy getaways in Florida with the grandparents and weekend ski trips in our home state of Colorado. Yet in between the cushy vacations, we find ourselves venturing off the beaten track to travel internationally with our children so they can learn more about the world. We are parents committed to raising global citizens.
Before motherhood, I traversed four continents with only a backpack, a limited budget, and the wanderlust of my twenties. It started with a post-college, thirteen-country rail tour of Europe, where I learned that bread, wine, cheese, and chocolate are sustenance and I could inquire where the bathroom was in five different languages. Years later, I chanted with Buddhist monks in Nepal, bartered in Beijing markets, drank confiscated Russian vodka with Muscovites, and was once conned and kidnapped in India. (There’s a story I’ll tell my children as they take off on their first independent travel.)
I trekked the rugged Andes of South America and the Himalayas, only to be humbled by small, sturdy porters carrying three times their weight in bare feet and cheerful guides who told stories of poverty and pride in their villages. One Christmas Day, I took a “chicken bus” through Ecuador—named so because of the likelihood of someone’s chicken ending up on your lap! We stopped at countless villages along the way that day and I loved observing how their culture celebrated a holiday that is such a commercial spectacle in the U.S. Watching the local children giddy with excitement as they marched in the noisy street parades and exchanged simple homemade candies for Christmas gifts, I thought, Someday if I have children, I want them to see this …
From my experience, visiting new countries is one of the best character-building and educational opportunities for children in today’s changing world. Some of the important lessons learned on the road can’t be taught in school or dictated by mom and dad—lessons and skills relevant to everyday life, such as:
Patience. Inevitably, international travel involves waiting—sometimes for hours—at airports, train stations, and bus stops. My kids are learning what it means to be self-entertaining during these times and as a parent, you come up with some pretty creative diversions to pass the time, like counting freckles and bug bites.
Flexibility. Plans can, and usually do, change when you travel internationally and you have to be flexible and willing to take a deep breath and adapt. Sometimes the best experiences are those un-planned surprises along the way, like the cool animal rescue farm we visited in Panama when the coffee plantation tour didn’t work out.
Exploration. When you travel abroad with an open mind, a loose itinerary, and a willingness to chat with locals, you discover many hidden treasures along the way. We always rent a car for a portion of our trip so we can see the country beyond cities and tourist attractions—and make those important bathroom stops!
Introspection. Traveling to foreign countries requires you to look closely at your own beliefs, culture, and habits. We had some interesting dialogue with our seven-year-old about why kids don’t eat peanut butter sandwiches for lunch in Panama.
Gratitude. When you see extreme poverty in the developing world, wait hours for a delayed train, or talk with someone who can only dream of visiting another country, you truly appreciate your privileges as an American. When my daughter saw the dwellings where families live in rural Panama, she gasped, “Wow, mom, we sure live in a big house!”
Conservation. International travel often exposes us to environments and species very different from our own back home and reminds us how important it is to preserve these unique gifts from mother earth. Both of my daughters are already global advocates for the red tree frog, the gray back dolphin, the spider monkey, the three-toed sloth, and every spotted gecko in Central America.
Communication. Today’s citizens are living in a diverse global economy, so learning a second or third language is now more important for children. Exposing your younger kids to different languages through travel gives them the head start most of us never had growing up. It’s also easy to impress your kiddos when you speak a little of your rusty high school Spanish or French on trips … they never know how bad it really is!
I’m sure there are many other life skills acquired through traveling abroad with your children. For now, I’m planning our next family vacation around those fruity drinks.