As Important As Your Passports

How To Expose Your Kids To The Wider World Without Exploiting Cultural Tourism

Ethical and respectful travel is one of the best teachers.

Young woman holding her child in her arms while admiring the Thu Bon river at sunset.
Antonio Hugo Photo/Getty Images

Travel is one of the best ways to expose your children to different cultures, whether you're hopping on a plane to an international destination or staying closer to home and exploring unfamiliar neighborhoods in your own town, city, or state.

Of course, there's plenty of inherent privilege needed to travel with or without kids, and not everyone has the time, money, and/or resources to do so. But if you can, you'll likely want to focus your efforts on traveling ethically — that is, being respectful and curious about cultures outside your own without appropriating, belittling, or diminishing what's unfamiliar to you and your family.

A trio of travel experts tells Scary Mommy how it is possible to explore the world with kids in tow, whether they're toddlers or teenagers about to embark on the next phase of life away from your watchful eye. Don't worry: The possibilities and opportunities to create lifelong memories — while being respectful of those around you along the way — are endless.

Cultural Tourism, Defined

According to UN Tourism, “Cultural tourism is a type of tourism activity in which the visitor’s essential motivation is to learn, discover, experience, and consume the tangible and intangible cultural attractions/products in a tourism destination.”

However, as the UN underscores, the convergence between tourism and culture — and the uptick in travelers seeking cultural experiences — comes with complex challenges. These include ensuring marginalized communities aren’t exploited, respecting cultural heritage, and preserving culturally important sites.

Social media has no doubt helped make these experiences more widely accessible to travel-curious tourists, adds Imani Bashir, a travel journalist, digital creator, and globe-trotting mom. "There has been an influx of intentionality in travel through the lens and with minorities in mind," says Bashir. "Travelers who go to marginalized communities are becoming more culturally aware, and marginalized travelers are taking more cultural trips that focus on history and ancestry."

How to Prepare for Your Trip

Thankfully, it's actually very easy to have meaningful experiences with your kids without landing on the wrong side of the cultural tourism line and/or white saviorism, where you're making yourself feel better about exposing your children to those you've deemed less fortunate.

"Kids are much more resilient and travel curious than we think they are," says Keith Brooks, a Happiness Agent at the travel app Upaway. "They are already exposed to different cultures through school and on a daily basis, so sometimes I think opting for 'family-friendly' experiences or all-inclusive trips, while convenient, can be really limiting and misrepresentative."

Brooks notes that it's your job as a parent and travel leader to be mindful of the land you're visiting, learn about the local culture or traditions, and patronize locally owned and operated businesses over corporations whenever possible. "Don't be afraid to allow your children to explore actual neighborhoods," he says. "Take them with you when you go to a supermarket so they can learn about new foods in another language. Try to teach them foreign phrases. But do educate them — and yourself — on where you're going and how to be a responsible and compassionate traveler."

Before you leave, Bashir recommends introducing your kids to media (say, music or relevant cultural movies) and sparking a discussion about it.

"Before traveling, it's important parents understand you can't necessarily control a child's reaction to something they aren't used to," says Bashir. "However, it's good for them to understand that because something is different doesn't make it bad or comical. I'd advise parents to help their children exhibit respectful decorum, such as not pointing at people, learning that certain places require a level of quiet and calm (such as museums and temples), and giving them some basic understanding of the language, like saying 'hello' or 'thank you.'"

Adds Brooks, “Allowing them to practice communicating in another language is vital and can be fun for them as well.”

Another Upaway Happiness Agent, Fallon King, notes that the language you use when traveling is of utmost importance, too. "Describing people in terms of 'other' is an easy trap to fall into as a parent," she says. While I, as a parent, understand 'stranger danger,' it is often used as an excuse to be closed off and insular. Also, trying to 'adopt' parts of a different culture trivializes the experiences and customs of others."

Ample open-minded research will help you and your kids feel more familiar with the destination you're visiting, Brooks suggests. "If visiting a colonized area, read about the history and give them a primer about where they're going and the communities living there today. Sometimes, your child (and maybe even you) may become surprised by different ways of being or even experience culture shock. This is normal, but remind them to arrive with an open attitude and that at the end of the day, you are guests in what is home to other people."

King recommends finding a local restaurant pre-trip that serves the same cuisine as the area you’ll be visiting. Use it to start a conversation with your kids. “Teach your children not to say that food is 'disgusting.' It's OK to not like something, but don't yuck someone's yum."

"Avoid framing discussions that are colonized, westernized, or hierarchical in tone," she says. "For example, 'In the U.S., we do things this way, it's better…' Mirror this when discussing other sensitive topics such as religion and history. But do be open to learning and asking thoughtful questions.”

How to Travel Thoughtfully With Your Little Ones

Brooks points out that there are plenty of small, meaningful methods of traveling thoughtfully and respectfully with your children: “letting them take part in interactive group tours; visiting churches, mosques, museums, or historic destinations; going to open-air markets or experiences off the beaten path can be rewarding, opting for public transportation.”

These are all easy ways for them to “see” other cultures with their own eyes, without a filter.

When you're away, Bashir recommends reminding your kids not to take unsolicited photos of others around them but that speaking to locals and getting to know them when you can is important. "Avoid making comparisons versus commonalities," she says. "It's important for children to see themselves and their culture in other children and their cultures. Finding the commonalities bridges cultural gaps and helps to remove judgment or bias."

It should go without saying, but Brooks notes: "Remind your children it's impolite to point and stare, and that it's OK for other people to be or look different, even if they don't understand immediately. But also hold patience in explaining things they may find surprising or different. If your child notices a difference, don't shame them for calling attention to it. Calmly explain the situation to them without making a scene. Make it a gentle learning experience."

Reap the Benefits of a Well-Traveled Child

"Travel imprints memories and experiences they'll never forget, along with framing their relationship to the world," says Brooks. "Beyond the fact that travel expands their worldview, they'll be able to appreciate and understand other people's lived experiences and how to thoughtfully explore and learn about other cultures. I also believe travel teaches us how to connect with people in a more authentic and compassionate way because it makes us vulnerable and humbles us to understand."

Bashir agrees, adding, "I find that children who are given the privilege to travel are very confident, well-spoken, and culturally sensitive and aware. The intentionality that comes with traveling with your children should center on helping them understand the commonalities between them and other cultures versus the differences. As they grow, they begin to truly see people without bias and are much more welcoming to peers and others as a result of their experiences."