Let’s start by stating the obvious: Traveling with kids is a giant pain in the ass. Schlepping crap all over God’s green earth just so that your kid can throw a tantrum on the beach instead of in the Target dairy aisle is no one’s idea of fun. It’s expensive, challenging, and absolutely nothing like a “vacation.”
So I’ll say it again, traveling with kids is a pain in the ass.
But do it anyway.
Yes, I’m serious.
Not only does traveling with kids create lasting memories and provide opportunities to connect with each other in a way that sometimes gets lost in the daily shuffle, but traveling also makes your kids kinder, more compassionate human beings.
According to Quartz, psychologists and child development experts agree that cross-cultural experiences enhance a sense of connection and empathy. Traveling to other places and interacting with other people, especially in developing nations, exposes kids to socioeconomic diversity which, in turn, causes them to become more curious and open to new ideas.
“Engaging with another culture helps kids recognize that their own egocentric way of looking at the world is not the only way of being in the world,” said Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School.
The benefits are two-fold, as well, by nurturing an understanding of others and oneself. Denise Daniels, a former broadcast journalist and founder of the nonprofit organization National Childhood Grief Institute, explains that when kids interact with kids from other places and cultures, they learn respect for others while building confidence in themselves.
More respect? More empathy? Yes, please. In fact, I’d say we need a crash course in respect and empathy stat.
In today’s wild and chaotic world, it’s easy for us to fall into our respective bubbles, settle in, and get comfortable staying there. We surround ourselves with likeminded people who live like us, think like us, believe like us. And considering that 54% of adults live near their hometown, many of us also live among people with common upbringings and backgrounds.
But while this bubble-living can feel more comfortable, it doesn’t exactly do much to expand our worldview or introduce us to alternative ideas or lifestyles. In other words, it just reinforces our own preconceived ideas.
And quite frankly, it’s kind of boring.
I grew up in a teeny-tiny town in rural Wisconsin. We had a couple of stoplights, hundreds of cows, and everybody knew everybody. The town was safe and comfortable, people were kind and looked out for one another. And while there are a lot of things I love about my hometown and the area I grew up in, its lack of diversity is definitely not one of them.
Fortunately, my family traveled a lot. My parents saved and sacrificed material possessions so we could see different parts of the world now and then. Because of that, my brother, sister, and I were exposed to other cultures and communities outside of the whitewashed rural farm town in which we grew up.
I grew up listening to other languages being spoken and getting to know people from other cultures. I saw extreme economic disparities in Caracas, Venezuela, and spent Easter in an all-Black church on an island in the Caribbean. And while I was an angsty and churlish teen for most of our adventures, I am profoundly grateful for these experiences now because I do believe they changed me; traveling opened my mind and gave me the confidence to look outside my own “bubble.”
Of course, not everyone has the time or money for international travel — or even travel to other parts of their own country, for that matter — but there are ways to get the benefits of travel without going far. For instance, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an associate professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, suggests parents get their kids involved in community organizations or school groups that enable interactions with people from different demographic, social, or ethnic groups.
There are a lot of other ways to “travel” without getting on an airplane. Spend time with families of other cultures. Visit a mosque, synagogue, or church from a religion different than your own. Hang out in a neighborhood with a large percentage of immigrants from another country. Encourage your child to become pen pals with a child of another culture or located in a different part of the country. Whenever you get a chance to get out of your bubble — physical or otherwise — do it.
Traveling with kids alone isn’t enough, however; parents need to talk to their kids about what they are experiencing as well. And research suggests that it’s never too early to introduce cross-cultural experiences to a child. So taking your toddler or preschooler to the Grand Canyon or Mexico isn’t “wasted” because they won’t remember it; rather, you are instilling and reinforcing valuable traits that they will continue to build on over time.
“Kids need to engage with many kinds of thinking and people, and to then try out those ways of understanding with a trusted adult,” explains Immordino-Yang.
So whether you travel to the other side of the world, across the country, or across town, traveling with kids really is important. Necessary even. Because if you expose your kids (and yourself) to different people, places, and cultures, I guarantee it will be worth the investment — of money, time, and all the F-bombs you’ll mutter under your breath when your kid throws a tantrum in the airport. Who knows — you just might learn how to say CTFD in another language.
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