Stanford University's former Dean of Freshmen says there eight things a child must be able to do by the time they are 18. Melanie Gow reveals how travel helped her children achieve them.
Given that our children are engaged in the serious work of becoming adults, and we are charged with teaching our children to have the skills for life, what is it that goes into making them passionate, free thinking, centred, resourceful, fully engaged and wise, and how does travel expand that?
Stanford University's Dean of Freshmen for 10 years, Julie Lythcott-Haims, and acclaimed author of How to Raise an Adult, lists eight things a child must be able to do by the time they are 18.
Having travelled with my sons throughout their lives, I have discovered that all eight things are enhanced by travel.
Every single day we were on the road across America, 53 days from LA to New York, we chose to tell someone they had made our day, and why. Over seven weeks, my sons had to walk up to a person who had done something that made a difference to us, and explain who we were and why we wanted to thank them.
From the ticket inspector who helped us use the machines on the station in Chicago, to the construction workers who stayed an extra night after their shifts to teach us how to build a real American campfire on the beach of Houghton Lake in Michigan, to the concierge in New York who told us to catch the Q8 bus into town and saved us the exorbitant taxi fair.
We met and spoke to captains of industry, cleaners, shop assistants, soccer mums, entrepreneurs, homeless and celebrities; got given help, made friends, made eye-contact and said thank you, and learned to find connections between us all.
Kids who travel know the difference between a stranger and danger and are able to make connections naturally, and that will help invite mentoring in the future. I would add that they should not only be able to make small talk but be able to communicate gratitude; to learn to ask for what they need, but also ask how they can help.
This is not just about teaching them how to ask for directions, it’s also about making sense of our embodied cognition with our world. Travel builds all necessary resources not just in the brain, but also the body and the relationship between these things and the environment.
When the train station signs are in a foreign language it’s about discerning the information you need from what information there is, and knowing where to turn to ask for help. When the upside-down tornado 16 blocks big with winds up to 150 mph hits town, and pylons are falling in the road as tree branches fly past, it’s about holding steady and navigating landmarks between the chaos to shelter and safety.
By the time my sons were 16- and 12-years-old we were walking the 800km of The Camino. At one point my sons decided to walk 6km into a town in the middle of Spain on their own. I hurt my knee and had to call for a cab and, when they left me in a bar to set off for the next town, they had no more information than the name of a place I would try and get us into for the night.
The town wasn’t an easy one, it was a fiesta day so it was bustling and our accommodation was tucked down a side road. I resisted the temptation to ask people to keep a look out for them and decided to let them figure it out.
And they did, and they haven’t looked back since.
Our neural network may be innate but it matures with our interaction with the world, and the more experiences you have the stronger the wiring. Travel gives you the confidence to know you may not know but you know how to find out.
Travelling with kids is an ideal environment to learn to manage your self, every flight departure and train time is a deadline, every backpack is a workload, and every trip is an assignment.
The younger they start the more involved they can be when they’re older. At the ages of 3 and 7 both my boys had their own backpacks they were responsible for over a four-week trip. We flew to Melbourne via Hong Kong for three days, from there we travelled to Philip Island, on to Sydney, out to the bush, and back via Canberra, then home with a whistle stop in Dubai. If they lost something we couldn’t go back for it.
Taking that road trip across America involved catching planes, trains and metros on time, and by the time they were walking for 800km across Spain they were managing themselves; deciding what they needed for all 33 days, and carrying it all the way.
On the evening of day four we decided to get rid of at least a third of what we had brought, and both boys were responsible for making those choices for themselves; whatever they decided, they had to live with it for the next months. I did sneak out the next night and buy a t-shirt when I realised the 12-year-old only had the one he was wearing, and had fallen asleep in. He wasn’t bothered, but it’s a treasured souvenir now.
We loved the RV we drove for 5 days around Arizona, a big ol’home on wheels, up to the Grand Canyon and winding back down through Navajo country, Sedona, Black Canyon City, to Phoenix.
It was not only important that we all contributed to keeping the small space organised but, with one of us driving, it fell to the kids to divide the chores to keep us on the road. They helped out with everything from washing up to flushing out the holding tank and, as a result, they are absolutely aware of what it takes to run a household.
One evening I put a pack of mac’n’cheese down in front of them and they said, “Thank you for cooking dinner mum.” Obviously I was shamed into admitting that it came from a packet, to which they replied; “Yes, but you had to organise getting it from the shops for it to be cooked and on the table in time for us to eat it.”
By the time they were living communally on that walk across a country, they knew how to look after their own needs while respecting others, and do their fair share for the community. Accommodation was basic; sometimes bunk beds with plastic mattresses in dormitories of hundreds, and 50 people sharing a shower and an outside sink, and traveling companions came in all sizes and temperaments.
One evening they were part of preparing a meal for 72 people in Grañon's Romanesque church attic; from laying the table to the food preparation, to serving, eating, conversing, and clearing up a pasta and salad for 72, in one sitting, in a small common-room of a village church.
Our very last morning on our 33 day walk, as we set off to walk into Santiago de Compostela, both boys were bickering, They’d never said some of the things they were hissing at each other, and inevitably one of them said they hated the other and stormed off.
Given a little space to realise their frustration was sadness, it wasn’t with each other but was prompted by coming to the end of a truly magical time, they ended the day crying in each other’s embrace. Knowing they were not just born to be friends they love each other, they know their strength is their common life, and it takes two to make brothers.
One of my sons is now 18-years-old and he currently in Turkey working with refugees in the city of Izmir. The group he is working with have empowered over 70 families, micro-financed businesses, opened earning streams for women and started schools; he is handling extreme interpersonal problems beyond borders and beliefs to being human.
When we were in Detroit, Michigan, our hotel recommended a car service to take us around for the day, telling us it was $5 dollars a trip. What they failed to mention was the “wait time”. Even though we negotiated the final price down, it still ate into our budget enough to have to cancel plans to see Niagara Falls. We ended up in a cheap motel on the beach around Houghton Lake, where we met that team of construction workers; my sons have learned that it can be hard to tell if something is good luck or bad luck until it plays out.
In Yavapai Indian territory, South East Arizona, we drove back under Superstitious Mountain, past three rainbows and, still wet from swimming in a hidden canyon lake, we headed straight into that 16-block-big Arizona macroburst storm, and it would have been easy to think it was a disaster.
Instead, we pulled off the road into a car park of a restaurant and ended up eating the best meal. Despite a power-out and having to close, the restaurant sheltered us. We sat in the dark, in damp swim-suits and cowboy hats, and plates were piled up next to us, followed by more with slices of cake, ice cream and bowls of sweets, until the storm passed.
Our first day on our walk across Spain with 33 days ahead of us the challenge put us over its knee and spanked us, slapped our faces and then spun us around while laughing at our audacity to think we had it measured.
The next day dawned with a gentle mist that then threw everything else at us, and my 16 year old, Ben, took 9 hours to walk 16km up and over the 1450m Col de Lepoeder from France in to Spain. He threw up for 5 hours of that walk, he couldn’t even keep water down.
At one point he sat down and cried because he couldn’t carry on. Opposite him on the hillside was a gravestone, and he realised he had no choice. He went on to walk 776 kilometres after that day.
Travel teaches your children to ride the ups and downs. No travel experience is black and white, no journey is without polarities, all trips have good and bad forces working through them, against them, and within them; and that’s what teaches our children to understand the essence of the landscape around them, and to master their inner landscape.
Travel teaches them not just how to handle money, but the value of things in different currencies. When you travel the cost of a coke in different countries reveals more about the economy than just the value of the coins. How people live and what they spend their money on in different cultures reveals our own spending habits, in a way that gives context to our actual needs.
While traveling children see how other children live and, not only do they become aware of how lucky they are, and how rude it is not to make the most of that, but also that earning a living is a reality for many their own age around the world. It is an observable pattern that children who travel a lot rarely take things for granted, or feel entitled.
Travel teaches our kids that life lived with risk is worth living, they learn that life rewards courage, and risk makes it a daring adventure. It teaches them that failure is only a stepping-stone on the path to greater self-knowledge, and in swimming against the current they learn what it is that is holding them back.
They learn that life is uncertain, people get diseases, get divorced, die, and if you risk nothing it doesn’t prevent bad things happening, so they might as well take risks they choose for themselves.
It begins by jumping off the big boulders into the spring-fed, ice cold, waters of a river running through Ontinyent in Spain, or wild walking through the rainforest of northern Kenya under the troops of colobus monkeys; and grows while they climb waterfalls in the Blue Hills of Virginia, and ride an elephant to watch tigers in the untamed landscape of India.
With each new encounter with their planet the traveler is reminded of his human condition, and that there is more to it than the rational and secular world can account for. Our children learn that we have a tenure with our world.
As parents we are given custody of the hearts and minds of the citizens of the future, and we all want to do our best for them. Travel is such an important part of that, for if we show them they live in one world, and it is pluralistic and that is not going to change. If we show them different ways of thinking then potentially, everything about the way they think about the world, the vision they build for it, the life they make in it, the dreams they hold, could be something extraordinary; because it comes out of this almost unprecedented blend of cultures.
It will make it true that where they come from will be less important than were they are going, and travel will open up a space of unimaginable size where they become themselves.
Melanie Gow is a writer, speaker and photographic artist who believes life is a brief shot at something incredible. Her book, Walking With Angels, is the inspirational story of walking the Camino de Santiago with her sons, aged 12 and 16, and is available on Amazon. For more details about Melanie and her book, visit her website, myofficetoday.co.uk.
Main image: Young backpacker off to face life (Shutterstock.com)