“How much of what your son is doing now is who he is and how much was influenced by you?”
I’d just given a joint talk with my eldest son about the refugee crisis in Europe and the grassroots response we are part of. For the past year, he has been working with refugees in Izmir in Turkey, helping to set up small businesses and run three schools his group opened, at the age of 19.
The question about my influence was the first question we fielded from the audience. It’s a question I’ve asked myself and, as with any nurture Vs nature debate, the answer is 'both'.
If we want our children to be successful adults, we have around 20 years work ahead of us from the day they are born. If we are going to then get a chance to nurture it, the trick is to be able to spot the nature. That’s where travel comes in.
Young child closely observing a dolphin (Dreamstime)
I have written before about how travel allows a parent to see aspects of their children that the habits of everyday life obscures. Being in the middle of Africa exposed my eldest son’s natural altruism at two years old, in his first encounter with true poverty, which – given the right nurturing – led to him working in the humanitarian crisis 15 years later.
In everyday life, our kids are at school half the year or more. Between that, we spend a lot of time getting on with chores that make everything work around them. In the short time we have left, we are, at best, reading them a bedtime story, but often just half-listening to something they want to say, while thinking about what to cook for dinner, longing for that time at the end of the day when they have gone to bed and we can be on our own.
Travel is the time you invest in them and you, and the space in between.
If you travel with your children and put yourselves in unfamiliar surroundings over and over again, you see them amplified. Without the opportunities that travel opens up, these rich seams of insight would either not be exposed or would go unnoticed.
Children in Peru with llamas (Dreamstime)
If you remain watchful, your children’s nature will reveal itself and open up the possibilities of nurturing it. We must nurture it, but again travel helps to nurture all the things that will support them to be successful in what it is in their nature to be.
While you have kids, the family holiday is the time you get to spend with them, not the time to pass out in an all-inclusive resort. What are they ever going to learn about the world from a 5 star hotel? What resources are they going to build from the buffet table of homogenised cuisine? What values are they going to absorb in a play space that's really designed to keep them away from people?
We send them to school to encourage their academic development, so why wouldn’t we spend the time in-between giving them the opportunity to develop the things that will actually make them successful human beings?
Family on an off-road adventure (Dreamstime)
There is no better arena for demonstrating accountability in yourself and giving your kids opportunities to learn it, than travelling with them. Every time we make travel plans and follow through, it is audacious evidence of a promise kept, and travel also throws up plenty of opportunity for natural consequences for things not done.
We have to own our part, take accountability of ourselves, and show up. Every peak that has to be walked over, every bag that has to be packed and carried and every canoe that has to make it down the river is the perfect hothouse for encouraging the ability to understand what is expected of our kids and let them be accountable for delivering results.
It is a given that adaptability comes with travel, and it’s not just about constantly changing environments and demands. Every time travel plans change due to circumstances beyond your control, and a family pulls together and gets themselves out of the situation, all sorts of adaptability lessons are learned. That happens whether that is getting lost walking through Hong Kong, getting caught in a macroburst in Arizona or falling off a boat into the Antarctic off the coast of Australia when you’re six.
Travel also gives your kids the skills and ability to change themselves, even if you can't change the situation. In a globalised world that is both unpredictable and unstable, adaptability is going to be very necessary for them in the future.
Children camping in a Swiss meadow (Dreamstime)
When you find yourself hiking out of Dark Hollow Falls on the Skydrive along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in 96% humidity, resolve gets you through. Anytime you find yourself hunkered down in the paltry shade of a bale of hay in 52 degrees heat an hour’s walk from anywhere, you are going to need resolve. Sitting on a bunk on a train down India for 26hrs, resolve is needed. Resolve is a very handy core value through all sorts of life’s trials.
Having respect for local communities, cultures and environments in a place that is foreign to you is a survival skill. If you get it right, you not only get an immersive experience and gain a better understanding of your surroundings, but you leave a positive impact that feels good and builds a sense of honour, value and respect for yourself.
When we stayed in the local run lodge in Kakamega forest in Kenya, we not only ate more interesting food, went to places that very few non-natives have visited and enjoyed rare sightings of wildlife off the beaten track, we learnt about our impact on the people who lived there and the effect on the environment in real practical terms.
Swimming with buffaloes (Dreamstime)
Travel allows a person to develop responsibility because you can give them age appropriate independence. They can be involved in the practicalities of getting from one place to another, take care of their own possessions and keep track of them, and be encouraged to make choices and be actively involved in planning activities for the day.
Travel gets kids to move beyond being told what to do by an adult and to learn to hold themselves responsible. Looping Arizona in an RV gave my kids a week of washing up, keeping a moving space safe, cooking, hooking up water, and even the 'honey wagon' chore at the end.
They’ve been taught campfire management on the shores of Houghton Lake, learnt hen wrangling in on a farm in Australia, had to stick together on the web of transport across New York, and get themselves up and on the trail every morning for 33 days walking across Spain as teens.
Learning about glaciers (Dreamstime)
My advice is: travel with your kids. It’s not about rest and recuperation. Instead, it is a challenge to your life back home. Take them out into the world where real people live, meaning real people with different lives, and different 'normals' and different stories. Then you will be able to answer the question about 'influence' the way I did.
“I didn’t influence him, but I did deliberately take him out into the world.”
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: A family watching sunset at Angkor Wat (Dreamstime)
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