In a world where families are retreating into individual tech bubbles, Mel Gow reveals how travel could be the best – and maybe only – way to bring families together
Something strange happened when my kids popped out into the world, something that our highly industrialised cultural landscapes and individualised lifestyles didn’t prepare me for. I became connected to this planet.
Throughout this intoxicating wander through the last two decades with them it has been a growing pleasure to travel together, and it is travel that has brought the family together. Here's how:
Young family admiring the Matterhorn (Dreamstime)
Countless things have been said and written about the value of travel for families, but the one that gets left off the list is travel as a Rite of Passage. In societies that are becoming ever more gender neutral, and pressured by unprecedented automation, climate change and globalisation, there are few opportunities to grasp the responsibilities adulthood entails.
Both my children’s milestones have been marked with a journey; an experience for the family that is more memorable than a cake and another toy. To celebrate the first landmark 16th birthday we walked over the Pyrenees and across Spain for 33 days. My boys had 800 kilometres of space to decide what kind of an adult they wanted to be, and learn to expect no special dispensation for fulfilling that vision of themselves.
Family setting off to conquer the wild (Dreamstime)
For my 40th we were sitting on a ghat by the banks of Pushkar Lake in Rajasthan at sunset. My boys gave me a paper plate with 5 local biscuits and a balloon taped to it, with a cone of newspaper filled with popcorn. I remember how the air smelt, the sound of the birds on the electric cables overhead, the sight of cows wandering past, the tempered sky and every second of how I felt truly tethered to those with me.
All of the trips have consciously marked a stage in life. Each one, saturated in enriched experiences, has meant that they not only hold highly patterned memories, they also comfortably become meaningful.
On the bus and ready to go (Dreamstime)
One common theme mentioned by families that travel together is their friendship. It’s not necessary for survival but it is one of those things which adds value to all this. Without the infrastructure of daily life, where the cycle of nagging about getting up, putting shoes on or away, picking wet towels up, eating properly, doing homework and cleaning teeth shape every day, being out in the world gives you the space to remind each other how much you love each other. And, in doing so, you get to remember that you do – which is a pleasure.
Travel puts you in situations that grow a mutual respect, an equality, trust and honesty. To travel well you end up developing an open communication, and discard standard disciplinary approaches to evolve a more respectful guiding process, and inspire growth. Away from the constraints and grinding expectations of daily life, travel lets you create happiness, security and optimism – all the things you have worked so hard in life for yourself.
Father and son hiking (Dreamstime)
It isn’t possible to name one specific example where this happened because it is a process of incremental gains, but I can say that on every trip it has become more apparent. My kids are not afraid of disagreeing with me; they call me out when I’m unfair. Failing to question our conditioning can blind us to untapped possibilities in ourselves, others and life itself.
Because in friendship there is no power struggle and no need to rebel, they therefore do it in other ways such as in the questioning of expectations – and that, of course, is a good thing.
As I would a really good friend, I love that they think for themselves in utterly surprising ways, they are also funnier than I am, and sometimes, just sometimes, I need them more than they need me now.
Family consulting a map (Dreamstime)
Different from friendship, is the feeling of being part of a team. We drove an RV around Arizona. It was the size of the bottom floor of our former terraced house, and the first time we set off in it was around dusk. We were in a six-lane ring road around Phoenix and nobody had told us where the light switch was.
There we were on the other side of the road, doing the capacity speed, driving in lane three (or four, it’s hard to tell when the road is so vast), with no off ramp, no breakdown lane, and no idea. We’re been driving a house for less than an hour and we were on a countdown to a black desert night.
I had to drive, so my 10-year-old boy had to read the manual, which the 7-year-old son had to find, which happened to be in German. But it had pictures, and together they figured it out and we lit up the road ahead. We drove for three more hours into the endless night to roll into our first campground safe and sound.
Family driving in the desert (Dreamstime)
You are the only people you know in strange lands, and you’re each other’s certainty. Being on the road is the team-building exercise all the other ones want to be like; it develops an interdependence and a connectedness that makes it easy to rely on one another. Your kids become more than accessories, or responsibilities; they're valued members of the team.
We crossed America from LA to New York, through 15 states over 7 weeks, and the only way we did that was as a team.
Family climbing on a glacier together (Dreamstime)
We made it to the top of Col Lepoeder which stands at 4,719ft just inside Spain in the Pyrenees, after 6 hours of walking for the first 15km into our 800km journey. It’s immensely peaceful; you can hear the cattle bells on the opposite side of the valley gently clinking as the cows graze, while sheep are scattered like woolly rocks tumbling down the hillsides, and the horses are freely unconstrained by fences.
From up there you can see the one earth we all live on; down in the valleys where we all live, certainties may turn out to be nothing more that subjective distortions in the face of other normals.
One of the most important things we can give our children is a realistic sense of who they are in the context of this world – the world they are going to shape, and be crushed or thrive in.
The best thing we can give them is as true picture of it as we can, the chance to redefine success in it for themselves; and the resources to unravel the distorting dynamics of power, privilege and prejudice that is widespread.
Walking among the rice paddies in Indonesia (Dreamstime)
Travel shows us the world as it is, not the world as we need to believe it to be to maintain our privilege, and allows our children to see their values in that backdrop. Nobody can see the children of India sleeping on the streets and still believe Santa travels the world in one night giving presents to all the deserving girls and boys. You either have to believe that those children are bad children, or you have to question the story of Santa we are told.
Within that context travel helps to shape shared values; the enriched environment of traveling in the unfamiliar offers new experiences strong in combined social, physical, cognitive and sensory interaction. Walking through unfamiliar places increases our state of alertness, this grows the brain and matures the frontal lobes to increase cognitive functioning; which gives us the power to question the story the world tells us about what is expected of us, and the resources to define success for ourselves.
Somewhere in there a family develops a sense of what it values as a whole, widens its moral circle, shapes a gratitude, and finds success in their growth, distinct from anything external.
On the road again (Dreamstime)
It shouldn’t even need saying, and yet here I am. We often think if we’re in the same room we’re spending time with each other, but we can be paying lip service to listening while thinking about what’s for dinner. While traveling we necessarily have to be in the present, which means family members have time to catch up with one another without the usual distractions of daily life.
This is the time when we spend time together for the sake of spending time together, with the loftier goal of finding out how each person thinks and feels, and the holistic discovery of who you are together. This creates a pool of resilience each individual can rely on, promotes a mobility of expression, and external positives like stability and well-being of the whole, and the individuals within it, from which each is able to fulfil broader societal objectives.
That’s the noble and elevated case for spending time together, the basic one is that it is really cool to hang out with the people who tether you to this planet, and make it worth getting up each day.
Take the time to explore the world together (Dreamtime)
It’s arguably just a trick of evolution that makes child-rearing satisfying and the purpose of life for many – otherwise who’d do it? – but, travelling as a family undeniably brings a certain unpredictable frisson, satisfaction and deep joy, and makes it really convincingly worthwhile.
For my youngest son’s 16th we are going to Canada this summer, for a month, to see what the fuss is all about. We like what we see and hear about Canadians, and we are going to find out what they have to teach us about life and how to live it. We also get to hang out with the people we like most.
Where are you going this that that’s going to bring you together?
Main image: Father and son contemplating the path ahead (Dreamstime)