The most important lessons children learn from travelling

Our family travel expert Melanie Gow reveals what she thinks are the most important lessons kids learn from travelling

7 mins

Tales of the grotesque and threatening Adamastor storms at the Cape of Good Hope stirred up somber schoolroom days; and I vowed I would see it for myself when I grew up.

Thinking it was one of the most romantic names in the world, I wanted to be where the 15th Century Portuguese navigators bridged the late Middle Ages to the Early Renaissance, with their audacious persistence in rounding the headland; without knowing what was ahead of them.

I wanted to witness the colours of the ocean where the icy Antarctic met the warmth of the Indian, and rogue waves littered the shore with wrecks.

They didn’t teach us in school that actually the southern most tip was Cape Agulhas, 90 miles South South East along the coast. I also never imagined I would be a mother sitting on a stretch of sand feeding my 11month old baby when I did finally make it.

However, my reality of seeing the wrong cape with my child turned out to be the right thing to begin a personal journey into the unknown.  My sons have now sat in my arms off the southern tip of Africa, India and Australia; and they have seen the curve of the Earth in the horizon, and on to the universe beyond it.

They have sat on the deck of a dhow made from hull boards sewn together with cords, under a billowing lateen sail pulling us back into a safe harbour. They have sat on the roof of cars and been startled by the majesty of African elephants at the waterhole, and sat on the sidewalks of Hong Kong looking up at the monolithic skylines.

They have sat down to feed kangaroos in Australia, sat on Route 66 eating candy thrown by the good old parade rolling by, and sat listening to the song of the dancing snake on the dirt streets of India.

Little by little the experience of travel as a series of extraordinary novelties began to open up the neurological trade routes within my sons, along which meaning and understanding could be shipped back and fourth.

On the savannahs of Africa they learnt that, when two elephants fight it is the grass that gets trampled. On a station in the outback of Australia – where cigarettes are sold in packs of sixty because that is how long ranchers are gone mustering – they learnt a person only looks at their watch if they have to be somewhere else.

From the streets of Hong Kong - despite the lucky red Feng shui ribbons on the doors, and dragons coming down from the mountain to drink in the bay below – they learnt we are all more similar than we are different. Through random kindness across the continent of America – where grandiose optimism and positivity is almost sanctified - they learnt that a sermon is better lived than preached.

Everywhere they have learnt to love this life, and learnt the power of gratitude to transform a day; they have learnt those values, and useful skills, and more.

Any travel venture takes you beyond your confront zone – whether it’s a long haul flight with at toddler or a walking expedition across a country with teenagers – it teaches our children that they have to be stronger than their excuses.

Both my children have learnt that you can hang up your shoes anytime, so you have to decide to get up every day and get out there. Despondency can set in regularly, and so you can stew in the juices of your own complaints or choose to wrestle the emotional flatline and find the energy to feel for the heartbeat of a day.

They have learnt that this has nothing to do with confidence; you can’t be confident before you achieve something, and confidence can be knocked. You need determination, determination allows for doubt and humility, but it is steadfast.

They have learnt that wherever you are, be all there. Whether you are gazing out at the greatest natural wonder in the world on the edge of the Grand Canyon, or on a cold bench a 5 o’clock in the morning, under a street lamp, eating hot cheese and ham toasties straight from the bakers tray, in a city somewhere in Spain.

For kids life exists in the present or nowhere at all, and travelling is the practice of being in the moment; it’s a kind of elevated purposelessness that makes being present an active state of awareness, where you can hear the earth whisper; and in that space you come to know that lasting peace is found inside.

As a family we have seen the goats feed off the smoking piles of rubbish in the slums of Africa, but we have also played in the sand in the silence on the banks of an oasis, high in the Thar Desert in Rahjistan, India; and my boys know that small space inside where we go to hide, is actually where life happens.

They have come to know that deep inside them is the unique spark of who they are, with an inherent capacity for coming into being. They feel alive at the deepest centre of themselves in a way that is unknowable until you are sitting in it with wonder.

There you see that things are the way you see them. They have found themselves miserable hunkered in the inadequate shadow of hay bales on the side of a dirt track in 52 degrees. But they have also run free with the seagulls on the shore of Lake Michigan, and they know that it is not where you are, or what you are doing, or what you have, that makes you happy or unhappy, it’s how you feel about it.

They know they don’t have any control over what happens, what they can try to master is how they respond. What we all want is to make the world a really big place and yet be familiar with it. We want to be there where the magnetic north meets the true north.

So I have travelled with my sons across four continents, by planes, trains, and automobiles, before I finally walked with them, aged 16 and 12, for 800km across over a small mountain and across a country for 33 days.

Travel is not about rest and recuperation it is a challenge to your life back home, and it doesn’t so much change you as unwrap you.

Travel is actually a space in which you can let them fail, make decisions, think, be, gaze at the cosmos and understand our place in the universe. There is more to the human condition than the expectations and cultural narrative can offer. Deep inside, travel changes their idea of living, and what life is about.

If we want to grow the leaders and dreamers of the future we have to give them resources, to build resources we have to give them experiences, to give them experience we have to take them by the hand into the world beyond our normal.

Travel equips them to be successful by a radically wider definition than we usually measure achievement by. It's about growing as a human being, a craftsman, and a thinker. It's about basing feelings of success on your own efforts and who you are at your core.

Finally it is about raising centered, resourceful, fully-engaged and wise children, because centered, resourceful, fully-engaged and wise children become centered, resourceful, fully-engaged and wise adults. The world needs more of those to weather the storms on the headlands of life, like sailors at the vanguard of the future where none of us know what’s ahead.

More like this

What America taught my children

Giving your children space to travel

10 reasons to keep travelling adventurously with kids

Melanie Gow (Melanie Gow)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,

Main image: Mother and child looking across lake (

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