Our family first moved overseas several years ago and my incurably friendly youngest son grew up almost exclusively in China. During one visit to grandparents in America, he tried to make friends with a little girl next door. He didn’t speak to her and tried to communicate with homemade sign language. After a few seconds, she raised an eyebrow and eyed him suspiciously, trying to decide what he was doing. I leaned in and explained, “Sorry! He doesn’t know you speak English!” She stiffened and stomped her foot, clearly put out. “I don’t speak ENGLISH, I speak REGULAR!”
When people learn how much of the world my children have seen in their young lives — four continents before a fourth birthday — reactions vary from envy to obvious disapproval. While many people are excited by the idea of globe-trotting toddlers, others question the wisdom of spending time and effort (and money) “dragging kids around the world.” We often get some version of the question, “What could kids possibly get out of a trip like that?”
I’m so glad you asked! Here are five things kids gain from a visit to another country, or even another state.
- The ability to leap over language or culture barriers with a single bound. Kids who travel gain an uncanny ability to make new friends and understand each other in a way that is nearly impossible for adults. These abilities come home with your kids translated as better social skills, compassion for the “new kid” and an open mind about kids who are different.
- The ability to recognize privilege, especially in their own lives. When you see the real poverty that exists in the world, or even how the “regular people” live in other parts of the world, your own blessings come into very sharp focus. Benefits include fewer demands for an upgraded phone and less complaining about sharing a bedroom.
- The knowledge of how little they know. When you’ve only experienced life in your own little corner of the world, it’s easy to think you know it all. Travel teaches us how much there is to learn, and when kids experience this first-hand, their curiosity and thirst for knowledge go through the roof.
- The ability to go with the flow — or roll with the punches. The pride kids feel when they figure out how to solve problems in an unfamiliar environment builds confidence and self-esteem. When a teen has mastered the London Underground or deciphered a Chinese-only map of the Forbidden City, everyday problems seem much easier to overcome. And dealing with the inevitable delays and complications of travel teaches kids patience and gives them a high boredom threshold.
- The knowledge that the world is Real. One of the most difficult things for the human brain to accept is the idea that other people in other cultures are as real as we are. That there are entire continents full of people who fear their fears, and love their loves, and believe their beliefs as strongly as we do ours seems impossible. This makes it all too easy to fear what we don’t understand. When kids see other people and other places first-hand, understanding begins to grow.
So whether your kids are two or twelve, whether you visit another continent or another coast, consider giving your children the incredible advantages of travel. Help your kids discover that our differences are not what define us.
Olivia is a mother, a writer and a compulsive traveler. She blogs about traveling with kids at www.aroundtheworldin80diapers.com