Anyone who loves to travel knows the world can be the best classroom, offering insights and life lessons with every journey. When I became a parent, I knew I wanted to give my child the gift of this experience. To travel always and often became a family mission.
Many adventures and passport stamps later, I know it’s not always easy to explore with your brood — hustling dozens of luggage bags into a cart, hurrying along while the kids struggle to keep up, and trying to wrangle enough seats to keep everyone together can feel like something out of “The Amazing Race.”
And yet, in this magical chaos, there is also an opportunity to educate and inform, raising conscientious kid travelers who can in turn become more thoughtful adults. From patience to gratitude to empathy, here are some of my favorite life lessons to teach kids through the lens of travel.
You can trace pretty much any trait that makes a person successful in life — grit, determination, perseverance, hard work — to their ability to be patient with the journey. Knowing when to rest and when to run, when to stay calm and when to hustle, are terrific lessons to teach kids while traveling. To prepare them for the journey of long airport lines, cramped airplane seats and the dizzying pace of arrival is to teach them that life is a process.
When we were traveling through Italy, three children in tow — my toddler and two nieces under 7 — we repeatedly chanted this mantra: Travel day is hustle day. Sometimes that mantra was a command and sometimes it was a cheer; other times it was a song.
This taught them how to shift gears from the wandering and carefree attitude of taking in the sights to the determined gait of people trying to go places. You can’t dilly-dally. You must always hold a parent’s hand. You have to keep up with the group.
Pretty soon, they understood what was being asked of them and even enjoyed the drill. They were part of a team and their actions contributed to the bigger goal — the warm hotel bed, the beautiful sights, the endless flavors of gelato.
The lesson? Be patient with the journey and reap the rewards.
If there’s road rage, there’s definitely travel rage — there’s nothing like a cramped plane seat or culture clash to bring out the worst in travelers. If you want a child who doesn’t add to that conflict, point out strangers’ small acts of kindness.
It’s easy to give up on the world when you read news headlines, but travel through it and you’ll encounter a much kinder place. I’ve had seatmates on a plane go out of their way to entertain my toddler’s gibberish conversation. A stranger once gave him a keychain hanging off her bag because he reached over (before I could stop him) to play with it. I’ve been met with nods of understanding, at times when I’m visibly struggling to keep him still or calm. Waiters and store clerks have doted on my child, when it would’ve been just as easy to ignore him.
It’s never lost of on me that in each instance, that stranger could’ve easily behaved the other way — with frustration or glares of judgement. Make it a point never to let these kind and humanizing gestures go unnoticed or unappreciated.
The more examples of these gestures children have, the better they will understand that kindness is a currency that returns on investment, tenfold, no matter where you are in the world.
We often travel with our kids while continuing to shelter them from the real world. While resorts and beaches are easy go-to holidays, if you really want the world to be a classroom for your little ones, you might want to add a trip or two that serves a bigger purpose. This doesn’t have to be as elaborate as signing up for a charitable mission; it can be as simple as going to places that might not have the same comforts as your family is used to enjoying.
My own global citizenship came by way of my exposure, at an early age, to countries with disparities in wealth and privileges. This is one way to grow not only a child’s gratitude, but their empathy for people in different circumstances. It might even inspire in them an idea to solve the world’s most pressing problems, or to pursue a meaningful profession that contributes to making a better, more equitable society.
Traveling is best when you’re not constantly ticking off a bucket list or capturing every moment with a camera. You’ve already taken the time off; resist the temptation to rush through your vacation. Instead of pushing to see everything, use your new surroundings as a glorious backdrop to some quality family time.
In our own travels, we often would skip the long day at the museum and instead picnic in front of a gorgeous landmark or take long walks down a historic street. We still got our travel fix, but at a pace that our child could manage.
Children, especially those who tire and tantrum easily, will be happier when you slow down. And in turn, they’ll likely learn the beauty of savoring the moment wherever life might take them.
Care for the Environment
Cities are great for culture exchange, but if you want to raise an environmentally conscious child, show them what’s worth saving. Children may not seem interested in heading outdoors when they’re in front of a screen, but you’d be surprised how quick they take to nature, once they’re in it.
My toddler was as much in awe of the California redwoods as we were on our first visit to Muir Woods in San Francisco. Lately, we’ve made a ritual out of catching sunrises and sunsets in many places we visit. As much as possible, we always seek out the ocean and its many moods, calm or rumbling with waves.
With every new experience with nature, always there is awe and many questions. My hope is that this curiosity and wonder will one day turn into care and concern for the planet. It’s only a hope, but I know that my chances get better every time I show him what makes our world so beautiful.
Love of Learning
Major landmarks — bridges and towers, monuments and statues — can leave an incredible imprint on a child’s memory. My toddler may not remember many things about our summer in Paris, but he knows the Eiffel Tower by sight. At times, any tall triangular shape will remind him of it.
To a child, a landmark is like a mascot of a city, an instantly recognizable and friendly character that makes a place feel less strange. It’s a confidence-booster, too. The simple act of naming a landmark made my child feel knowledgeable and as a result, more interested in what we were doing.
Pretty soon, he wasn’t just naming bridges — Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bay and Golden are the favorites — but also identifying what he liked about them. In planting these small seeds of knowledge and interest, you can help your kid connect with the power and thrill of learning. At the same time, you will no longer be dragging along a little soul on your adventure, but molding a true travel companion.
Compassion for Neighbors
Children can be very myopic, focused entirely on their needs and the guardians who provide them. It’s important to implore kids to look up, look around and recognize that they are not alone — and that their actions affect everyone around them. Traveling is a great teaching tool for courtesy, precisely because you are constantly interacting with people in so many different, often extreme situations.
It may seem simplistic, but explaining to kids exactly who they are surrounded by can make all the difference. With my son, for instance, I never fail to point out the people sitting in the row in front of him on the plane. This doesn’t always lead to perfect behavior, but I’ve found that he is more likely to keep to his seat and know his boundaries. We also take the time to show him that there are right ways to board trains and planes, wait in lines or order at a restaurant, so as not to offend those traveling alongside us.
Show your kids the world and they’ll better understand that it doesn’t revolve around them.
Adaptation to Change
Adapting to change isn’t easy for anyone, including (and maybe especially) for kids. Exploring a new place is a fun way to show them how to get out of their comfort zones by learning a new language, trying a strange food or enjoying unfamiliar surroundings. The faster they learn to work through their confusion, press for understanding and find common ground, the better they will fare with all the new experiences life has to offer.
An example: Last summer, we lived in Paris for two months. It was a beautiful time filled with long walks and daily runs to the boulangerie. During that time, we gently nudged our toddler to order his own favorite pain-au-chocolat, to introduce him early on to the slight discomfort of dealing with language barriers.
Understanding of Differences
If you want a child to learn how to love traveling in order to reap its many rewards, it’s important to first get them to like it. This means not imposing your travel style and interests on a child, who will likely have their own ideas about what makes a trip enjoyable.
Your kid may not be able to verbally articulate their lack of interest in a long day at the museum or hours of people-watching at a cafe, but they will express it in moods, tantrums and restlessness. Rather than automatically dismissing this as bad behavior, consider it a cue to ask about their travel desires.
In respecting their interests, also don’t forget to share yours. Early on, I started pointing out to my child every time we saw art, a passion of mine, in our travels — a sculpture, a mural, a photograph, a painting. To my delight, he began to recognize them on his own.
Cultivating mutual respect — honoring your kid’s interests, while teaching them to understand yours — can deliver all sorts of important life lessons, including an appreciation not only for differences, but for teamwork and the independence of ideas.
If there is one lesson I want to teach my child about life and how to live it well as a conscientious human being, it’s this — life is about moments, never about things. It’s the memories we cherish with our loved ones that truly make life worthwhile.
By the time my child was 4, he had racked up more miles than I had at 20. At times, I wondered if all the trouble and effort we went through to take him to all these places would mean anything to him. Certainly at 1 or 2 or even 3, he didn’t seem to care that much where we were. But something started to blossom as he began to talk and ask more questions.
Now, we talk about our travels often, sharing memories at bedtime and looking at pictures regularly. It’s a practice that drives home the importance of being thankful for the privilege and value of our experiences.