Raising Well-Adjusted Kids: Travel

 “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”

Gustave Flaubert

When we look back on our childhood, what memories stand out? A few Christmas presents are memorable, most are forgotten.  The many hours of TV or video games don’t have the contrast to stand out. 

It is Unique Experience that we remember, like the trip to Yellowstone when our car ran out of gas or the time in France when we thought a bidet was a toilet. These are the memories we will laugh about with our family for years to come. We remember change, hardship, and adventure.  We remember our travels.

From a young age I had the opportunity to travel to many countries (my dad was in the Military).  While travel has remained a rewarding hobby, I am increasingly convinced that for our children – traveling is a near-necessity. 

As the world gets smaller and opens to us – through our phones, TV, and high-speed travel – it should follow that the average young adult is more educated in geography, culture, and history than his predecessors. The opposite seems true. Rather than opening our worldview, technology has simply focused our minds upon that with which we are most comfortable. Algorithms aren’t trained to expose us to new ideas or expand our view but feed us more of the same.

Youth are increasingly ignorant of the realities of life outside their small spheres of comfort.  Our perspective has become hyper-focused on the here and now. The vast expanse of human history and culture is left unexplored (but not unjudged).  If we do venture into foreign lands, we often stay in a comfortable resort or focus on capturing the perfect image for Instagram, rather than pushing past our comfort zones.

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”

Rudyard Kipling

Impressionable youth now seem sure on one of two things: their own culture is the most repressive or the most enlightened.  The truth is much more complicated.  But how do we encounter complexity and grapple with it?  It is rarely discovered in a textbook or a professor’s lecture.  Complexity is seen when encountering new people: their art, their history, and their culture.  In the reality of the living-world you will  find no slogans or neatly wrapped ideologies.  You will find a beautiful and tragic mess – and one much different, and much the same, as the mess in your own backyard.  

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”

St. Augustine

It is staggering to consider how many people occupy this planet of ours. Only when we travel can we start to appreciate the reality of humanity’s vastness. Every white hilltop village in Southern Spain, every bustling city in Central China, every favela in Rio – are home. And home is important – it is what shapes us, each of us. It is important to step into these homes of humanity. If we don’t, we never feel foreign; we never see the world in its strangeness or appreciate our own home.

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”

Robert Lewis Stevenson

On a recent trip to Spain with my husband and two oldest children, I loved feeling like a foreigner again.  I discovered new ways to eat, relax, dress, and interact.  I want to be more Spanish after that trip.  I want to put more thought into how I dress, the way Spanish women seem to. I want to enjoy conversation as I eat food more slowly, and not feel guilty for every bite of bread.  I want to touch my friend on the arm when I speak to her – bring more emotion and joy to our conversations. 

Arcos de la Frontera, Spain

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

Mark Twain

We hear a lot about “bigotry” and “ethnocentrism”. While these labels are sometimes misplaced and overused, these prejudices deserve our attention. If we were genuinely concerned, if we honestly wanted to overcome these vices – what would be the pathway out of them? Walking the streets of foreign lands may be a good start.

The Smallness of High School

I didn’t like high school.  When I was a Sophomore, we lived in England and I went to a small high school on an Air Force base.  I would have a feeling of dread descend on me every Sunday night, knowing another week of school lay ahead.

“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”

G.K. Chesterton

That year my 22-year old brother stayed with us while he did an internship in London. My parents (they were far from over-protective) allowed him to take me on a trip to Athens and Istanbul. Our plan was this – immediately upon arriving we would take the train from Athens to Istanbul and then return and travel around Greece. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you look at as Chesterton does) upon our arrival we discovered there was a train strike. Luckily my brother is a decisive and confident traveler so he quickly flagged down a taxi. The driver drove us for about 20 minutes until we reached the local bus station. Once there we looked across the street and saw the train station we had just left -this incident prejudiced my brother against taxi drivers for the rest of the trip. We found a bus to take us to Thessalonica and then another to Istanbul. Along our journey we slept in hotels full of cockroaches. I developed severe blisters from all the walking. I suffered the consequences of some bad gyros. We got lost countless times. We were awakened every morning at 5 by prayer calls from dozens of minarets. We became friends with some Turkish street-boys as we soaked in the majesty of Hagia Sophia. We visited the temple of Delphi, and hiked to the top of the Acropolis to stand before the Parthenon.

Hagia Sophia Istanbul Black And White Photograph by For ...
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

When we returned to England my perspective on high school changed.  It wasn’t that I suddenly enjoyed school – rather the dramas and worries of high school lifted from my consciousness.  I saw the insignificance of it because I had seen so much else of significance. I am forever grateful my parents let us go on that trip.  There were times I thought. “How in the world could mom let us do this!?” (Particularly when I was pulling my brother away from punching a Turkish taxi driver).  But thank goodness she did.  That adventure has proved to be one of the core experiences of my life.  

 “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

Henry Miller

Travel is Worth It

International travel can be prohibitively expensive. It might not be within our capacity to take our child to Athens. I had to start a side business to finance our most recent trip to Spain. But when we consider how we spend our money, where our resources may be best spent for our child’s development – travel seems worth it. When my husband and I got married we decided that for our family – travel is more important than material things. We don’t spend much on clothes, cars, or other luxuries.

Nevertheless international travel may still be beyond our reach. Luckily for us, we live in a multicultural world – we can go to another part of town and find a world our children have not encountered. We can invite a family from a different religion or nation to our home for dinner.

Visiting poor neighborhoods is often avoided to protect our children’s sensitivities – I think this is a mistake. When I lived in South Africa, I was shocked one day when speaking with a wealthy Afrikaans woman. I had been teaching English classes in a poor township. I asked her if she wanted to join me next time I went. She asked where it was. Every time since her childhood, when that woman went to the grocery store she went over a bridge that overlooked this township. Thousands of her fellow humans lived there – but she had never seen them. I wish her mother had pointed it out to her so she could be aware of some of her neighbors.

Columbus’ Tomb, Seville Cathedral

We want our children to not only see their neighbors but also have an informed vision of the world and its history.

When you tell a child that Columbus traveled from Spain and discovered the New World in 1492, they have no reference point for what 1492 means, what Spain is, and what was so “New” about the world. But when you travel to Spain, you can show your children things built in 100 AD, in 1400 AD, in 1860 – they can start to build out a timeline of antiquity. You can visit Seville – where Columbus departed and visit his grave in Seville Cathedral. Tour palaces and cathedrals paid for with wealth taken from this New World. See evidence of the devotion to Christ in the monuments and churches which compelled, in part, this exploration to new lands. See some of the complexity of the stories of history.

Return and be Changed

“Our obligation to our own family or ‘clan’ is greater than our obligation to the faceless multitude.”

M.E. Bradford

Many will say – why not focus on our own neighborhood?  Shouldn’t we appreciate the culture we were born into?  Our priority should be our home and community.  But too often we are blinded to that responsibility by our lack of perspective. Travel is a means of gaining it.  When we open our eyes to the world, we return and rest them upon our own home.  We appreciate things we had not noticed due to lack of comparison.  We see areas where we can improve and see patterns of history repeating in our culture. We drop silly traditions and hold fast to important ones. 

After we returned home I asked my son what he enjoyed most about our trip, he said, “The late-night tapas.” But since our return we have had several discussions relating what he saw and learned in Spain to things taught in school, seen on TV, and discussed with friends. He is making connections he couldn’t before.

As parents, we want to raise kids that are deep, kids whose worldview is wider than their own comfort, whose empathy and understanding were earned, kids who see history and social issues in context, kids who have real-world knowledge to back up their beliefs. Travel can help.


Video on how new experiences can “turn on” our potential and reduce anxiety.

Article on how travel changes the brain


Exploration: Know the Place for the First Time

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.” 

T.S. Eliot

When I was 19 I traveled to a remote village at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. My fellow student and I lived in a small Catholic mission with no running water, no electricity, a hole for a toilet, and a bucket for a shower.  For 4 months we did research, getting by on our very rough Swahili and interpreters, speaking with farmers, mothers, community leaders, and school children. These few months enabled me to experience, in a small way, the reality of life for millions of people. When I returned home from that first summer in Africa, nothing looked the same.

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”

G.K. Chesterton

After returning to college, I remember walking into my kitchen to get an apple – something I had missed in my travels. I got a peeler out of the drawer –  a utensil I had never been mindful of before – never really seen. But now, I saw it – the incredible blessing of a peeler!  In Tanzania, Eliza, a young woman of about 20, did all the cooking.  She only had a simple knife to do all the food preparation. She sat on the dirt floor and peeled and cut potatoes, tomatoes, and onions – all into her lap. She would prepare the stew and cook it on a small fire for hours. Despite her life of toil, she was a joyful woman. She didn’t complain; she was generous to all.  

African Woman Cooking, Artist Unknown

I remember watching Eliza work.  It was a frustrating experience for me.  How could she prepare all these meals without a table?! Surely there has to be a faster method to make meals! As soon as she finished lunch, she had to start on dinner!  But most of all, I kept wishing I had left clothes and books at home and instead brought 100 peelers to hand out to the women. Eliza seemed oblivious to all the peeling, but to me it was a problem with a simple solution, and a symbol of the unfairness of life. 

And yet, I lived happily among these humble villagers who were generous, resilient, and joyful. My African friends smiled, laughed, sang, danced, and generally seemed to enjoy life more than many of us “rich” Westerners. They were living abundantly with the little they had. This is not to downplay the true suffering accompanying a life without proper medical care, nutrition, or education – these things matter. Yet somehow the poverty was not as stifling as I had imagined.

“Experience is the teacher of all things.”

Julius Caesar

The Complexity of Life

After returning to my life of ease, my new eyes saw much more than just never-ending reasons for gratitude. They also saw many reasons for guilt; they saw my own and others’ selfishness, materialism, and shallowness. Why did I have so much and others so little? How could I complain about not having a car when so many souls had never even been in one? Why are we, the affluent, so stingy while they are so generous? These are questions I still grapple with. 

I am sure if someone gave Eliza a peeler, she would be grateful. She was not ignorant of her poverty –  she certainly would have appreciated more material blessings.  However, she didn’t waste her days in envy or resentment. She had work to do. 

My experiences replaced the stereotypical caricature of “Africa” and “Africans” into something real. In order to develop a real picture of the group, I had to connect with “the one”. It was Eliza that helped me see. The complexity, majesty and humanity of that one woman enabled me to empathize in a much more genuine way than I had when I was “concerned with the plight of the poor”. I saw that it is no longer a simple matter of “us helping them”. But perhaps I could help her, and she me. We practiced her English and I did what I could to help with her many duties. She taught me Swahili and introduced me to the villagers. She was my mentor and eye-opener.

Returning the next summer to visit friends in Checkereni, TZ 2002

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Living in a world so drastically different from my own shifted my perspective and brought me some depth of compassion and understanding, which I desperately needed. Seeing the harsh realities of everyday life in a poor African village had ignited empathy, which my selfish nature was incapable of conjuring on its own. Eliza showed me that happiness is not a consequence of what we have – but who we are and how we view the world. My discussions with farmers, school children, and community leaders revealed cultural advantages as well as deficiencies – and the similarity of all human hearts. 

Harming Through Saving

Before I left for my trip I remember saying I “want to save the world”.  After my return, I just wanted to mail Eliza a peeler.  

 In a nearby village there was an old water pump, installed by a Scandinavian NGO years before. They had spent a week installing it for this “poor” village and the villagers were very grateful. They left, without leaving tools or teaching any locals how to repair it. It broke after a few months and has never been used again. I am sure the NGO was very proud and probably used this “good deed” as evidence of their positive influence – but they had done little good. Perhaps if they had connected with a villager like Jose, or Bahati, or Muhammad and trained them how to repair the pump, they would have provided a long-term solution to their problems rather than short-term satisfaction. The empathy that comes with friendship would have made them more concerned with their long-term good than short-term righteousness.

For the world to become “real” to us, we must encounter it. Young people are full of hope, idealism, and a desire to make the world a better place.  How wonderful are these instincts!  Yet, often these instincts are ill used.  Without accompanying experience, knowledge, and empathy, an idealistic young person can damage more than repair.

For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.

H. L. Mencken

While we might appear compassionate when we say we “want world peace”, blanket compassion and tolerance for groups of people rarely turns out well.   It must be made real by living it out, by focusing on the individual. The world is not the flat, one-dimensional place, composed of victims and oppressors, rich and poor, educated and uneducated – the world portrayed in our Sociology textbooks.  Throwing money at a problem will not solve it.  Applying the same methods in a small village in Tanzania as those used in Texas will not work. The intricacies of life only reveal themselves when we encounter the world in its specificity and complexity. 

“There can be no such thing as a “global village.” No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality.”

Wendall Barry

I have to admit it is endlessly frustrating for me to see people (often young and naive as I was), in their arrogance and ignorance, who claim to care about a particular “community” – yet when asked for solutions they point out “systematic problems”, not real-world solutions. Do they really care about the beautiful little boy in the inner city that is statistically likely to be neglected and lead a life of crime? His problems are urgent. They can’t wait for a reshaping of the world. If they cared they would want to actually help that boy – they would want to encourage him, rather than discourage the world. But they don’t know him – they think they do – but they have never met him. And because they don’t know him, they don’t look forward to his long-term good. Their ‘help” is likely to harm. They make the world seem unsafe, rather than making the boy strong.

We are Insignificant

Perhaps the important result that first exploration in Africa had on me was a sudden realization of my own insignificance.  I dropped the naive idea that I was going to “save the world” and realized that was far beyond my grasp. That was an important truth for me to learn.  As parents, we want our children to know they are loved and capable of great things. This is important and right. Yet, we must not forget to help our children see the realities of the world. While they are unique and significant, so are billions of others. Ours, and their influence can be significant – but not typically by grand gestures, but the small and steady actions of a life well-lived.  Eliza helped me see that.

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”  –

Henry David Thoreau

Upon my return to America I found myself longing to go back, away from the negativity and materialism which was so common in my own culture and my own heart. (I did return and spent nearly 3 years in various parts of Africa and China during my college years).  By the end of my travels I had gained a new perspective.  I remember after my first trip, I was annoyed by my “rich American” roommates that cried over a breakup.  How could they complain when there were so many children living on the streets?  By my last trip to Africa, I had realized that pain is pain and we all need compassion.  We need to get beyond our habitual, ordinary life, and seek to discover the reality of other’s lives – our annoying roommate, and a child on the streets of Dar es Salaam. If we seek the adventure of “walking around in someone else’s skin”, we will gain new eyes, only then can they open to true compassion.  Only then will we see the best way we can serve our fellowman.

Exploring with our Children

We, as parents, are tasked with preparing our children for life. We must supply the knowledge and experience they will need.  They are here to make the world a better place – in small ways or large.  But, if they have never seen poverty up close, if they have never honestly examined the positive and negative effects of differing cultures and traditions, if they have not experienced the complexity of human interactions – they are ill-equipped to join a crusade.  Their knowledge and view are still shallow.  As parents, it is worthwhile to use our resources and time to take our children to foreign lands, watch documentaries, and/or volunteer in poor or unstable areas. Through experience and exploration, we, and our children, will begin to see the realities of life and be properly oriented to our place in this world. 

As a mother, in my often less-than-adventurous life, I often find my peeler in my hands.  It consistently brings up memories born years ago in a small village.  I am grateful for my peeler. I know that many do not have such a luxury.  But I also know that it is not my peeler, or any material advantage, which brings meaning and joy to life. When I forget, and return to a shallow perception, which I often do, I need to close my eyes and return to that small kitchen where my dear friend Eliza sat preparing food, with a knife.  I need to see things again, for the first time.  


Woman on our village gathering firewood for cooking.