Our family is having a wonderful time traveling around Thailand. We are swimming, eating ice cream, playing games and lots of other fantastic “vacationy” activities. Alongside all the fun, my top-secret mom strategy is that my boys are also learning some important life lessons.
Traveling is tactile, kinesthetic, and experimental. It is a life laboratory that presents endless opportunities to grow as well as deepen old lessons.
Here are a few things that my boys are learning as we travel:
1. Waiting. Planes, trains, buses and boats… There are many, many opportunities to practice waiting while traveling. The first day or two I heard a lot of “I’m bored”. As time has passed, they are thinking of creative strategies to deal with down time. Chasing geckos, singing songs, drawing, telling stories or playing games. They are learning to tolerate what can’t be controlled by utilizing what is always available to them: imagination and memory.
2. The value of water. Thailand is hot and humid. Walking a few blocks leaves us sweaty and thirsty. Our family is working together to make sure that we have enough water. We have to share. We have to conserve. We have to pay attention to how much we have and calculate when we will be able to buy more. Because all our drinking water has to be purchased, the boys are learning to see water as a valuable resource. This will serve them well back home in thirsty California.
3. Respect for the sacred. We are visiting beautiful temples in Thailand. The boys are learning the temple drill: remove shoes, cover shoulders and legs, remain quiet, sit without facing your feet toward Buddha, and don’t climb on/pose with/be silly with any Buddha statues. Our family is not Buddhist but I love that my sons are learning to practice respect and self-restraint in honor of that which is sacred to others. I hope that they will always approach the beliefs of others with curiosity and respect.
4. Respect for the ancient. When we’re not visiting current temples, we are visiting temple ruins. My boys have held their hands against ancient brick and listened to stories about the rise and fall of kingdoms. They are encountering history and the reality that time decays even the grandest structures. Traveling gives them the ability to viscerally appreciate that lots of life has existed before this point in time. Maybe one day when they are in the throws of adolescence, the memory of ancient stones will remind them that they are not the sole crux of space and time.
5. A healthy appreciation for food. Food is a big deal when traveling. My kids are not particularly picky, but they are not always jazzed about opportunity to eat something new. Most Thai food is new to them. There have been some meltdowns about food. At the end of the day hunger seems to trump preferences, even if the meal ends up being rice and fruit. They are learning that food is necessary and that there are not unending choices.
That said, we are all learning that a bag of goldfish crackers and an imported lollipop can be game-changers after a long series of noodle dishes. For us, as for most people around the world, familiar food represents home and brings a sense of comfort and pleasure.
6. Autonomy. I don’t have enough arms to carry everyone’s things. I don’t have enough brain-space to remember where every family member put their every belonging. On this trip my kids are learning to manage their own belongings. They are responsible for charging their ipads, putting away their clothes, and organizing their things for the day. They are also learning to ask hotel and restaurant staff for directions to the bathroom and the filtered water. They are getting their own breakfasts at the buffet each morning and are responsible to choose healthy food. They are running up to the room for a forgotten book. These may seem like small things, but I am so proud of the ways they are learning to be independent in new environments.
7. Trust. I have been asking my kids to do some very unusual things: climb on elephants, pet baby tigers, eat strange things, sleep in unusual places, hop on and off of trains, boats, trucks, and tuk tuks. They are trusting me to keep them safe. Of course, this is not a new lesson. They are healthy kids who, from the beginning of their lives, have been fortunate to have trustworthy, caring adults helping them to navigate the world. Traveling does stretch this trust a bit. They are old enough to chose to trust me or not. They are old enough to question whether my requests are crazy or unsafe. The other piece of trust is that they are learning to trust themselves and their own limits. We visited an insect center where the kids had the opportunity to handle a variety of creatures, including a large scorpion. One of my sons held the scorpion. One of them did not. He didn’t want to and he was free to trust his instincts.
8. Adventure. It’s a great big world. Let’s see what is out there. This is why I travel. I love watching the seeds of adventure take root in them. We went to an elephant refuge and my 8-year-old was the first to volunteer to ride an elephant. He wanted to ride bareback and he wanted to ride alone. I realize this was risky and I really wish that there had been helmets available. Maybe it is foolish, but I am so, so proud of my brave boy. I hope he faces all the elephants in his life with courage and a strong sense of adventure.
9. Compassion. A large part of travel is interacting with folks who are different. My children are getting glimpses into lots of different lives. They are learning to smile, to interact without speaking the same language. They are kind to strangers who pat their shoulders, touch their hair, and tease them. They are curious about how people live here. They are curious about other children. Of course, we didn’t have to take an airplane to learn how to get along with others. But there is something to be said for the intense differences involved in an international trip. There is something to be said for developing a global sensibility, and a concrete experience of distant countries. My hope is that they will always know that the people in far-away places are people like them: people who love to smile and play and eat and enjoy beauty. I hope travel teaches them how small and connected the world is.