How to Develop Character in Your Children (and Yourself) Through Travel

For many, many people, travel has a special lure, attraction, enchantment that calls to them, beckoning from far off lands. It’s idealized by the image of a lone backpacker traversing Europe, Asia or South America, sleeping in hostels and hitchhiking if necessary.

It’s long been thought of as an activity that can’t be done with a family, especially small children; it was a choice you had to make – travel, or start a family, but not both.

However, there is a rise in the number of families who are making travel a reality, with infants and older, and they’re doing it deliberately as a way to educate, expand, and inform their children in ways that are not possible by staying at home.

Are these parents crazy? Although they’ve been asked this question many times, the reality is that they simply realize the tremendous benefits of personal growth and character development, not to mention adventure and fun, available from family travel.

So how do you use your family vacation to develop virtue? Here are a few ideas to get you thinking.

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Get Uncomfortable

Although difficult for most people to do for themselves, let alone to purposefully inflict on their children, being uncomfortable actually means that you are experiencing growth.

Instead of planning the usual, touristy trip, try something new, and well… a little uncomfortable. Think about visiting someplace you might not have considered before, a location that is a bit out of your comfort zone – South America instead of Europe, Dominica instead of Disneyland.

The first time I ever traveled outside of the United States was when I was in my early twenties. My family had taken a vacation to San Diego, and we spent a day visiting Tijuana, Mexico.

During the initial half hour of our visit, I felt literally sick to my stomach. I hated it, I just wanted to run away. I had no real-life concept of the kinds of conditions that others lived in throughout the world, and when I came face to face to it, I was extremely uneasy.

Yet that trip has stayed with me. It planted a seed that has grown more with each journey, and has given me a huge heart for humanitarian work, and a desire to relieve suffering worldwide.

>>read about Five Ways to Prepare Your Kids For Big-Time Adventure

Extend the Stay

If you want to visit a place that you hope will have an impact on your kids, its more likely to happen on an extended trip, rather than just a weekend jaunt.

The longer the trip, the more time to experience the true nature of the place you’re visiting. You’ll have more occasions to immerse yourself (and your children) into the culture and customs.

While staying in Las Galeras, Dominican Republic we lived near an all-inclusive resort. Every few days there would be a new group of tourists arriving to enjoy their week of relaxation, and scheduled tourist trips.

In contrast, we were there day after day, week after week. We would walk to the beach, hike on trails, explore the area, visit remote beaches, learn the language, develop diverse friendships, and enjoy the changing weather conditions.

I marveled at how much more our extended visit allowed us to really absorb the ‘feel’ of the place, and I realized that it could not have been done on a week long vacation.

Consider a summer touring South America, or a semester studying abroad. The added time away from home will only expand budding realities.

>>read about 21 Reasons to Travel Around the World with Kids

Get Grateful

There’s nothing that develops gratitude as fast as coming face to face with humble circumstances. Are your kids feeling a bit of entitlement? Are they not seeing the bigger picture? Getting up close and personal with poverty can check that attitude real quick.

Despite the stigma of being unsafe, our experience has proven that visiting the ‘local’ areas can provide some of the best encounters for getting a good look at what you (and your children) have been blessed to enjoy.

While living in Costa Rica, we went to visit the home of our maid. She had a large family of seven children and two grandchildren – all of whom lived in her very humble, three ‘room’ (and three bed) home of cement, wood and corrugated tin which she had built with her own two hands.

She made us (very delicious) soup, with her limited food supply, that she prepared over an open fire. Her family allowed our family to eat first because there weren’t enough dishes and utensils for everyone.

You can’t help but feel gratitude for everything that you have when you are in a situation like that. It’s kind of like ‘shock’ treatment, bringing you back to a grateful realization of your life as it ‘really’ is.

Of course you don’t want to walk around a local area at night with all your bling and a haughty (or fearful, which is just as offensive) attitude, but you do want to get out of your comfort zone. Go shopping at the ‘local’ store, take a walk into that ‘local’ neighborhood.

If you do it with humility and an open mind, you’ll probably find very friendly people who will welcome you into their hearts and (very humble) homes, expanding your definition of poverty and wealth along the way.

Start ‘Em Young

Stop the stigma that traveling can only be done by the single, wealthy or vagabonds. Travel can be (and is becoming) a family activity that can be done even with very small children.

Our first trip abroad as a family began when we drove from Utah to Costa Rica with our children who were 4, 3, 1 and 2 months. It was one of the greatest experiences of our lives.

We visited beautiful beaches, ancient ruins, crocodile refuges, jungle rivers. The most amazing part of it is that we actually did it. The original belief was that it couldn’t be done- too unsafe, and too much time in a car with kids- limits that were actually only in our mind. We crossed borders, not just politically, but philosophically as we widened our belief about what was possible for us to accomplish.

‘Will they remember it?’ is the question most people will ask when they consider the expense of a trip with small children. For us, we’re not concerned with whether they remember every trip, but with the paradigm that is being developed in their young minds by introducing them to the experience. They grow up believing that the ‘impossible’ is possible.

It does require flexibility and finesse to travel with little ones, but it can be done, and improved upon, with practice. There are plenty of ‘safe’ spots to see and it’s definitely worth the effort if traveling is on the agenda for your children’s education.

>>read about The New Parent’s Guide to Travel with an Infant

Give Back

Finding an opportunity to participate in humanitarian work while on a family trip provides moving experiences that bond, build character, and create lasting memories.

While living in the Dominican Republic we took the opportunity to outfit an outlying school with children’s books, visit orphanages and connect with other visiting volunteers, all of which provided memorable family experiences and created lasting friendships for ourselves and our children.

A few weeks before we were leaving the country, we still had some books we needed to give away. My seven-year-old daughter single handedly (and on her own initiative) passed out 50+ books to neighbors and friends in the area, who were more than eager to receive her gifts.

It doesn’t matter where you go, if you look for it, there’s an opportunity to contribute in some small (or large) way. Whether you donate books to a local library (or start one), visit an orphanage, dig a well or build a greenhouse, contributing to another culture develops hard work, compassion, empathy, gratitude, contribution, open-mindedness, tolerance.

Travel can be a very rewarding, as well as character developing experience, for the entire family, if you take advantage of the opportunity. Consider how you can make your next trip into a time for personal growth.

>>read about 7 Ways to Work with Wildlife Abroad

Read more about:

Rachel Denning is a writer and photographer for her website on family travel and lifestyle design. She and her husband are driving from Alaska to Argentina with their 5 children. Read more about Rachel Denning and check out her other BootsnAll articles.

Photo credits:
House in Guatemala , With new friend in Philippines , With local kids in Africa , Baby traveling , Eat with locals


Leave a Comment

Older comments on How to Develop Character in Your Children (and Yourself) Through Travel

05 November 2009

Great article, hope it gets out to more parents out there.

Sean Keener
06 November 2009

Bigtime. Best way to educate yourself, and your children – is through travel.

08 November 2009

Sorry, I don’t subscribe to it.
In my opinion, parents who travel with toddlers do it only for selfish reasons.
The simple thruth is that children at very young age can’t appreciate, what their parents are doing.
Small kids enjoy being with their grandparents, relatives, somewhere different, but not too far from home and their culture. Alternatively, they like to play on a beach, swim. That could be at an all-inclusive resort, but just one place.
It’s only at age about 10, when they get to understand that there are different countires, languages and cultures.
I’m father of two grown up daughters. We’ve travelled a lot when they were still at school and uni. We went to places like China, Vietnam, Cuba, India, Egypt, also the USA and Canada (we live in Europe). They cherish now their memories of our travelling together, and so do I.
On the other hand, they have no recollection of places they’ve been to at age 5 to 8. When I mention about some place we’ve been to, they feel like there were not there, and don’t remember people and situations.
On the other hand, they prefer to talk when they stayed with granny and auntie at that time.

Bike Mama
20 November 2009

Bravo Rachel! I’m proud to count you among the friends I’ve never met! I grew up traveling, have packed babies in slings all over the world, toddlers up pyramids and four school aged children all over three continents on bikes… and to quote the six year old at the Eiffel Tower, “I’ve waited my WHOLE LIFE for this.” It matters. Kids who don’t remember it, are nonetheless affected by their experiences and will grow up to be broader minded, more culturally sensitive world citizens. Travel with kids is not for every family, but for those with a dream, DO IT and don’t look back… the world is an awesome classroom!

22 November 2009

My parents brought my sister and I traveling from the ages of 4 and 6 and the experiences still remain a part of me. I don’t remember every detail, however I remember moments. These moments became a part of me and I am so grateful for this. I have been taking my son on adventures since he was three months old. I love our times together, exploring new places, talking about the things we see, discover together. He is five years old and loves to look at maps and talk about places he would like to go. I’m happy you wrote this article. I love hearing that other people are out there traveling with their children. And I agree…the world is indeed an awesoome classroom…

11 December 2009

Hi Rachel – you took the words right out of my mouth! I am currently traveling with my 12 year old son and since we started I have watched him grow in so many ways. He and I have grown closer than ever! We explore Greece together, and he keeps up with his friends and school online so he doesn’t fall behind in those areas. I love that you wrote this article, and I will definitely share it on my site!

26 May 2011

I fully agree with you Rachel, the learning that takes place is life changing and develops the characters of the children. I believe it is a positive step to developing understanding between cultures – something we need more of.