Getting Kids On Board With Your Big Trip

It can be a daunting thing to set out on a long term adventure as a family. There are so many logistical issues to address, in addition to the educational considerations to be made. Even parents who are firmly convinced of the overwhelming benefits to their children of an extended journey can struggle with their resolve when faced with less than enthusiastic young people.

Wanna take your kids on<br />
the ultimate field trip?
Wanna take your kids on
the ultimate field trip?

What happens when your big idea, your plan for a grand adventure, is met with a “Meh” attitude by your children?

Or worse, what do you do when they absolutely declare that they won’t go, that you’re ruining their lives, and that they’d rather live with Grandma instead?

Do you scrap your trip plans? Or do you make him go, against his will?

It’s not an easy moment in a family.

In most cases, I believe a middle ground can be found.

What do you do if your kid just doesn’t want to go?

screaming kid

First, let me point out something that is often overlooked. When a child is born into a family, she is born into a particular set of circumstances beyond her control and, essentially, against her will.

  • No one asks us what we want when we take our first breaths. Our parents choose for us according to our needs and their good intentions to give us the best that they have to offer, from food, to clothing choices, to housing and education.
  • No one asks a five year old if he’d like to go to school or not. Perhaps he’ll have a say, in a very progressive family, in which type of school he attends, but education is mandatory.
  • A child does not get to choose the other kids in his class, or whether he’d like to switch seats to be next to Bobby and further away from Susie. These are choices made by adults and imposed upon him.

These are choices made by adults and imposed upon him. The child is expected to accept these realities and learn to work within them. That’s life. There are some choices we have and others we don’t.  We are made to brush our teeth, attend our pediatrician visits, conform to a dress code, wear a seatbelt in the car, play nicely and by the rules on our sports teams, and attend (hopefully in a productive manner) community events with our families.

To be a child is to accept that some choices are out of our control and to trust our big people to make them responsibly and to keep our world spinning.

These are choices made by adults and imposed upon him. The child is expected to accept these realities and learn to work within them. That’s life. There are some choices we have and others we don’t.

As parents, we recognize that our kids don’t come into the world naturally knowing how to make the best choices for themselves, and we take the responsibility of choosing for them, according to their best interests, very seriously.

This is how the world works.

If I am confident that the private school across town is the best educational choice for my child, then that’s where I’m sending her, no matter how hard her four year old self begs to go to the public school down the street where her best friend in the neighborhood is going. Her long term interests outweigh her momentary desires. I can see this, even if she cannot yet.

I try to explain this concept to people when they ask me what my kids think of traveling for a lifestyle. I sometimes ask, in return, what their kids think of going to school and soccer practice every day.

I try to explain this concept to people when they ask me what my kids think of traveling for a lifestyle. I sometimes ask, in return, what their kids think of going to school and soccer practice every day.

Why is it that otherwise reasonable parents who aren’t afraid to make tough and important decisions for their kids in “normal life,” sometimes lose confidence when it comes to making the decision to take off and travel for a while? The answer, of course, is that they are afraid that they might make the wrong choice and “ruin” the kid’s life.

That possibility exists, over and over, in the choices we make as parents, but it’s not somehow magically more likely in this case than in any other. If your gut is telling you that a year in the world is going to be good for your kid, then a year in the world is going to be good for your kid, whether they “like” it or not. Kind of like private school.

If your gut is telling you that a year in the world is going to be good for your kid, then a year in the world is going to be good for your kid, whether they “like” it or not. Kind of like private school.

We know a family that set off on a round the world journey for a year. They took their kids out of school to do it, including a teenage girl who was, shall we say, less than enthusiastic. There was more than a little bucking, and temper, and drama to begin with, but you know what happened?

At the end of the year that girl came to her parents and thanked them. She thanked them for pushing her out of her comfort zone, taking away her flat iron, and insisting that she live outside of her primary language and wade through hard things in the third world. She thanked them, and then she went back to her high school happy and with a giant dose of perspective. Her parents breathed a giant sigh of relief. They’d done the right thing.

Sometimes, it’s okay to go against the will of your child to provide them with something you know they need. Like insisting on winter boots in a snow storm, a life jacket in an open boat, or a break from “normal life” to take a walk in the world.

Sometimes, it’s okay to go against the will of your child to provide them with something you know they need.

I’m not afraid to put my foot down if I have to. Our family is a benevolent dictatorship, not a democracy. However, I also believe in open communication, the value of every person’s voice and perspective, and I’m a firm advocate of seeking community based solutions over unilateral decrees. In our experience, and in the families we have seen struggle and succeed with these issues, it seems that the best approach is to work together to get the buy in of every family member as you embark on a life changing journey. How do you do that?

Here are a few ideas.

Start early

Kid in backpack

It’s not a great idea to drop the bomb on your teenagers that next week you’ll be moving out of your house and into a suitcase and heading for Cambodia to work in rice paddies, native style, as volunteers with a sustainable food project, completely off the grid.

Begin sharing your thoughts, your dreams, and your ideas with your children as soon as you can. Talk often and talk deeply about what you’d like to do as a family, why it matters to you, where the dream comes from, and where the individual dreams of your family members might intersect.

Give people time to adjust to new ideas, digest the implications of a big life change, and get excited about the possibilities.

The older your children are, the more important this process is. The younger your children are, the more you’ll want to reassure them that their world isn’t collapsing and that they won’t have to give away their favorite stuffed kangaroo. Our kids were 5-11 when we took off traveling. They were 2-8 when we started talking about our dream and our journey. Give people time to adjust to new ideas, digest the implications of a big life change, and get excited about the possibilities.

Ideas for little children (the 10 and under crowd)

Globe

Happily, young kids are often excited about whatever their parents are enthusiastic about. Getting them on board is often as simple as asking them what the one thing they most want to do in the whole world is (riding elephants!), and then assuring them that they’ll definitely get to do that!

In terms of preparing them to travel and getting them excited about the adventure, here are a list of games and gimmicks that we’ve employed with our little people over the years that have been lots of fun:

  • Read books: Lots and lots of books about different places and groups of people
  • Watch movies: About animals, cultural groups, history, or art, whatever you can find about the places you’re planning to go.
  • International nights: Create themed dinners around the countries and cuisines you’ll be visiting, invite friends, decorate in crazy ways, practice a few words of a new language, and mark the destination on your map.
  • Sticker Charts: Give people time to adjust to new ideas, digest the implications of a big life change, and get excited about the possibilities. To help our kids visualize the time left before departure we created a countdown sticker chart beginning one year before we left. Every day they placed a sticker and got more excited to get to BLAST OFF!
  • Toothbrush drills and bathroom drills: Learn how to brush teeth without using the tap water (which might make you sick somewhere else) and pay a quarter for the privilege of using the toilet and buying your little stack of toilet paper. Kids think this is hilarious fun at home. It’s even better when you’ve got grandparents or friends over for the day.
  • Make dream posters: Actively encourage your kids to cut and paste from old travel magazines, or print pictures from the internet that represent the places in the world they’d like to see and the experiences they’d like to have. Circle the ones that more than one family member really wants. Build your trip around the dreams of the kids as well as the parents.
  • Cultural Events: Almost every town will have cultural events happening among the various people groups. Attend a synagogue for Shabbat, take in the Chinese New Year celebrations, go out for Mexican food on Cinco de Mayo, attend the live theater to watch Taeko drumming. Make a point of bringing the world home to your children and exposing them to as much of it as possible within your own community.

Build your trip around the dreams of the kids as well as the parents.

Ideas for older children (tweens & teens)

All 4

If there is one thing I am continuing to learn about parenting teenagers, it is that respect for their personhood is key, and truly listening to their thoughts and concerns, treating them as much like adults as they can stand, encourages harmony and reduces rebellion. If left with no other choice, I would “force” a teen to go, but I have a hard time imagining a scenario in which there is truly no other choice. There is almost always a point of compromise or negotiation that can be found.

Put together a pitch package like you’re trying to sell ice to an eskimo, and make it so appealing that they can’t possibly say no. Teenagers are naturally self centered. Make that an asset, not a liability.

  • Start early: I already said this, I know, but it’s even more important the older your children are. They deserve time to adjust to the new idea and to find their own place within it. Don’t spring unilateral decisions on big kids unless you enjoy big blow ups.
  • What’s in it for them? If you are planning to take your teens out of their very comfortable worlds at the point in life when they are most insecure about themselves and vulnerable to drastic change, then you’d better be a pretty good salesman. Put together a pitch package like you’re trying to sell ice to an eskimo, and make it so appealing that they can’t possibly say no. Teenagers are naturally self centered. Make that an asset, not a liability.
  • Give them control: Don’t just ask them what their dream is and what they want to do, hand them the reins and let them plan it. You want to take a hot air balloon flight? Okay, where? In the desert southwest of the USA? Over Cappadocia, Turkey? In Bagan, Myanmar? Want to ride horses across outer Mongolia? Hike to the Everest base camp? Bungee jump? Want to go on a safari in Africa? Let them figure it out, let them plan it. Let them dig deeper into their dream and want it so badly that they are begging YOU to go. Don’t make it easy on them. Make it real for them. Let them plan lodging, itineraries, and even the budget.
  • Validate their concerns: Respect your teens enough not to brush their concerns under the rug. Reach way back into ancient history and try to remember what it was like to be sixteen. Try to remember how long summer vacation seemed when your parents dragged you across the country and you didn’t see your girlfriend for six whole weeks. Take their arguments and their worries seriously and let them see you working together on solutions.
  • Be willing to negotiate: You might have to set certain parameters (duration of the trip, direction or order of the countries visited, and budgetary constraints) based on the realities for your family, but there are certainly going to be points you can negotiate with your teens on. If missing friends is a big issue, is there a way you can guarantee your kids reasonable connectivity on a regular basis? Our kids Skype and Facetime friends around the world almost every day. It’s really important to them. Our daughter’s boyfriend is in Germany. We are in Guatemala. We make space for that relationship on a daily basis. She took off for six weeks this summer backpacking on her own with him. In forty days he hits the ground in Guatemala City, and he’ll be hanging out in our little pueblo for three or four months so that they can spend some face time together. It’s important to them, so it’s important to us. We’re willing to adjust our plans and expectations in order to meet the needs of our kids as they grow into adults. Can you fly in the friends who are most important to your children? Can you let the kids fly “home” at some point for a visit? Get creative. Be flexible and let your children see that what is important to them is also important to you. It will go a long way in gaining their support and trust in your venture.

Taking the leap on a long-term journey as a family isn’t a small thing, for parents or for children. Making it truly a whole-family venture is key to the success of the undertaking and certainly to the joy along the way.

Have you taken an extended trip with your kids? How did they react? What strategies did you find for getting them on board with the idea?

Read more about traveling long-term as a family:

Photo credits: maxim ibragimov, all other photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.

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