Author: Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

Challenging Cultural Norms Through Travel

I wonder how many people would send us hate mail if they could see us now?”

I mused aloud to my husband as we picked our way down the path, ankle deep in mud, on the back side of the soccer pitch above the town of Sumpango, Guatemala.

Once a year, this sleepy little Mayan pueblo explodes as thousands of visitors pour in to participate in the Feria de Barriletes Gigantes, which is celebrated by flying some of the biggest kites in the world, in honor of Dia de las Muertas. I don’t know how many people attend. Thousands. Thousands upon thousands. The entire soccer pitch is filled, shoulder to shoulder, with enthusiastic watchers, faces tipped skyward. The streets in the village below are a moving sea of people. The hillsides are peppered with picnic blankets and families relaxing, flying their kites.

There are people everywhere. I have no idea where my children are.

The Man chuckled, “Probably a few.”

teens ez

He stopped to take a picture of some candied yams and bowls full of other preserved fruits that we didn’t recognize; I sidestepped an especially nasty looking puddle, and we continued our slow wander down into Sumpango, headed for the cemetery, where the best part of the local party was sure to be in full swing.

The young people were off on their own adventures.

It was an odd thing to see the article I wrote a couple of years ago, when we were coasting down the Mekong, in Laos, with our kids, resurface recently: the one about letting teens travel.

I still believe, passionately, that kids should be given as much freedom as they can responsibly manage.

It was with some trepidation that I put that piece out there. It’s something I believe passionately in, but it’s also a bit scary to write about when still in the process with one’s own children. At the time of publication, my oldest was only 16, and my youngest was barely ten! It was fun to re-read it and remember where we were at and the experiences that had lead to that place. It was even more fun to sit back and realize that, almost four years later, it’s all gone to plan, and I wouldn’t change a single word I wrote.

I still believe, passionately, that kids should be given as much freedom as they can responsibly manage, and I believe wholeheartedly in encouraging and allowing teens to take test flights from the nest, travel on their own, and have small adventures as a way of building confidence and laying the foundation for greater expeditions into the real world later.

I gave more than a few middle-aged people a heart attack the summer that I was walking across Spain on the Camino de Santiago. In the natural progress of a long afternoon in a cafe with cold beers, we’d trade stories. I’d mention that I have four kids and that we travel for a living.

Someone would ask where they were and incredulity would ensue:

“Well, the boys (13 and 16) are both in the midwest in the USA. They’ve got jobs – one at a pizza restaurant, and the other as an intern on a farm… no, they’re not together, they’re in different towns.

My daughter (17) is backpacking for 6 weeks with her boyfriend… I think they’re in Switzerland now, maybe Italy… I don’t really know, actually. I haven’t heard from her in a few days… Yes, with her boyfriend… he’s a good kid.

My husband and the 12-year-old are in Canada in an off the grid cabin…. mmhmm, that’s right, we’re spread between four countries and two continents right now…. worried?

Why would I be worried? They’re all fine.

And so they were. The boys made enough cash to support their habits for a winter of traveling and had a blast being independent for a month or so. Hannah learned how to manage getting stitches (in the Milan airport, without anesthesia, long story) and file a police report in Paris (her iPhone was stolen) as well as hop trains, work for her lodging, and live on noodles when the money ran out. Fun was had by all.

Subsequently, we’ve crisscrossed the continent together, and Hannah took off for about a month to speak at a conference and then get her TEFL Certification in NYC. One boy (17) crossed the Mediterranean and the Atlantic under sail over a three month period. Another boy planned, funded, and executed a month, solo, in Guatemala, working for an NGO he cares about (he was 15). The younger two took a three-day solo bike trip in Canada at 12 & 14. And of course there have been multiple bus trips and road trips have been had between NYC and all over the midwest visiting friends and family, sans parents.

“Great,” you say, “Good for your kids. Nice that they’re off having adventures. I hope they don’t die. But really, who cares?”

Indeed. No one cares, and no one should care.

My kids aren’t special. They aren’t gifted. They might be considered, by some, to be lucky to have had the experiences they’ve had and the opportunities to learn and grow in these ways, but really, they aren’t lucky either.

We’ve raised them this way on purpose. They deserve no attention whatsoever for any of these things. We know dozens of kids in the same age range that are doing spectacular stuff under their own steam and we’re equally proud of them.

So What’s the Point?

teens honduras
The point is, that there are some commonalities that I’ve noticed among young people who are encouraged to flap their wings as early as they possibly can.

There is something about the experience of having to take responsibility for yourself in the real world, struggle through hard things, and get way outside your comfort zone that causes an otherwise ordinary teen to do extraordinary things.

So, what qualities do these kids share?

They Are Confident

And that confidence comes from having done real things, hard things, and important things. They know that they can make the right decisions. They aren’t afraid to make the wrong one, because they understand that that’s how they’re learning. They have the experience to back up that confidence.

They Have Perspective

I can only speak from my own experience, but in the dozens and dozens of traveling young people who have crossed our paths over the better part of a decade on the road, I have yet to meet even one who didn’t have a solid grip on their need vs. want equation. The myriad of issues parents moan about in the typical short sighted, selfish, trend focused, commercially driven teen simply don’t exist in young people who understand that hot water is a luxury, as are shoes, a soccer ball, a pillow on the bed, and clean water.

boys bike
They Are Dreamers… And Doers

Once a kid gets a taste of freedom, and what they are capable of, they almost always up their own game. There is talk of “what’s next?” and how to make that happen. Businesses are built in their spare time because they realize that funding is the only thing standing between them and owning a boat, or funding their bike trip. Serious effort is expended in educational ventures because they’ve connected the dots between knowledge and opportunity.

They Become Socially Responsible

I still struggle to get my boys to put their clothes in the hamper and to wipe down the bathroom sink after they brush their teeth, so don’t get too excited about that kind of social responsibility magically appearing.

What does happen, as a result of gaining perspective on the real world, is a sincere desire for a young person to take his place in the community as part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

They’ll work to raise money for school books, or shoes for orphans. They’ll spend three hours a day volunteering to feed hungry kids, nursing mothers, and widows through a local NGO that needs more hands and willing hearts.

Just this month I watched a group of 8 teenage girls on their first big international trip come face to face with the real world in Guatemala. Rocked by the needs they discovered, they tightened their collective belts, pooled their money, came in under budget on their trip and saved enough to fully fund a year of private school for a girl in the village who needed it. That’s becoming socially responsible.

And, they’ll do it without you having to mention it, because it’s the right thing to do, and they know it.

Rebellion is Virtually Unknown

When a young person knows that they are free to do “anything they want,” so long as it is productive and healthy for both the individual and the community, there is nothing to rebel against.

Instead of meeting a brick wall of impossibility and restraint, the world becomes a glorious garden of possibility, and they are free to cultivate in any corner and in any way that inspires them.

Of course, the “catch” is that there is no free lunch, they can do “anything they want” so long as they can find a way to fund it and make it work within the realities of family life. That’s the “community” part.

I know that it’s hard to see, sometimes, from within the confines of our culturally accepted parenting paradigms. It’s scary to let our kids go and hope that they figure it out. It’s hard to live our lives with hard statistics firmly in mind (which prove the world a very safe place to let kids fly) and not be ruled by the very loud exceptions to that rule.

It’s still hard for me sometimes, even with the hard evidence in front of me, to press 20Q into my half-put-together 12-year-old’s hand and throw him into a sea of humanity knowing that his grasp of the language barely holds water, with only two instructions:

  1. Don’t let one of those 8-meter kites made of giant bamboo fall on your head, and
  2. We’re meeting by the elote stand over there in six hours, don’t be late.

I’m not immune to hyperventilating when I haven’t heard from a kid who is not on the same continent as I am in four days. I’m not above using the “Find a friend” app to stalk her partying backside down to a particular street corner in Amsterdam and see that her little blinky blue dot is happily moving toward the canals. All is well.

I beat the drum of the 7 P’s (Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance) and pretty much tattoo that mantra on their forearms when they turn 13 and start to spin into a bigger orbit.

Bases must be covered, contingency plans in place, back up funding at the ready, health and safety issues addressed, appropriate education procured, technology used to our benefit, and all of it approved by the parental units. But then…

Then… with a great big deep breath and a huge smile so that they don’t see me sweat, they’ve got to be catapulted out of the nest, because the last thing I want is for them to grow up “normal.”

Read more about traveling as a family and the benefits of making travel a priority for your children: