Families, Children & Marriage, Travel

The value of traveling with young children

trainI watched my children peer out of the bouncing train’s window, absorbing the views and smells and sights of Sri Lanka. In a sense, it was not at all a ‘new’ place to them – we have traveled here to visit grandparents and aunties and uncles and cousins every few years since their infancy.  But in another sense, it is a brand new experience every time we come because with each trip, they know more, understand more, process more.

The sites from the train whizzed past us, poverty violently contradicting beauty, and I watched my children’s reactions to this just as carefully as I watched the scenery passing by.

DSC_2069 DSC_2050 DSC_2066 DSC_2081These were not views we saw regularly in our lives at home.  On the train, their strongest reaction was quietness (which is significant if you know my chatty son), and they didn’t say much about it at all until we came back to the States.

Two days after our return, my son climbed in the car after school and commented, “Mama, I think I’m just really into the world,” he declared matter-of-factly.

“What do you mean by that?” I’ve learned it’s best to always ask him for further clarification.  He has a bit of a history of mind-stretching conversations.

“Well, you know.  All the kids at school, they’re really into video games and stuff.  It’s all they talk about.  Me, I think about other things, like poverty and stuff.”

The views from the train entered my mind, and I waited for more.

“I mean, can’t someone do something about it, Mama?” he asked the very question I asked every single time I see injustice.  “Why do people have to live like that?  Can’t Barack Obama help them?”

I rejoiced for the awareness he showed and smiled at innocence.  Those train-views were sinking in, and he was starting to sort them out.

My intuitive daughter made a different kind of observation, “The people seem happier there, mama.”  Already she senses the emptiness of accumulation and busyness, noticing the up-side of living without.  My father-in-law used to say that it takes a long time to see the good in a place like Sri Lanka, but she sees it without delay.

Over the years, I’ve had my moments of wondering if we’ve been crazy to repeatedly take our children to a developing country plagued by war, dengue fever, and flying cockroaches.  When they were babies and toddlers, I was nearly convinced we were crazy.  Nine hour jet lag didn’t look too great on any of us except my energizer-bunny-of-a-husband in those years, and it would be a bit of an understatement to say we had some rough moments on those trips.  So why do we embrace the difficulty, the seeming risk of it all?  

One of the strongest lessons I learned when my husband and I were dating was to make decisions out of conviction and not fear. I’ve carried this concept with me into parenting, and it has helped clarify many decisions – especially the idea of traveling with our kids.  Though we don’t always live close by, we value our families deeply, and want our children to have the opportunity to know and learn from them.  This value of family connectedness held more conviction than my fear of bombs or dengue or flying cockroaches.  While the conviction didn’t erase the fears, it certainly put them in perspective.

In the earliest years of parenting, our decision to travel with our children was merely a hunch that it would be good for them in the long run.  “Start as you mean to go on” became our motto, for we wanted the world to be something that was as much a part of them as their hometown, and we knew that to do this, it should be something they had always known.

As they grow up, periodic responses like my son’s are confirming our hunch.  Trip after trip, I watch them connect with bits of themselves that they can’t find here in the US.  I rejoice quietly when I hear them use mulli and akka (the Sinhala words for little brother and big sister) for each other, when they call their father Thaathi with a Sri Lankan accent instead of an American one, when my daughter asks me to put her hair in a really low ponytail because “that’s how a lot of people wear it here”, or when they critique each other on proper finger-eating techniques.  While these are small and simple details, to me they speak loudly that our children are embracing all sides of themselves, proud to be shaped by both sides of the world.

They are by no means walking this path between worlds perfectly – their penchant for pizza and entertainment rivals most kids – but they’re doing it well, leaning in with whole hearts and open eyes.  It’s the sort of thing that brings a mama to her knees, grateful for the chance to walk alongside the unfolding of wonder and compassion.

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12 thoughts on “The value of traveling with young children”

  1. This article was posted at a perfect time for me. We will be traveling to Kenya next month to visit my husband’s family. We will be taking our 17 month old with us. As you stated above, it currently feels like a “hunch” that this is a good idea. I hope that we will be able to make more trips in future years and she will gain a deeper understanding of where her father is from and how that connects to her . I’m excited about this trip but also anxious about the details of the actual traveling. I have traveled overseas alone but never with a child. In some ways I’m already tired from the trip, knowing that while there I will have most of the child watching to do. But I also would know that this will be worth it and the hard times, the stressful times, the many times I will probably cry from being tired, will be worth it. Thank you for this article.

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    1. I’ve soooo been there, and it was really hard and exhausting, but you’re right, very worth it in the long run! The bright side is that, after traveling with babies and toddlers, everything else will feel like a breeze!!!

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  2. People are often surprised by what we do, where we live, and that our kids enjoy it. Oh, but they have grown up with it, they are used to it….Well also, it is a good way to live, there is so much more than safety and convenience and conformity and homogeneity. There are some risks, but there are always risks. I want my kids to risk with their eyes wide open, I guess. I really don’t know how to respond to people who say: aren’t you afraid? do you feel safe? I think they want us to feel unsafe and afraid because if we feel safe and not afraid (for me, mostly because of faith and my belief that God will only do good to me, even the kind of good that means a cross, in other words hard, painful good) makes people uncomfortable. It challenges their assumptions. I need to be bolder about turning the question around: aren’t you afraid of raising your family in a myopic, closed world? Do ever feel unsafe about commercialism and isolationism?…I know what you mean Marilyn, though, about not wanting to comment for fear of sounding harsh/judgmental.

    I need to read that book, I’ve got it on my library queue.

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    1. I hear Tara Livesay say this occasionally about their life in Haiti as well… One disconcerting reaction that always lingers behind my comments about safety, etc. is a lingering awareness that I may say such things conditionally – as in, ‘safety is overrated’ (and inside my subconscious adds something like ‘unless my child gets dengue’…then I’m not too sure how I’d feel).

      Have either of you had these kind of unsettling/doubtful ‘trailer thoughts’ with regards to raising children in the less-safe and sanitized places? How do you handle these, knowing that it’s still somewhat your choice to raise children in the places that appear riskier than others?

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      1. I have, most recently it was with an adult child – not realizing everything that was going on in Cairo while my daughter was there. We had encouraged her, loved that she was there, proud of her for staying…but we didn’t know all that it cost her. So I have felt vulnerable around this, particularly when people say or act out the “we told you so’s” Growing up we went through two wars, my earliest memories were of blackouts and listening to the BBC radio on my parent’s bed to hear that India was bombing Pakistan. Then with our kids, we were in Pakistan when it rained missiles from missiles being improperly stored, killing people and creating craters all around us, in Cairo we were there throughout Desert Storm and bombs and bomb threats. We would travel to Israel Palestine…had a son strip searched at the border one time. And I write this very matter of factly. It was life. I loved one of the posts on A Life Overseas – it was about Doing it Afraid. So we do this — and we do it afraid. And as we do it afraid and exercise God-given wisdom, an inexplainable peace becomes part of our story. That’s the only way I know how to explain it.

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      2. 🙂 I think we all have times where we flip flop and think “WHAT am I doing??!” I believe deeply in the value of the things that are offered to kids that live abroad or just travel to areas outside of the “norm” (whatever that is) — and I’ve seen that my kids are generally at peace. We’ve now reached the stage where we see the pain it can cause too and I think it has left us feeling a little afraid at times. (The second born has been launched after 7.5 years in Haiti and that was not such an easy task for any of us.) I am not always settled. Thankfully, I USUALLY am or this would be so much more difficult. I for sure allow myself to go down rabbit trails and get sucked into the vortex of “if this happens it is my fault for having them here” thinking. We’ve had all the terrible tropical diseases and a horrid natural disaster and one pretty signficant other situation and somehow we’ve been blessed to be afforded space to heal and deal with things as they came and have always felt more certain rather than less certain that we want to be here for this season of life.

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        1. … and I agree with Marilyn that depending on what my kids are going through, this can be a very vulnerable and difficult thing. (And, when it comes to fear and the “safety” issue – I think the media effects how my family and friends perceive Haiti – they only ever hear bad things — nobody is reporting on the beautiful things that happen daily here.)

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          1. That makes me crazy as well. On Pakistan’s Independence Day I posted all these stunning pictures of Pakistan and so many Pakistanis contacted me, grateful for a different view of their country. Tara – I go back to your post Do it Afraid all the time. I love that piece.

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          2. That’s why my FIL’s words always stick with me… there’s a lot of good things in Sri Lanka, it just takes a long time to see them. I’ve learned they’re also not the kind of things that make the news – things like community and time-for-each-other and people walking arm-in-arm down the street. it’s not headline worthy, but it’s beautiful.

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  3. I loved this post and the way you walked the reader through both the decision to travel to Sri Lanka as well as some of the results of that decision. Loved the pictures and the descriptions of your kids leaning into their roots on the other side of the world.

    Where I am puzzled is what is it about the U.S that conditions parents to think exposing kids to other ways of doing things could ever be anything but good? I didn’t hear this until I moved to the U.S and began raising my kids in small town America. Before that I was in communities that knew intuitively that seeing another side of life was always good – hard no doubt, but to shy away from these times because they are hard seems like a short-sighted way to live. Just thinking out loud here. It’s something that has troubled me for awhile but in other venues I don’t comment because I know I sound judgmental as opposed to truly curious at what it is that erects that barrier.

    The only thing I can think of is our isolation to the rest of the world and that most people really do feel that outside of North American borders there is a scary world. Would love both your thoughts as well as would love to hear what you have heard from other parents about your traveling.

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    1. Great question, Marilyn. I love how you ask it out of curiosity, but understand how it can be perceived as judgment in certain contexts! I’m grateful to hear that there are places that view learning from diversity as inherently valuable – this perspective is not one I’ve frequently encountered.

      We used to live in a tiny-little-town and would hear people say all the time that it was “such a great place to raise children”. Our response was often, “Maybe, but only if your only values are safety and convenience.” I think you’re onto something with the isolation piece. After driving from Indiana to California a few summers ago, I was struck again by how big the US really is, and how difficult it can be to interact across cultures for so many. Many people I know have hearts of gold but heads of oblivion with regards to the world – not because they want to, but because they’ve never had the opportunity to learn or think outside of their framework, especially people living in small towns.

      Frankly, I think the news media encourages a lot of this perspective, especially if people don’t know to watch a broad spectrum of perspectives. With the country becoming increasingly more polarized, we’re listening to and associating with only those who think like us, so our ability to glean from other perspectives is decreasing significantly. Additionally, our racial history doesn’t help matters as we harbor an explosive and painful history of interracial relationships. This is not something we talk about much (a post I’m working on at the moment!), and I think it impacts us far more than we understand…

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      1. I have to run but want to continue this discussion. Have you read the book Americanah? you would LOVE it! If you haven’t message me your address and I’ll send it to you as a New Year’s present. It’s a novel but so much truth in it – Here’s just one of the many quotes I love ““Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”
        ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

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