Travel the world with (or without) kids.

Family and Kids, Goals and Dreams, Relationship Design

Editor’s Note: From the archive and useful for summer travel plans.

The following is a reprint of one of the chapters in Dan Clements and Tara Gignac’s book Escape 101. I hope you can use this info to actually do whatever it is you may be wishing you could do.

Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.
~ Rabbinical saying

I WAS A LITTLE freaked out. After nearly 36 hours of travel, we were finally nearing our sabbatical destination. Five years of planning had culminated in a jarring drive down a precarious dirt road bordered by sugarcane fields and coco trees.
We had arrived in South America.
As we looked out the windows of the van, eager to catch a glimpse of what would become our home for the next five months, I glanced nervously over at our daughter.
Late the night before we had pushed Eve, our five year-old, through Paraguayan customs on a luggage cart. After a long flight, she was exhausted, and had curled up and fallen asleep on our suitcases.
The trip was tiring, but she was amazing. She exceeded our expectations every step of the way, and just her presence alone made things easier, as customs officials first in Brazil, then Paraguay, pulled us to the front of long lineups, smiling brightly at the precocious little girl in her pajamas clutching a stuffed yellow duck.
Still, despite Eve’s super-traveler status and my calm demeanor, I was seriously nervous on the inside. What were we thinking? I thought. This is crazy, bringing a kid here. We have no idea what we’re getting into.
To a large extent this was true. We’d agreed to come to Paraguay, a relatively low profile country in South America, over coffee. It was as simple as that. We weren’t really sure exactly how things were going to be, but we knew that there were kids for Eve to play with, and I knew that I trusted (for no identifiable reason) the missionary who’d invited us.
Now, though, our “gut instinct” decision to come seemed ill-considered. This wasn’t like our other sabbaticals, traveling alone or as a couple. We had a kid! If this went poorly, the consequences would be far more painful.
The van turned onto a beautiful property just as the sun set, and we approached a brick home in the distance. Eve looked at me. “Where are all the kids, daddy?”
“I don’t know, sweetie. I’m sure they’re here somewhere.”
Moments later, as the van came to a stop, more than a dozen beautiful children appeared from nowhere, smiling, cheering, and shouting happily in Spanish. We emerged from the van, and were swarmed with hugs and warm welcomes. Eve looked at me, astonished, and then began to laugh with joy at the happy chaos.
Within minutes, little Eve, without a word of Spanish, was off happily playing.
The tension flooded out of me. It’s going to be fine, I thought. It’s going to be great!
And it was.
For many families, there’s a convergence point on the timeline of life where children and careers collide. The addition of kids to the existing stresses of work and modern culture can be overwhelming for many families. In fact, many don’t make it.
In their book The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke, authors Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi reveal the debilitating cycle for middle-class parents who buy into neighborhoods they can’t afford in order to provide access to good schools for their children. The homes cost more, the taxes are higher, and the requisite level of accessories climbs as well. The only way to make ends meet is for both parents to work full time (at least).
Furthermore, as more and more couples have children later in life, prime earning years have begun to overlap with prime rearing years, resulting in a whole new level of rat race intensity. Nights with less sleep are followed (far too quickly) by earlier mornings that have all the soothing tranquility of an air raid. The easy days are the ones that you can simply skip lunch and overwork yourself without having to pick up a sick child from school, hit a soccer game or make an orthodontist appointment you can’t afford.
It’s absolutely the last time anyone would dream of taking a sabbatical.
But it’s also one of the best times to do it. The benefits for families taking sabbaticals are endless; they can build character, health, relationships and values in a way that’s very difficult to achieve by any other means.
Like the other barriers to your hiatus, though, the sabbatical rock of children is a tough one to get rolling, and highly emotionally charged. In an effort to shift the boulder a bit, let’s challenge the status quo on the biggest concerns about taking children on sabbatical: their safety, their schooling and your sanity.
Concern #1: Safety
Is it safe to take your kids on sabbatical? The answer is another question: what does safe mean? Safe is a term that really means, “a level of risk that I’m comfortable with”.
Different sabbaticals have different levels of risk. Moving your family from Miami to San Diego for a sabbatical is more of a logistical challenge than a safety issue. New school, new friends, new house.
If you’re considering a sabbatical with kids in a Second or Third World country, however, you’re undoubtedly already worried about safety and access to adequate health care. For most people, other countries mean “more risk”.
Worrying about your kids is easy. It’s normal-every good parent wants their child to be safe and well. What’s not healthy is worrying yourself sick about it. And what’s not so easy is assessing the real risk in other countries while you’re still sitting at home in First World comfort.
This is not an attempt to convince you there is no risk-it’s a suggestion that you carefully consider the context of the information you receive, and how it fits with your sabbatical plans. Consider what follows as a set of discussion points to review before you discount traveling with children because of safety concerns.
Danger is a Squeaky Wheel
Bad news, drama, danger and catastrophe make news. Your main sources of information on another country will tend to come from sources that have a vested interest in reporting the unpleasant side of life. Vaccine producers, newspapers, websites, doctors and even your friends and family will have plenty to say about crime, communicable disease and natural disaster. They’ll have far less to say about families who forged new bonds and created lasting memories during Second and Third world travel.
This isn’t to say that these sources are all nasty. It’s simply how the world works. If danger wasn’t a squeaky wheel, a lot more of us would fall victim to it. Focusing on threats is a built-in survival mechanism, and it works wonders for keeping us alive.
At times, however, it also works wonders for keeping us in our homes in front of televisions (watching more unpleasant news) instead of exploring the world. The trick is to recognize that you’re only seeing one side of the story. You’re not hearing about the enormous percentage of people leading safe and happy lives. You’re not hearing about them because they don’t make the news.
Seeking Safety and Dodging Danger Are Not The Same
Ironically, when you go searching for information on safety in another country, you actually tend to search for information on danger. We don’t, for example, tend to look for infant immortality rates, we look for mortality rates. We don’t ask how many people didn’t get malaria. The same goes for crime. It takes only a few minutes on the internet to find the number of murders in a given country-it’s a lot harder to find the number of people who didn’t die. I challenge you to find the statistics for the number of non-victims of crime, disease and natural disaster for any country-the stats don’t exist, yet the non-victims outnumber the victims many times over.
The result is that the information we get is almost entirely negative, because that’s what we’re looking for.
Your Circumstances Are Not the Same
When you leave the First World for the Third, you’re not becoming a Third World person. Your existing level of health, your access to resources and your background and education provide you and your family with an enormous advantage over many inhabitants of less developed nations. You can afford health care. You can afford good food. You can afford clean water. You can afford decent housing. The same statistics don’t apply to you.
Take the time to consider the whole picture before you discount a sabbatical because it’s too dangerous for children.
Concern #2: School
Face it: North America hasn’t cornered the market on schools. Schooling options are plentiful around the world. You can home school, if that suits you, or put your children in a local school. Many countries have English-speaking private schools for expatriates that tend to be expensive, but of good quality.
Remember that education doesn’t have to mean sitting at a desk, either. By discussing your time away with teachers and school administrators, you may be able to use your travel as a form of education in itself. What sounds more educational to you: reading a textbook in class about indigenous South American people, or hiking to Machu Picchu to see the Incan ruins first hand? Which experience do you think has the most staying power?
The trick to getting comfortable with alternative forms of education is to get educated. Talk to teachers, parents and your kids about how they feel. And remember that little kids are…well, they’re little kids. Your preschooler isn’t going to suffer if they miss a standardized test or fall behind in reading for the time you’re away.
Give your little ones a chance to be little ones.
Concern #3: Staying Sane
Although modern living can be crushingly difficult at times, it also contains an entire infrastructure of sanity-preserving resources that have evolved around the need to integrate child rearing with income earning.
The school system, daycare, sports teams, nannies, television, video games, playgrounds and DVD’s all provide a cushion between our insanely busy lives, and the wondrous but demanding exuberance of kids. And regardless of your opinion of these safety valves, it’s worth considering what your sabbatical will be like without them.
The average kid watches several hours of TV per day. If that’s not part of your sabbatical, what will your day be like? I’m not suggesting it’ll be better or worse, only that it will be different, and it’s worth envisioning what that “different” will be like, and how you’ll deal with it.
What Kids Really Need
If the thought of going from Nintendo to no Nintendo sends you into a panic attack, consider for a moment what kids actually need to be fulfilled and happy.
Although it may not be easy to believe, particularly with teenagers, your kids really want you. What they lose in DVD releases on sabbatical, they make up for with pure, unfettered time with you. Your time away can easily create and strengthen bonds with your children that will last a lifetime-all it takes is a little time.
Other Kids
Kids are social creatures, and just like parents need adult time, kids need kid time-they need to interact with other children.
Our daughter is an only child. For this reason, we chose a destination for our most recent sabbatical that would have many other children around. It was the smartest thing we could have done. From the moment we arrived, the children took Eve under their wing, and despite the language barrier, had an incredible time.
The message is a simple one: kids are kids, all around the world. If you’ve got an only child, or kids of diverse ages, or siblings that don’t get along, don’t worry. Find a place with kids, and the kids will find their place.
(Some) Structure
Children tend to gravitate towards some structure. Rules and routine are a way for them to test the world out, and figure out how things work. Just as touching a hot stove equals pain for a toddler, staying out late without calling home equals disapproval for a teenager. They’re all forms of poking and prodding the world to find out how it will respond.
Too much structure can be stifling. Too little can be unrewarding, or even scary.
How does this apply to sabbaticals? Most families transitioning from rat race to sabbatical life may find themselves moving from too much structure and routine to too little. It can make for a difficult transition.
Recognize that while you may relish the idea of having absolutely zero rules, restrictions and obligations when you wake up on the first day of your sabbatical, your children may feel otherwise. Keep them informed and involved. Even if there are no plans whatsoever, tell them, “The plan is to have no plan so we can just relax and enjoy ourselves today.”
Good Intentions
Unlike many adults, children are remarkably intuitive. Babies know far better than adults when they’re hungry. Toddlers know exactly what they want (even if they can’t get it), and even moody, confused teenagers have a remarkable ability to gravitate towards what they like. We grown-ups, on the other hand, have had the pleasure of being completely desensitized by the incredible world that’s evolved around us-a lot of our intuition lies dormant.
The result is that kids are sensitive to the environment around them. They have a natural ability to pick up on emotions and intentions. For this reason, one of the best tools for travel with children is your attitude for travel with children. If you tell yourself that a 12-hour flight is going to be rough with your kids, then it’s almost a sure thing. Your kids will pick up on the subtle signals you send out-your body cues, your emotional tone, and your choice of language. Conversely, tell yourself that the cross-country RV trip is going to be fantastic, and it will be. Kids are the shortest route to self-fulfilling prophecy on the planet.
The Perfect Age is Any Age
What’s the secret to choosing the right age? Don’t discount any ages. Just as there’s no perfect time to take your sabbatical, there’s no perfect age for kids either. It’s going to be great at any age. Don’t assume your toddler is too young, or your teen too old. Young children provide an opportunity to skew the decision-making towards what you’d like to do, which tends to make things easy, but older kids represent a communal planning opportunity that can’t be beat.
Sabbaticals and kids go together like peanut butter and jelly. The natural curiosity of kids, their desire to engage with life can take you to places and things you might never have dreamed of on your own.
Do your children a favor. Don’t wait until they’re gone.