The first time we sent our children on a trip without us (or any other relative), it was to a weeklong camp near a mountain lake. Our sons were ten and seven years old.
Some were surprised we’d let our younger kid go, but he was ready for an age-appropriate camp program like this. Both boys had the times of their lives, and returned to us scabbed, sunburned and smiling, the younger one with a suitcase full of clean clothes. He hadn’t changed the entire week.
I know. Yuck.
We learned about both boys that week, that they were resilient, behaved well without us around, and could keep track of their own things. And they learned about themselves, experiencing the world on their own, trying new things, making friends, and enjoying plenty of unfettered kid time (in the care, of course, of trained camp counselors). They’ve returned to camp nearly every year since.
While we travel as a family on a regular basis, our kids still pursue their own adventures. The older one is nearly 18 and on a yearlong exchange in Denmark. The younger just returned from a school-organized trip to Washington D.C. and New York (he changes clothes daily, now).
Whether it’s camps, church missions, school trips, or short or long-term foreign exchanges, if you’ve ever sent your kid packing without you, you likely did him or her a huge favor.
For everyone from the mild mannered soul to the enthusiastic adventurer, travel can be a tremendous growth experience. Exposure to new and often complex situations expands the brain, builds confidence and creativity, compassion and empathy.
For young people, those benefits are enhanced. For those traveling sans parents, the impact can be even more profound.
For the record, I’m not talking about sending your minor backpacking solo across Europe. There are structured opportunities for almost every age that are developmentally appropriate and safe. And there as many reasons parents might want to encourage their kids to travel, as there are opportunities for them to do so:
They’ll develop self-confidence – There is nothing like immersing yourself in a new situation – where the surroundings, people, smells, and language are all unfamiliar – to build character. Exposing ourselves to unfamiliar surroundings puts every sense on alert, inspires vulnerability, even when the overall experience is ultimately satisfying and fun. Moving through these situations builds resilience, patience, and confidence at any age.
They’ll learn to be organized – How often do you wonder if your kid would lose her head if it weren’t screwed on? The responsibility for keeping track of boarding passes and luggage, remembering to scan hotel rooms before check out, keeping track of personal property when disembarking a train all generally fall on a parent’s shoulders during family trips, but about when she’s with a group? She may be in the care of chaperones, but when she’s one of a crew, even under the watchful eye of adults, she’ll need to take on more responsibility. Letting her test her mettle in this area, maybe making mistakes, can show her the benefits of staying organized.
They’ll learn to pay attention – Our oldest has lived in the same house since three years old, but never learned any more than the name of our street until he began driving and navigating on his own. If you’re dragging your kid along on your adventures, he’ll likely rely on your leading him. While traveling without you, he’ll learn to read maps and arrival/departure displays, to take stock of his surroundings and orient himself. These are valuable skills, learned by necessity.
They’ll become stronger – Travel can be stressful. Will you make your connection? Sleep through your alarm? Where’s your luggage? When our kids travel with us, they don’t sweat details. But anyone who wants to live independently eventually has to learn to deal with anxiety. Exposure to normal stress helps build resilience. Talking to your child before a trip about strategies to deal with stress (remaining calm, breathing, finding a helpful adult to answer questions), can help her build an arsenal of coping mechanisms she’ll be able to draw on for life.
They’ll build a resume – Whether it’s employment or college admissions, in today’s competitive world, global experience (or even that provided by interstate travel) is always a plus. Cross-cultural experiences or service travel indicate a level of maturity that employers and admissions offices find attractive and make an applicant stand out.
They’ll learn how to handle money – Kids old enough to travel should shoulder some of the expense. A parent can help her child put together a budget and a plan to pay for part of her trip. And don’t forget pocket change. A student doling out her own hard-earned scratch gains perspective on the value of money. While traveling, she may scrutinize her spending decisions, and, realizing she could run out of cash before she’s home, make different choices on souvenirs and snacks.
Focusing on long-term goals can encourage good decision-making – Okay, many students mature enough to travel aren’t going to be ones who have to strive to stay away from the party scene, but for some, the carrot of a pending trip can be a good long-term motivator to choose the straight and narrow path. The teen years are rife with opportunities to take risks, and sometimes it’s good to encourage good decision-making with a little incentive.
Finally, you’ll get the hang of having them away from you – I am astonished at the parents who engage in the pointless gnashing of teeth when their kids are away. Eventually, if we do our job right, we will all send our little birds from the nest. It is surely helpful for us as parents to have confidence in our children’s ability to be on their own, as well as in our ability to sleep at night without them under our roof.
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