This Father’s Day, I’d be pretty happy if one of my teenage sons called me an elephant-washer in a social media post.
I’d be content, too, if one of them told the world about skunking me on a rainforest soccer pitch in Costa Rica. Or called into question my sense of rhythm, as displayed when we pounded drums and danced (I use the word loosely!) around a campfire in the Sahara. In our family, traveling together has always been a way for us to ditch our normal roles so that we can really see and enjoy each other in ways we don’t do at home. In our every day world, I do the Dad things that form and frustrate kids – riding herd on homework, coaching sports teams, delegating household chores, and monitoring manners. Selfishly (and I hope accurately), I feel that one of the best things I’ve accomplished as a father is to give my kids the world. It’s always been so cool when we travel to watch them as they see, process and react to things that fall outside the usual boundaries.
There was that day when we all straddled Laotian elephants as they sprayed and splashed themselves clean in the Khan River. Feeling that rough pachyderm skin and getting wet from the trunk spray. Falling right into a contest to see whose elephant got cleanest fastest. Sensing those animals’ personalities and intelligence. That’s all ingrained in us now. Even when we go six months or a year without mentioning the experience, we all own it, and we always will.
How many times have I told the story about the green-lipped mussels in New Zealand? You can’t force a child to taste something that looks and sounds that unusual, but put them in the vicinity…stand back…and let nature take its course. You’ll be surprised how often your offspring rise to the occasion, like mine did when they became green-lipped mussel connoisseurs.
Maybe the best part of exposing kids to the world is what they end up teaching you in the process. The questions they ask are sincere, and they are observant in ways we don’t always give them credit for. I smile now when I think of the day we were in the Galápagos and visited the area where the giant land tortoises live. They are huge – they can weigh more than 500 pounds and live for more than 100 years. I was feeling reverent in their presence, and I confess I was also feeling a bit miffed when I saw how the kids in our group were laughing at them. “But listen, Dad, to how they’re ‘vadering’! It’s so cool.” Turns out the kids heard and focused on the intense, raspy breathing of the tortoises, and I had to admit it did sound like Darth Vader on steroids. Thus, “vadering.” That idea led to a lot of talk about how much work it is to be the equivalent of a walking boulder and it pulled us into tighter observation of the animals. Together.
Being in the travel business, I’ve been able to turn the vacation experiences I’ve had with my kids into multi-generational trips that we call Family Journeys. If you want to give your kids travel experiences that they’ll happily remember you for, here are a couple of recommendations I’d make.
Keep it active. We happen to refer to this idea as “multisport”, meaning that a trip has a range of ways to burn off steam. Ziplines if you’re in an eco-destination. Biking, sea kayaking, llama herding. Variety matters. It’s great if you can do it all together, and (no kidding) even better if you go for activities that let the kids outshine you.
Include some culture. You don’t want a family trip to be all about museums or history lessons. But the advantage of getting away is to be sure your kids understand that the world is full of different and unexpected things. Don’t shut yourself up in a resort. Get out into the real world and see what happens.
Go with the flow. You’re still the Dad. Nevertheless, if you can hire local guides or naturalists or other people who can take over for a while, do it. Give yourself a chance to have fun and discover just like everybody else without being charge for a change. Don’t hesitate to admit that you’re surprised or that you don’t understand something you encounter. You’re human, right? Let it show.
Don’t be afraid of a challenge. We regularly take families with kids of all ages to places as far flung as Cuba, Morocco, Ireland, Vietnam and the Grand Canyon. Again and again, parents come home amazed at how the younger set adapted and got into the local swing. The various challenges of adventure travel just about always create the memories that everybody loves the most.