Teenagers are complicated. However, traveling with teens can be an amazing family experience that brings you closer together.
Traveling with teens is also challenging. It’s not like traveling with adult friends and nothing like traveling with younger children. There is no diaper bag anymore; instead, there is a cell phone.
We started traveling with our daughters when they were just six weeks old but each trip is a new learning experience. Traveling with teenagers was a big shift from our days of packing snacks and pushing strollers.
I was recently lucky enough to have lunch with my daughters during which we brainstormed four reasons WHY one should travel as a teenager and also determined four pieces of advice for parents on HOW to make the trip a success.
Parents sometimes wonder if it is worth the headache and expense of dragging a potentially reluctant, often moody 15-year-old on a trip to Paris, Panama, or Vietnam. Our answer is a resounding “yes!” Here are our four biggest reasons:
1. Teenagers need to know that the world is bigger than their high school. Problems such as clique drama and sports disappointments are real and feel earth-shattering but they shrink a bit with perspective. While traveling, high school is far away. It can be an unexpected relief for young people to step away and see their own world from a distance. Even if there is no drama to escape at the time of the trip, a year or two later, when there is a conflict or a challenge, it helps to know how easy it is to step away.
2. Travel is the best way to gain an understanding of how the world sees your own country. Kids study history and geography in school but it is relatively meaningless without context. By traveling, kids learn how their own country looks from the outside. When visiting Panama, we were amazed to find that the indigenous people of Guna Yala still appreciated Americans today for their support, years ago, of an independent Guna state within Panama. We also saw the in-depth portrayal of American influence in the building of the Panama Canal. It’s fascinating to hear other people tell you about your own culture! In Vietnam, we visited the War Remnants Museum which graphically described atrocities perpetrated by Americans during the Vietnam War. It was a chilling experience. Our daughters now know, undeniably, that there is another perspective on everything they learn in AP World History.
3. Travel is an amazing opportunity to have fun with your kids! There is no homework and no curfew. You aren’t fighting the TV and friends for their attention. Travel is your chance to listen to your children’s perspective, share a few laughs, and explore something new together. Don’t judge us too harshly, but it is also a chance to go a little crazy and share a cocktail. In America, the drinking age is 21 years old so kids are excluded from lots of fun venues. I am not suggesting getting drunk with your kids. But, depending on their age and your family values, travel brings the possibility of changing rules. We try to visit a rooftop bar at sunset in every country. Why not? You’ll be closer and have great stories when you return.
4. When you visit a country where none of you speak the language, travel lets kids see their parents flounder a bit. I like to think I am a role model for practically playing charades all over the world. My language skills are weak but my willingness to embarrass myself, to make a new friend, knows no bounds. I love that my kids have seen me make mistakes, get lost, and order four slices of plain bread when I meant to order a sausage. If you can manage to visit a country where the language your kids are learning in school is spoken — bonus! Now you have a chance to let your teenager lead the way, take on new responsibilities, and show off their skills. Of course, they will likely be a lot more motivated in language class when they return home as well.
Here are four of our favorite tips for making the trip a success.
1. Give the teenager some significant planning responsibilities. You could put them in charge of planning for a particular destination, such as a stopover in Iceland. You could also let them choose the lodging or plan a set of activities that interest them. The biggest reason to give them planning responsibilities is to give them ownership. They can’t complain all day if they planned the day.
2. Find the teen side of your destination. Once you have decided to bring your teens, let go of any fantasy about a pilgrimage to visit all the art galleries of Europe. Instead, start imagining a fun family adventure that brings you closer. Embrace the idea that you are going to see a side of your destination that you would never experience without your teen. What interests your child? Sports? Get tickets to some local sporting events. Music? Find a concert and visit a local used record store. Clothes? Go thrifting!
3. Decide in advance to leave the phone in airplane mode. It’s cheaper and it’s easier. Airplane mode is like a family compromise. While you are walking around town, you are disconnected. No WiFi, no SnapChat, no nothing. Just photos, the pedometer etc. In a café or back at the hotel, you and your teens can connect to WiFi and the world of social media in controlled doses. By deciding in advance, kids can let their friends know when they are likely to be and will not be online. This also offers themselves the opportunity to prepare for the “shock” of being unplugged much of the day.
4. Give yourselves some time apart. Teens need independence from parents and vice versa. If you are in a safe place, give them some pocket change and let them wander. Better yet, give them a mission like “bring back an afternoon treat” or “find a gift for Grandma.” Maybe even make them navigate with a paper map! If you don’t feel comfortable letting them wander, then give the kids some time at the hotel to go wander yourself. Take in an art gallery or sit quietly at a café and write in your journal.
The final travel tip is a little annoying but worth saying anyway…start the traveling during the kids’ younger years. It’s hard to jump into traveling with a reticent 14-year-old. It’s a lot easier to start at 5 years old. Then at 14 years old, your teen is likely to be eager for more.
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