Important Life Lessons from Our Family Vacations

Like many of you, my husband and I have enjoyed numerous family vacations with our two children. In the beginning, my primary motivation was to expose them to, and educate them about, various cultures – both within and beyond the United States. Now that my kids are teens/young adults, I’ve started to realize that, during our travels, we’ve all learned important life lessons that go way beyond my original intentions. If you and your family travel together regularly, I’m sure you will recognize these value-added benefits of exploring the world around us.

Although the life lessons are important, I’m pretty sure they have almost nothing to do with where, specifically, we have been. Our choices, over the years, were made based on several factors – holiday/summer schedules, family members’ interests, coincidental opportunities, and whatever our budget was at the time. Eventually, our list just naturally became longer and longer. We’ve visited various cities, including Boston, Chicago, Kyoto, Paris, Reykjavik, Rome, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. We’ve traveled to various countries (obviously), including Ecuador, France, Iceland, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, and Peru. And, we’ve traveled in various ways, including camping in our pop-up; visiting friends or extended family members; and staying in home rentals, downtown hotels, and rural lodges. We are nowhere near being the most-traveled family, even in our own town. But, we’ve definitely amassed a range of experiences and a long list of very funny stories.

However, it’s the life lessons that I didn’t entirely recognize in the moment, that make me most proud of what my husband and I have accomplished as a family. Without totally realizing it, our vacations provided safe, relatively risk-free environments for us to work together, to learn more about each other, to move through challenges, and to accomplish goals. Our kids will need all of those skills to navigate the ups and downs of adult life. And, as it turns out, even grown-ups can use a bit more practice at those competencies, as well.

We Can Do Hard Things Together

Perhaps the most important lesson we have learned is that we, as a family, can rise to the occasion.

A Quick Story

When I booked our flight home from Ecuador, the departure time was around 6:30AM. Obviously, that wasn’t ideal. It meant all of us getting up at 4AM to get to the airport by 4:30, so we could arrive 2 hours before our scheduled international flight. But, as the weeks and months wore on, I kept getting notifications that our flight time had been changed. And it was not for the better. By the time we actually boarded the plane, our departure time was 5AM. And, yes, we all got up at 2:30AM to get to the airport by 3. As we say in our family, “The worst part about traveling is the traveling.”

Yes, we were all tired. No, we did not look our best. Yes, it was stressful. No, it wasn’t fun. But, we did it. No yelling, no snide remarks, and a lot of centered breathing. We learned, long ago, that the best course of action is to work as a team. Maybe someone needs a hand with a suitcase. Maybe someone needs to find a bathroom. Maybe someone needs help interpreting the gate signs. This was a great time, with our eyes half-closed and our shoes half-on, to put some of those skills to use.

Family Airplane Photos
My then 5-year-old daughter trying to put a brave face on a miserable overnight experience in an airport.

Family Airport Photos
My then 6-year-old son trying to
make the best of an unexpected,
hours-long layover.

Life Lessons

As we all know, timely arrival at an airport is mild compared to the stressors life sometimes throws at us. Families move. Parents find new jobs. Kids change schools. Friends get cancer. Pets get sick. Grandparents die. And the best way, as a family, to move through these challenges is to stick together and be aware of each other’s needs. I truly believe that family vacations offer important opportunities in that regard.

Finding Joy in Another’s Joy

My two kids are very different people. They are also six years apart in age. Trust me when I say that it’s not always easy to find activities that are fun for both a 12-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy. On occasion, we would split up. For example, in Chicago, my husband took my son to the Children’s Museum while my daughter and I visited the Art Institute. But, for the most part, we stick together.

A Quick Story

One time, we were on Pier 39 in San Francisco. My son decided that he HAD to win the extra-large Despicable Me Minion out of the crane game. It was a totally ridiculous goal, and each attempt cost $1! My son had $20 in “souvenir money.” After that, he was going to have to dig into his savings. After several unsuccessful attempts, my daughter and I left. She had no interest, and I was annoyed. We walked in and out of the shops, enjoyed the people-watching, and eventually ended up all way at the other end of the pier, near the parking lot.

All of sudden, we see my son running toward us, screaming his head off, as he carried this huge Minion over his head. He had spent $28 on a toy that probably would have cost $16 to buy in a store, but he did not care. Everyone up and the down the pier watched him run by as they moved out of his way, and workers shook their heads, saying, “I’ve NEVER seen anyone win one of those.” We were on our way to a baseball game, so we had no choice but to drag that thing on the Metro train. Luckily, we didn’t have to buy a seat for it! But I don’t think I’ve ever seen my son that happy – before or since – and we all got caught up in it. Over a decade later, it’s still his favorite souvenir ever.

Family photo with Minion
The much-coveted Minion (and also my son and daughter)

Life Lessons

Regardless of where we are, there’s always something that SOMEONE wants to do – the New England Aquarium, a volcano hike, the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), the National Zoo, the Genghis Khan exhibit – and the rest of us go along. Why? Because we stick together, even if we occasionally do so begrudgingly. And what we’ve all learned, in various ways and at various times, is that even if an activity is not your favorite, it can still be fun. And, it’s usually way more interesting than you anticipated.

In the overall scheme of life, doing (or not doing) these things is trivial. Obviously, many people have gone through life quite successfully without ever having walked the streets of a Chinatown. But getting along with people, maintaining strong friendships, and being part of a team sometimes means remaining open-minded and setting aside your own preferences. Often, it allows you to do things you would never do otherwise, revealing entirely new worlds you might never have known about. And, if it’s not your cup of tea, now you know! Even I have learned that, on occasion, my kids come up with some pretty good ideas.

Everyone Loves Hot Springs

We love hot springs – natural spas, man-made baths, hot tubs, and spring-fed pools. All of them are wonderful! And we have enjoyed them in Ecuador, Iceland, Japan, Montana, and Peru. Now, whenever we plan a trip, one of the first things we investigate is where the steaming pools of water are located.

Family Photo in Banos, Ecuador
My daughter, husband, and son ready for some hot springs.

As it turns out – and anyone who travels can tell you this – it’s not just that everyone around the world loves hot springs. They also love sweet treats. And waterfalls. And friendly people. And mythical tales. And homemade cuisine. And rainbows. And kindness. Because people are human, no matter where you go. And that might be the most important lesson any of us can ever learn, even if it takes sitting in lots of hot water to get it.

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Vicki Garlock is founder of World Religions for Kids and a Supervising Editor for MCK Blogs. She is the author of the award-winning kids' book, We All Have Sacred Spaces, and Embracing Peace: Stories from the World's Faith Traditions. Her next book, ABCs of the World's Religions, is due out in January, 2023. She also teaches grown-ups about the world's religions, one minute at a time, on TikTok. (@learnreligions #religionminute)
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