Traveling with Bambini
I think the world is a magical place. Sure there is trash, poverty, traffic, and meanness in the world, but if you look for it, there is beauty that can far out shadow the ugly. I want my children to see that world. I want them to have experiences...to understand that they are a small beautiful part in a much larger world. To learn from real things in the real world.
From the time they were very little, my husband and I have brought them out in the world. Sure, we worried a little about the scary germs out there, but we felt the importance of them experiencing the world even with their tiniest senses and learning how to be adaptable little travelers was important. Now I’m not saying we’re one of those families who bravely climb mountains or dash their newborn off for a ride on a camel, but they definitely were not holed up in our house for their first six months.
The reactions we got, carting our two small preemies around in their rather impressive double stroller, were varied. Many marveled at their miniature features. Most commented on their twin-ness. Several seemed even impressed that I was managing to make it outside with two such wee ones. But I’m sure there were many who walked away talking about that crazy girl or guy who ventured their little babies out into the big, bad world when they were such peanuts.
As they get older (we are halfway through the threes), I still get people shocked that we are somewhere. It doesn’t really matter where. How do you grocery shop with TWO babies? You climbed up what with TWO babies? You drove them to Minnesota all by YOURSELF? You took a baby on a FERRY? Some impressed, some dismayed, but very few people say, hey that’s awesome! What a grand idea! So this gets me thinking of course. Are we terrible parents for backpacking our children up a steep trail? Are our children going to at some point be incredibly overloaded by the amount of sensory input they endure? Are they hiding horror at what they see behind those smiles? Would they be better off contained in our tiny little house in our tiny little town? My husband and I do not believe so. Furthermore, I think they gain something from all this travel, but I like to be sure.
THE STRESS OF TRAVEL…
One potential negative of travel is the stress involved. Certainly as an adult, I have found long cramped airplane rides, getting lost in a foreign city, or hours in the car with a crabby family stressful. So how does this stress affect children while traveling? As mentioned in Ellen Galinsky’s Mind in the Making, a review of the research on stress in children at Harvard found that “stresses caused by everyday challenges like ‘meeting new people, dealing with frustration, entering a new child care center . . . ‘ are positive as long as the child has the support that he or she needs to master these situations.” Indeed, they found that it is not so much the type of stress that impacts children, but rather “how long it lasts, and whether there are supportive adults in the child’s life ‘who create safe environments that help children learn to cope with and recover.” Galinsky goes on to suggest that parents should not shield their children from stress. She urges parents to “Remember Megan Gunnar’s words about children and stress – that learning to deal with stress is a necessary part of life. And then think about Nathan Fox’s studies – that parents who are overprotective of their shy children can actually do more harm than good.” It is important to consider your child’s personality and allow time for children to adjust to new situations, but this does not mean avoiding the stress of a new place entirely. My favorite Maria Montessori quote is; “Do not raise our children for today’s world. This world will no longer exist when they grow up. And there is no way we can know what world will be theirs: so, teach them to adapt.” These lovely words are applicable in many parenting and educating situations, but they apply here too. No one knows what their children will face in tomorrow’s world. All we can do is teach them how to think, how to observe, how to get along with others, and how to figure out how to meet their needs in any situation.
REAL LIFE EXPERIENCES…
It has long been taught that young children learn best through hands-on experiences. As John Dewey so plainly explained, “Experience is Education.” Often this is translated to using one’s hands to learn in a classroom. This is valid, but I believe taking children out into the world is often times the most pure hands-on experience. Our children adore trucks, trains, cars, buses, anything that moves. Most toddlers do. We read endless books from the library about trains and trucks, blow on pretend train whistles, drive play cars around our play space, and sing The Wheels on the Bus constantly, but these are not the experiences they talk about.
My son spent over two months remembering our trip “ON” a bus. Watching real trucks dig up a construction site maintains their toddler attention for an hour. Operating the crane at the Children’s Museum was thrilling. “Awakening that sense of wonder is what travel is all about, for adults as well as children” (Hughes, 2006, p. v). Seeing that these cool things exist in real life is what makes them intriguing for children. It fascinates them, motivates them, and inspires them.
Furthermore, providing the greatest range of experiences for a topic has been found to be beneficial for young learners. Researcher Patricia Bauer studies children’s learning and memory. Her findings as described by Ellen Galinsky, suggest that “one of the things that we’ve found that helps babies to remember is being allowed to be engaged in the activity” and when they see something more than once and are experiencing something that is meaningful and purposeful.
LEARNING TO BE TRAVELERS…
Pamela Druckerman describes her terrible vacation with her family in her hilarious and insightful book and “on the walk back to our hotel we swear off travel, joy, and ever having more kids. This ‘holiday’ seals the fact that life as we knew it eighteen months earlier has officially vanished . . . After a few more restaurant meals, I notice that the French families all around us don’t look like they’re in hell. Weirdly, they look like they’re on vacation. French children the same age as Bean are sitting contentedly in their high chairs, waiting for their food, or eating fish and even vegetables. There’s no shrieking or whining. Everyone is having one course at a time. And there’s no debris around their tables.” She goes on to explain that French children practice waiting, they practice participating in long meals. Having expectations and providing early and consistent opportunities for practice seem to encourage desired behaviors. This is true of sleep training and doing chores and, in our experience, it is true of travelling. Later in her book, Druckerman describes the importance of her husband’s upbringing; “Also to Simon’s credit, nothing about France ever bothers him. He’s in his element being a foreigner. His parents are anthropologists who raised him all over the world and trained him from birth to delight in local customs. He’d lived in six countries (including a year in the United States) by the time he was ten. He acquires languages the way I acquire shoes.” I am not suggesting that every family move their children around to six different countries, however I firmly believe that because my kids started riding in the car, eating in restaurants, going on hikes, and waiting for their wacky parents since day one they are easier travelers. I am hopeful that this will continue.
IT’S A GERMY WORLD OUT THERE…
This is a potential weakness of mine. I am not super germ-aphobe. We encourage hand washing. We rotate and sanitize their toys weekly. We are learning to cover our coughs. But I am not that afraid of germs. I think there is a line between avoiding play dates with children who were vomiting the night before and being fearful of the sand at the playground. There are a million potential hazards in the world and I would be a constantly crazed mom if I worried about them all. A line from the show Parenthood states this so clearly, “We can be there for them, but we can’t protect them. It’s one of the hardest things about being a parent.” This is true whether your child is two or twenty. As parents we cannot protect even our littlest ones from every danger in the world and while we should operate caution and common sense, we should not let fear prevent us from letting our children experience life. The limited research I could find on this topic essentially stated that unless your child is eating handfuls of dirt or sand each day they will be okay.
We believe strongly that our children should be exposed to as much in the world as much as they can through real experiences, not just through books or reproductions. We take them out into the world with us to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell it all. We do our very best to protect their sleeping and eating patterns and to provide them with a firm, consistent base they can return to when they want support. This secure base and consistent schedule creates a framework from which they can head confidently into the world. We want exploration and curiosity to drive their learning. To fuel their desire to learn more. We want them to see the beauty and diversity that surrounds us. We want them to have opportunities to meet people and learn to navigate our ever changing world. At the end of the day, isn't that the goal? We hope that our children will learn how to negotiate with others, learn from their experiences, and thrive in the world.
Recommended Further Reading:
Bringing up BeBe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. by Pamela Druckerman
Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs. by Ellen Galinsky
Frommer’s 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up. by Holly Hughes
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