This past summer, our family took a bucket list vacation to South Africa and Zimbabwe. The trip had been booked for 2020, but… well, we all know how that turned out so it was bumped two years. As we prepared for international travel with kids, there were plenty of times when my husband and I wondered whether taking the trip was worth the time, expense and scheduling inconveniences it involved. At 12 and 15 years old, our kids’ schedules had filled up in ways they weren’t just a couple of years ago. Was taking them on a trip to the other side of the world (literally) worth it?
Related: I travel with my kids even if they don’t remember it (or appreciate it)
I believed then—and I am even more convinced now—that it doesn’t matter whether our kids remember or appreciate these travel adventures. The benefits of international travel—especially travel adventures that push us out of our comfort zones—are that huge.
There’s nothing wrong with an easy vacation to a place you know well. Believe me, I love a good beach vacay as much as anybody. But as restorative as these vacations are, they aren’t the same as global travel when you and your kids meet new people, see unfamiliar places, and experience unique cultures and ways of living.
International travel with kids expands their worldview
One of the common concerns about international travel with kids—especially young kids—is whether it’s worth the time, money and effort if they won’t remember the trip. But I don’t travel with my kids because of the memories it creates for them; I travel with my kids because travel changes you.
Even if children are too young to remember an international vacation, global travel impacts kids for the rest of their lives. Since the most rapid brain development occurs in the first few years of a child’s life, Dr. Robin Hancock, an early education specialist with Bank Street College of Education, says that surrounding kids from birth to about three years old with people who are different than them “normalizes” that experience.
Related: As a mom, I’m ‘Chief Memory Maker’—a job that is equal parts wonderful and hard
“Travel and educating children about their roles as citizens of the world when they’re young ensures they will retain that message into their adult years,” Dr. Hancock told Travel + Leisure. “It makes them more open to try new things [and] less cautious of people and scenarios that are not familiar to them. It will inevitably make children more open and remove bias.”
International travel with kids de-centers the American way of life, normalizes connection with people who are different than you, and builds kids’ sense of confidence when navigating new experiences.
“They’re going to start learning the tools for developing meaningful relationships, especially across differences, from an early age,” Hancock says. “Travel has the potential to create a new narrative that teaches children about the similarities with others [and] lays a strong foundation, especially in the early years…We have the potential to raise a generation that knows how to live and coexist with each other.”
Experiencing different people, places and cultures firsthand is ultra-educational
While my kids weren’t able to fully understand the politics, systemic racism and colonial history of places we’ve visited, they were able to understand some of it. They were able to see and experience these places with their own eyes. They were able to meet the people and hear their stories. They were able to appreciate that the assumptions about a place are often inaccurate.
It’s one thing to watch a documentary about animals in the African savanna; it’s another thing to see a pack of hyenas and a lioness fight over a meal (as we did). It’s one thing to learn about the impact of apartheid in South Africa; it’s another thing to see it with your own eyes and hear about a person’s experience growing up under the regime. Books are wonderful tools—especially since we can’t see or experience everything—but international travel with kids helps clarify and humanize the things our kids (and we parents) are learning.
International travel with kids increases empathy
Child development experts and psychologists say that cross-cultural experiences can boost a sense of connection and empathy. “Engaging with another culture helps kids recognize that their own egocentric way of looking at the world is not the only way of being in the world,” Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School, told Quartz.
Studies have also shown that international travel increases cognitive flexibility, enabling our brain to move more efficiently between different ideas.
“Traveling to and engaging with people in developing nations exposes children to socioeconomic diversity, causing them to become more curious,” writes Cindy Lamonthe in Quartz. “Nurturing and encouraging this kind of curiosity has a number of important benefits, especially at a young age.”
In other words, international travel with kids grows their brains and their hearts.
Can’t travel internationally? There are other ways to travel “globally”
International travel with kids isn’t an option for everyone, nor is it always the right time. But there are ways to get the benefits of international travel closer to home. Visit a neighborhood in your city with cultural diversity. Make an intentional effort to get to know people who are different than you. Learn about and acknowledge the indigenous history of the area where you live. Visit ethnically diverse restaurants and try new foods.
Related: Our family does ‘trips instead of gifts’ for the holidays—and it has been life-changing
I have never regretted international travel with kids—whether we’ve gone to Mexico, Canada, or southern Africa. Is it more challenging to travel outside the U.S.? Yes. Is it filled with unknowns? You bet. Will it be worth it? Absolutely.