"I don't think there's truly a 'Goldilocks' moment for family travel..."
I shared our RTW plan with a long-time friend and mentor over coffee one day. He was surprised, incredulous even. His response was something like, “What?! You’re going to do what? That’s crazy! Aren’t you afraid you’re going to screw up your kids?” It was the first time someone had expressed doubts about what we were doing, he was genuinely concerned that quitting school and traveling for a year would negatively affect our tween son and teen daughter. “No way!” I replied confidently. “They love travel. They’ll be fine!”
Well, the truth is, it’s been harder on them than I expected. The bottom line is that they ARE fine and they HAVE learned a lot and they WOULD tell you the trip was worth it. But they would also tell you that they missed their friends. A LOT. They’d complain about the 8- and 9-hour days road-tripping through Argentina. Our daughter would tell you that she hated wearing the same things over and over and over. Our son would tell you that he wished I’d brought my own computer so he and I didn’t have to share. All of that to say, below are some lessons we’ve learned about long-term travel with tweens and teens.
They need their friends. As parents, one of our goals for this trip was to spend more time with our kids before they’re grown and gone. As teens, however, they’re supposed to be separating from us, the last thing most teens want to do is be with their family 24/7. Teens genuinely need to spend more time with their friends, finding their own path, developing their separate-from-us identity, building their social skills. Technology helps us help them… our daughter texted regularly with her best friend back home, our son played Minecraft with his. Bella shipped gifts and postcards. Marco had Skype sessions with his buddies. It wasn’t perfect, but it helped.
They need their space. Our daughter’s number two complaint (after “I miss my friends”) was not having enough privacy. We had to find ways to give them alone-time, like sending Bella to sit alone at a coffee shop in Buenos Aires reading, sketching, and drinking tea. Marco hung out at Lego and Warhammer stores while we had a cup of coffee next door. We also got comfortable letting them stay “home” alone. Were we a little nervous about these choices? Yes, a little. But they needed it.
They'll appreciate lengthy stops. Some of our favorite places were "best" because we got to unpack, establish routines, and truly make ourselves at home. Chilling out for two weeks on the coast of Chile and settling in to the ancient city of Selcuk, Turkey for 16 days were two of the kids' favorite visits. Their least favorite? Road-tripping through Argentina where we had new lodging every-other-night.
They will worry about school more than you will. Parents tend to forget how important each class, each extra-curricular activity, each hallway interaction feels to a 16 year old. In March, when we registered our daughter for next year's classes, she had a major meltdown about enrolling in two 10th grade level classes for her 11th grade year. (She doesn't want people to think she failed those classes!) She freaks-out imagining all her friends' inside jokes and memories that she'll have missed out on. Unfortunately I don't have a helpful hint for other parents going through this. I traveled abroad for my junior year with Rotary International, and while I remember being slightly nervous about reverse culture-shock, I was definitely not as panicked as our daughter seems to be. Ultimately, I think she'll just have to experience re-entry to get over her worries. (Note, our tween son is oblivious about school, not worried in the least!)
They will prefer hands-on sightseeing experiences. We three adults love walking tours, museum visits and poking around castles, cathedrals and famous landmarks. These kinds of sights rarely captured the kids’ attention unless they had lots of interactive displays like the Film Special Effects Museum in Prague and the Danish Center for Design in Copenhagen. In the former, the kids got to “fly” a steam-punk-esque airplane, create a green-screen film, and climb a ship’s rigging. In the latter, Marco spent an hour creating a stop-motion film. Cooking schools like the one the boys did in Peru, and the whole family did in Greece would be categorized as "fun" by the kids. Animal-oriented activities, too, were hits. One of Bella’s favorite experiences in South America was kayaking with Sea Lions, despite her long-held distaste for nature. And safari… wow! Our South Africa safaris were their absolute favorite experiences of the entire trip.
They'll learn the value of compromise. So will you. Our family has very different opinions about what is fun, interesting or amazing (see #5, above). But we're learning to listen to each other to make sure everyone gets the enrichment we're looking for through travel. We parents need to let kids make their own choices, like the time Marco convinced me that he'd skip the Edinburgh walking tour but go with us to the History Museum instead. Deal. Done. He didn't have to walk, and I didn't have to feel guilty that he didn't get any formal "learning" about Scotland. The kids have learned that sometimes parents do know best, like the time we hired a guide to take us through Peru's Sacred Valley or visted Langa to learn about the Black African experience in Cape Town.
They’ll surprise themselves. Marco is slightly afraid of heights, so he wasn't looking forward to zip-lining through the canopy of the Tsitsikamma forest. He nervously watched the safety video. He carefully climbed into the harness and strapped on his hard hat. He quietly climbed up to the first platform, white knuckles grasping the rope railings. He didn't talk much through the entire 90 minute experience. Driving home he opened up. "You know I didn't think I'd like being on those zip-lines, but I'm proud of myself. That was cool. Thanks for organizing it, Mom." Similarly, Bella resisted joining a dance class in Natal, Brazil, but later said she wished we'd gotten her enrolled even sooner. "That was a lot more fun than I expected," she explained.
They’ll still like the “kiddie” stuff. Marco was thrilled to visit the Lego Museum in Prague. Not surprising considering that he's a 12 year old boy, but Bella, too, was just as happy viewing the exhibits and digging into the building blocks. The playground at Irish National Stud near Dublin was a hit, as was the Fantasy Water Park in Turkey, and Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.
They'll lean on each other. At one moment in Machu Picchu, the grown-ups hiked up 45 minutes out to an Inca Bridge. The kids were pooped, so they stayed behind, sitting on a rock gazing over the ruins and making funny videos of each other (season 1, episode 5). Since then, they've been a coalition of 2-against-the-world, helping each other get through rough patches, defending each other's position (about any of the above!), and otherwise giving each other support.
A friend recently told me that he was considering sailing around the world with his family. He asked "do you think my kids will be too old?" They'll be around 15 and 13 when they take off. I admit that I hesitated before I answered. Part of me wishes that we'd done this trip when we first thought of it, back when our kids were 8 & 12. But in the end, I don't think there's truly a "Goldilocks" moment for family travel, a time when your kids aren't too old, aren't too young, but are just right. The important thing is to travel. Take the leap. See the world. Even my teen and tween would tell you that you won't regret it.