Tag Archives: travelling with children

Opening up new worlds and our children’s eyes and minds

I have been following my husband’s Writing Safari blog, he is recording a tour he has arranged and is running for 16 of his pupils. and it reminded me of this piece I wrote last year April while on a family holiday in Paris. 

When I was young my family holiday was a drive to the sea punctuated by picnic stops to eat egg or polony sandwiches by the side of the road. But I wanted to be like other kids, whose parents weren’t as wholesome as mine – they stopped at the Golden Egg for toasted sarmies and chips.

Oldest house in Paris

Oldest house in Paris

I didn’t have any friends who went overseas, the Golden Egg and the Durban beachfront being about as good as it got. Now, as I write this, my own family and I are sitting in the Marais district of Paris, around the corner from the city’s oldest house (dating from the 1200s) and surrounded by new and ancient culture. It makes me think about how fortunate some of us are to be able to travel to faraway places and to expose our children to the wider reaches of the world.

Sometimes that means a journey from the KZN heartland in a dilapidated school bus to the coast, a trip that the woman who works for me was never able to make when she was a child, despite living only 200kms from the ocean; at other times it means a drive across the border or a flight over the ocean.

I’d like to believe, perhaps romantically, that exposing my son to French culture and history, having him greet waiters and shop assistants in his limited French, climbing the Eiffel Tower with children of all nationalities, standing on the spot from which thousands of Jewish French children were sent to concentration camps, spotting cannonball damage from the French Revolution in the Bastille area, helps to start conversations about freedom, dignity and humanity from a different angle. And that all of this broadens his mind.

But it’s also true that the children of fellow tourists and residents in Paris all look rather the same, dressed in Nike trainers, sweatshirts emblazoned with the names of American colleges, tapping busily on iPhones, chewing gum and sharing iPod headphones.

Perhaps there is another message in that. When I was young the wave of other cultures, whether from overseas or across the hill in the nearby township, was barely a ripple by the time it washed up on my shores. Now culture flows ceaselessly backwards and forwards across the world and some of the unique differences might have been lost.

Nevertheless, under pressure people fall back on cultural differences and old hates rise up again very quickly. We see this in South Africa. One politician’s use of the word ‘refugee’ can arouse fierce, historical hurts, while a rise in bread prices can lead to stoning of Somalian shopkeepers.

That’s why I believe that exposing your children as much as possible to other cultures in your own country and across the world serves a powerful purpose – to see the connections we have with other cultures and tie our humanity to them. The choice is then theirs as to how to live their lives and create an ethical system, although it’s likely their values will still largely work off yours.

There are also those who argue forcefully for raising children within their distinct culture, with rules and rituals for how to dress, speak, what to eat, when to perform particular actions, and even whom to marry and associate with.

Whatever approach you take, here are a couple of questions that I think are worth asking of your children as they grow up:

  • Do some of your friends and acquaintances expand you as a person, sharing different ways of life with you and giving you access to interesting new ideas, making you more curious about life; or are they always just the same as you, do they narrow you down and support your prejudices and stereotypes?
  • Do your beliefs and lifestyle encourage or at least allow you to connect with other groups different from you, willing to see a common humanity, or do they alienate you from others and demonise others?

Here are some things that parents and schools can do to broaden children’s minds and open their eyes:

  • Teach children a second or third language,
  • Allow children to learn about cultures and religions different from their own,
  • Travel,
  • Explore other African countries (an academic or cultural school tour doesn’t only have to go to Europe – what about Namibia, Ghana or Kenya?),
  • Set up exchange programmes with schools and communities in your own country, and
  • Go to national monuments and museums that acknowledge the histories and experiences of the diversity of people.

black-family-globe

Making memories

I wrote this column 2 years ago while on a family holiday to the glorious Kruger National Park with our then 9 year old son (and lots of extended family too.) It was a short trip, but as always the tranquility and beauty and fascination of this place makes time slow down. So it seemed sensible and necessary to write something about the value of holidays for our children. And retrieving this piece from my archives reminds me that we should plan another trip to the bush, soon….

 

Rondavel, Olifants camp Kruger National Park, South Africa

Olifants camp Kruger National Park, South Africa

“Let’s enjoy the Kruger while it lasts,” said my 9-year old son, as we sat on the stoep of our rondawel. But in fact a holiday lasts a long time. There’s the pre-holiday excitement of running your finger over a map, planning the journey you will take; or seeing your child opening and closing his pen knife in anticipation of the many uses to which he will put it in the bush.

Afterwards, you have memories: the first boogie board ride, a black-maned lion chasing off a rival, a screensaver photo of your daughter eating a cheese-and-tomato sandwich on the beach.

Why is going away on holiday an important thing for children?

On obvious reason is that it broadens their minds. It’s hard not to believe that a well-travelled person has a richer view of the world and can see it from more perspectives. Out of our comfort zone, we are also bound to explore and experience our environment in new ways that promote greater self-sufficiency. Activities like camping draw children into the tasks of cooking, cleaning and dealing with unexpected problems with limited resources.

I stood recently on the bridge over a river in the Kruger National Park and watched a herd of elephants cross the river below. “See the matriarch.” said the guide, “She defines the agenda. She leads the way for her group and decides when they eat.”

In the same way, parents taking their children on holiday need to plan carefully and anticipate the likely pitfalls. Define your agenda. Here are some tips based on personal experience and those of family and friends.

There are different kinds of holidays to take: big glamorous holidays to exotic destinations, going away for the weekend, camping, staying with friends who live in different towns, visiting family, or even holidaying in your own town.

Try not to make the holiday about spending money, and try to choose age and stage appropriate experiences for children: it is no fun dragging a frustrated toddler around the art galleries of London during winter because you love art, or forcing your resentful teenage daughter to spend a fortnight in a tent in the Kalahari because you love the bush.  Having said that, it is important to strike a balance between the needs of parents and those of children. With some imagination, compromises can be reached.

The next item on your agenda should be strategies to deal with complaints of boredom. You might be entranced by a third elephant sighting of the day but your children might be saying, “Not another boring, grey elephant. We’re hungry.”

Long car journeys are a potential disaster. Anticipate restlessness, sibling squabbles galore (“She’s on my side of the seat”) and the incessant repetition of the phrase “Are we there yet?” So plan ahead. Make frequent bathroom, leg-stretching and snacking stops. Use rewards and distractions. If your children are very young, wrap up old toys or small cheap toys in newspaper, then hand one out every two hours on the journey- watch their eyes light up with joy when they unwrap plastic cars and toys that they have forgotten you gave them 6 months before.

Get a checklist for your children. It might be of towns or cars you will pass on the trip, or a bird and mammal checklist – something that requires regular note-taking. Soon they will be counting how many they have seen already.

Then there are the more well-known things parents do, such as taking audio book CDs for children to listen to, playing I-spy or 20 questions or, if your budget allows it, taking portable DVD players. And don’t forget to take a couple of kids’ books.

If you can’t go away on a holiday, make the effort to holiday at home. It is worth using your leave time to connect with your children and have good family experiences. Go on day trips and picnics to local parks, zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens and museums. Be a tourist in your own town. Even if you don’t leave your house, try to create pleasurable memories by changing your routine – have breakfast for supper, make pancakes, camp in the garden, make a fire in the yard and toast marshmallows.

Birdwatching in Kruger

Birdwatching in Kruger Park 2011

 

As I write this article, sitting on the verandah overlooking the Olifants river valley, I am at peace. Partly it’s the setting, the sound of river, birds calling and hippos snorting in the distance. Partly it’s the fact that my son is not here, but is circling inside the camp with his ‘binos’, as he calls them, trying to identify more birds.

I also know that too soon we must pack up and begin the long and unquestionably boring, journey home. But we will be sustained for a while by its memories and by hopes of holidays to come.