Many parents have made suggestions for raising kind kids and I agree with nearly all of them: practice inclusion, be empathetic, set a great example and use kind words. But I want to add another suggestion to the mix that I think is just as important: If you want kind kids, you should travel with them.
Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about an all-inclusive Bahamas cruise or a week-long trip to Disney where every free moment is spent whirling or spinning, watching a show, indulging in character visits and eating sugar-laden confections. Those trips have their merits too. But if you want to teach your kids kindness, take a trip and not a vacation.
Take a trip to a U.S. National Park. Your kids will learn about wildlife and conservation efforts, how every part of an ecosystem contributes to the delicate balance. They’ll learn how not to disrupt wild animals in their natural habitat, and how to respect living things – plants as well as animals.
Many U.S. National Parks don’t have cell phone reception and the cabins don’t have televisions. When you turn off the screens, you talk and listen to each other. And the hustle and bustle of the real world seems more than just distant; it seems unimportant. Staring one thousand feet down at a naturally formed gorge flanked by colored rock and waterfalls is more than just beautiful. It has a way of putting matters into perspective – for both adults and kids.
If you want to raise kind kids, travel with them – to another country. With three kids, ages 4-8, we haven’t yet taken this step…but I can’t wait until we do. What better way to demonstrate empathy than to step completely out of your comfort zone and try to adapt to different people, language and customs? What better way to emphasize that the world is so much bigger than the community we’re exposed to every day? There are people of every possible walk of life, every religion, every race, every orientation. If the kids are having trouble finding their people, this helps them see that they eventually will.
If you want to raise grateful kids, travel. Go to a place that’s more economically disadvantaged than where you live. That might be one neighborhood over, or a long drive, or a plane ride. But they’ll see that while they’re complaining about not having the latest video console, there are people who have to walk miles for drinking water or who have to advocate for vaccinations that have been available in the United States for years.
If you want to raise respectful kids, travel with them…to visit an older relative. I’m not saying this is easy. When my grandfather was alive, he lived in a tiny apartment across the country with plenty of breakables and no toys. Hauling my three boys to visit them often felt like playing a real-time game of Wac-a-mole. But even with the chaos, my grandfather was thrilled. Our visits meant the world to him. And they taught my kids the important lesson that we respect and take time with our elders.
My family of five takes trips whenever we can. Most of our trips are driving trips, but occasionally we fly, and I know from the searing side-eye I get from some passengers that they don’t want us sitting down near them on the plane. I try to turn these occasions into teachable moments. One time, in an airport gate area, a couple in their 50s walking behind us complained very loudly and pointedly about my kids’ inability to walk in a straight line. I will be the first to admit that my kids don’t take the shortest distance from point A to point B. Instead they wander and stagger…sort of like stumbling bar patrons after a night of too many drinks. I heard this couple’s comments and I asked my kids to step aside to let them walk in front of us. I don’t necessarily agree with the couple's approach of whispering VERY LOUDLY (and I’m not sure why it really mattered since we were all going to the same place anyway) but these types of situations come up all the time when traveling. My kids saw me meet their annoyance with kindness.
Traveling is an effort. It takes money and time, and it can be a huge pain with children. We took a driving trip through the Southwest once that at times felt like the seventh circle of hell. My little one threw up every hour, one of the twins got sunscreen in his eye and it was 800 degrees with 100% humidity. But we got through it together and we learned. (My kids still talk about how much they loved that trip!)
If you want to raise kind kids, you should travel with them. Because there’s no road rage when you’re skipping stones or trekking up a hill. There’s no cyber bullying when you’re at a place with no cell phone reception. And there’s no feeling left out of a situation when the only cliques are herds or elk or bison. Traveling isn’t always easy, but it opens up new worlds for our children. It teaches them kindness and so much more.