One of the most common questions asked when someone finds out that we spent a year abroad with our children is “How did the kids handle all of this change?” It is an important question, and I am careful with my answers. Family travel has a multitude of positives, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a few bumpy days here and there. Just like life at home, not everything goes smoothly all the time.
Our next guest is psychologist Robin Malinosky-Rummell, PH.D. Robin and her husband are travel enthusiasts and hoped that their son might grow up and catch the travel bug as well. After speaking to her, it looks like they achieved their goal! Robin’s book about traveling with children through South America is a wealth of information for families thinking about doing the same.
Bring Your Own Children: South America! A Family Sabbatical Handbook
Robin has been working with children and families in a variety of settings for over 20 years. She has written articles for professional psychology journals as well as travel literature. Her background affords an in-depth look at the psychological processes and emotional extremes of adapting to various cultures as well as a year spent intimately with family members on the road.
Here’s what Robin had to say!
We’ve all been there. A much anticipated family vacation in a beautiful place. Instead of enjoying the experience, we’re hot, tired, hungry, and annoyed. And of course, we’re taking it out on each other.
The setting is a beautiful spring day in Venice, the city of lovers and dreams. Beginning the day collecting information at the Visitor’s center, we connected with another American couple who had just purchased a detailed map and offered to guide us to the gondoliers to share the cost of a ride. Agreed! While we ogled the impressive architecture, the couple read off tidbits of interesting information from their map, led us right to the boats, and served as our photographers during the trip. What a spectacular morning! We parted ways and congratulated ourselves on successfully completing our to-do list. We then stumbled upon a museum on the life and inventions of Leonardo da Vinci, which appealed immensely to all of us. My engineer husband and my engineer-in-training teenage son both loved playing with all the hands-on toys and discussing the finer points of the famous painter’s inventions, while the psychologist in me soaked up the lovely artwork and pondered the mental talents of this remarkable man. Enjoying the spontaneous fun invoked by the interesting museum, we discovered that we could go to another museum for free due to some daily special. I just had to find it.
Shortly after that, our perfect day started to unravel.
Not only was this our second time in Venice, but we take pride in our traveling expertise. Equipped with not one but two maps, we snuck down skinny alleyways, crossed and re-crossed cobblestone bridges, and cut through gelato shops. At first, the adventure started out quite fun, as we stumbled upon the post office (purchasing stamps to add to my son’s extensive collection), browsed colorful shops (trying on grotesque Carnivale masks), and shored ourselves up with an occasional gelato. But after two hours, our sense of urgency mounted as we encountered yet another dead end and realized that if we didn’t find this d@!* museum soon, it was going to be closed.
“I told you we should have spent the $10 on the other map like they did!” became my husband’s mantra. “We don’t need to go to the stupid museum!” complained my teenage son. I repeatedly barked at them to quit whining and to try to help me read the, not one, but two free maps. They were both right, of course. But I was on a mission, and a free museum in Venice was, well, a free museum in Venice. Nothing is free in Venice, or in all of Italy for that matter.
I’m not sure what finally stopped me in my tracks. Maybe it was the late afternoon sun glinting on the water. Maybe it was the sparkle of what was sure to be a lovely Chianti in a glass. Maybe it was the growing realization that my husband and son were totally fed up and wouldn’t like the museum anyway, even if we did find it. I’d love to say that it was my benevolent feelings towards my family and their interests and needs, but in all honesty, it was probably the Chianti. At any rate, I finally gave up my quest, corrected course, and suggested that we all sit down at a café along the water and enjoy some refreshments.
When I close my eyes and try to conjure up some nourishing travel images during times of need, the memory of sitting at that café, laughing with my family, savoring the warm atmosphere of an ancient Venetian waterway, and sipping a great Chianti come to mind. What I can’t remember is the name of the stupid museum I tried so desperately to find. And perhaps I’ve gained some wisdom from that experience regarding successful long-term family sabbaticals that I can pass on to fellow travelers.
1—Plan only one highlight a day and do it first thing. Everything else is icing on the cake, and therefore, dispensable. Overplanning causes most of the stress and frustration of travel.
2—Plan downtime just as enthusiastically as you plan exploration. The only way to survive traveling with your family members long-term is to build in “Relaxing days” and regularly take a vacation from all of that intense togetherness.
3—Family travel is meant to bring families together. You should never lose sight of this goal. It’s the best part of traveling with your family! To develop enthusiastic travel companions, you must encourage children to express their interests and honor what they want to do. You will discover all kinds of fun things and create invaluable family memories if you explore their interests.
4—Encourage your children to take up stamp collecting (or a similar travel-related hobby). Much as you try to fight it, you will want some type of souvenir from your travels. Stamps are cheap, portable, and light-weight. Furthermore, the adventure of finding and purchasing stamps can be a memorable part of your trip.
5—Build in little treats for your children along the way, particularly during adult-oriented activities like art museums, hikes or long bus rides. It is amazing what they will do for an ice cream or a bag of chips.
6—Some of the most successful travel tales come from times of failure. Be willing to change course and let go for the overall good.
7—Never underestimate the power of a lovely Chianti.
About the author: As a self-professed travel addict, I have journeyed through six continents and over 90 countries around the world. My husband and I have adopted a 5-years-on, 1-year-off lifestyle in which our first sabbatical covered the continent of South America, while our second found us on a truck traveling overland across Africa and the Middle East, then on through Eastern Europe and Europe. Along the way, we have cultivated our own style of budget traveling, with a higher level of comfort and safety than bottom-end hostels yet more affordable and authentic than expensive luxury resorts. We are actively passing on our passion for travel to our son, Christopher, who just spent his High School junior year learning Mandarin in China.
Given my multiple roles as child psychologist, travel enthusiast, and parent, I am very passionate about traveling as a family. Happiness is encountering novelty and overcoming obstacles, and what better way to develop and treasure each other’s unique gifts than through travel experiences. Each family member brings something to the table, be it my planning and enthusiasm, my son’s humor and compassion, and my husband’s ability to remain flexible and calm while carrying heavy things. During times of stress, we lean on each other for help and guidance. We appreciate each other’s skills in the face of adversity. As a result, we are closer than any other family I know, and I think that travel has done that for all of us.
In addition, travel is the best education I could have chosen for my son. Of course, there’s the obvious advantage of direct, hands-on exposure to experiences they otherwise only read about in textbooks. But travel goes deeper than academic learning by developing a child’s character and connection to a greater good. How else can you truly motivate children to become passionate about people, endangered animals, and the struggling environment than by meeting first-hand a little boy in Africa whose only wish is to go to school, or Lonesome George, the last remaining giant tortoise of his kind? What has more impact than seeing large gaps in the earth where whole ecosystems have disappeared?
I wrote Bring Your Own Children: South America! A Family Sabbatical Handbook to give other parents the information they need to determine if family travel in South America is for them. With my background in child psychology and professional writing, I am curious about the psychological processes and emotional extremes of adapting to various cultures as well as a year spent intimately with family members on the road. I want to share these experiences with others so that they know what to expect and if they are anything like I am, try to plan their own adventure while expecting the unexpected. It’s the best way I know to encourage others to develop compassion towards our world that I have tried to nurture in my son. ¡Feliz viaje!
Our family on the Equator in Ecuador!
Volunteering with endangered leatherback turtle in Suriname.
Rehabilitating animals in the Bolivian rainforest through Comunidad Inti Wari Yassi
Ethiopian boy taking care of his grandmother.
Life viewed from a wheelchair: Christopher with Ecuadorian friend and travel partner, Alfonso Morales.