Why Take Your Kids to Europe?
This introductory chapter from Take Your Kids to Europe expresses our philosophy about traveling with kids – something we feel passionate about. See if you agree!
Even a good school is by definition a limited place. When we left for Europe, we were convinced that a class of four with the world as its teacher could acquire more knowledge in a few months than a class of twenty-five with a single certified instructor. We itched to remove ten-year-old Sam from an environment where an overt interest in knowledge wasn't "cool." We knew Libby, at 13, could learn more Spanish buying penny candy in Salamanca than she had reciting dialogs in a classroom in New Hampshire.
Some of the reasons for taking our kids to Europe were obvious before we left. Others we realized only by looking back after our return. In this chapter, we’ll discuss all the reasons that might help you overcome your inertia, get your in-laws to donate to your travel fund, or justify the trip to your school system.
We’re proposing four different things in this book:
• travel with your kids…
• outside of the States…
• specifically to Europe…
• for as long as possible.
Let’s take a look at them one at a time, starting with a few reasons for taking the kids along anywhere.
Why Take the Kids?
Wouldn’t it make more sense to leave the kids at Grandma’s and spend the money on a second honeymoon? Why shouldn’t you just go by yourselves? After all, the children won’t appreciate the Louvre or that Tudor inn in England.
You’re not the first one to think those very logical thoughts. Surprisingly though, most parents we’ve talked to said that in retrospect they appreciated the slower pace of traveling with children. The typical adult trip too often races from one well-known sight to the next, a victim of the ten-countries-in-eight-days syndrome. The best family travel involves staying put, taking it slowly, learning more about everyday life. Leave the kids behind, and you’re on vacation in Europe. Take them along, and you’re temporarily living in Europe.
Better communication is another reason to travel with kids. Part of growing up is learning to separate yourself from your parents. This is a positive step, yet the way it is implemented is often negative. Some kids dye their hair pink. Others experiment with drugs or alcohol. Others do nothing worse than moping in their rooms with the door locked.
As it turns out, traveling with your kids may be a great way to bypass several years of adolescent wrangling. When we left for Europe, Libby, at thirteen, was just beginning to spend more and more time behind a closed door. But for the four months of our trip, she often had no room of her own, let alone a door. Unable to avoid each other when we had our differences, we learned to talk them out in reasonably productive ways.
While this meant that we all weathered some nasty storms in the middle of our "idyllic" trip (see Chapter 15, Homestay Survival), the price we paid was worth it. These positive communication patterns persist, a lasting legacy of our travels.
Even a short trip of a week or two can jolt your relationship with your kids out of its ruts, as you come to see one another in a different light.
Traveling to Europe made me see that my kids are more self-sufficient than I realized. Reading sign and maps… knowing where to stand on train platforms… I won’t worry about them getting lost in a city, now that I’ve seen how quickly they caught on . That was a real eye-opener for me. – Martha Rausch, Rowley, MA
Why Leave the States?
Whatever happened to "See America First?" Couldn’t these same benefits be gained by taking the kids cross country? Why not pack up the van and set out to discover America? If you can afford the time and money to do this kind of thing more than once, you should certainly consider a stateside trip too. But there are indeed some compelling reasons to leave the country.
Traveling overseas exposes your family to different points of view. Americans can be very parochial about their lives. So can teenagers. Put them together and you get the American teenager, convinced that there’s only one way to dress, speak or act. Nothing can counteract this tendency quite so well as a trip outside the country. Your kids will look at the burden of school differently when they realize summer vacation starts in late July in England, and the school day goes till after 4:00 in France. They may develop a new tolerance for their siblings when they see Spanish brothers and sisters playing in mixed groups of six- to fourteen-year-olds.
One incident during our trip made it especially clear that our kids were thoroughly rearranging their assumptions. It came on a spring afternoon in the Dordogne region of France, as we drove back to our hotel from a day of exploration. The kids were unusually quiet in the back seat, till Sam broke the silence to announce, "I always thought the United States was the freest country on earth. But when you come right down to it, we’re not really." He sighed as he finished, obviously perplexed by his realization.
We pressed him to explain how he’d arrived at that conclusion. "The French didn’t even mind that we climbed all over that ruined castle today. Back home there would have been railings and Do Not Enter signs everywhere—they would have been so afraid of being sued." He paused, dredging up another example from his experience. "And in Germany they don’t even have speed limits. It’s like over here they trust you more."
The longer your trip, the more pieces your kids can put together to arrive at a new world view. But even on a short trip, it’s almost impossible to avoid noticing that people in different countries eat differently and dress differently than we do, yet still survive to see the next day.
Overseas travel can give everyone a better sense of time. Children by definition live for the moment, with little regard for the past or the future. Part of growing up is learning to see ourselves as links in a chain that stretches into the past and can, with our help, extend into the future. In a country as young as the United States, though, it’s not often easy to make that connection.
Traveling in countries with a more obvious past can help. Early in our trip, we visited our first Roman ruins, the immense amphitheater at Orange, France. This stop recalibrated the kids’ internal calendars almost instantly. As Sam mused, "I used to think that the "Little House on the Prairie" stuff was really old. But that’s only like a hundred years old. That’s nothing."
With their scales reset to Roman times, your kids can better assimilate everything else they see, from Norman churches half as old as the Roman remnants to prehistoric caves nine times older than Caesar’s theater. It’s almost impossible to learn from isolated events of history until you have some way to link them in your mind as part of a continuing pattern.
Traveling also gives you a sense of ownership toward every place you’ve ever visited. Spend a week in Germany, and that item about the German elections on the evening news suddenly seems more interesting. Stop in Morocco for even a day, and you’ll be more curious about Arab and Moslem issues. That automatic filter we all have—the one that screens out information that’s "unrelated" to us—will filter out less and less, the more countries you visit.
This holds true for both adults and kids. For us as grownups, owning the world means we’ll read some articles in Time Magazine that we might otherwise skip over, or that we’ll be more fascinated by that new novel that takes place in Brittany. For kids, though, owning the world could well mean a quantum difference in school success after their return. All of the history, geography and current events they’ll study from now on will "sink in" much more easily.
The reasons for traveling overseas apply just as well to areas other than Europe—perhaps even more so. Yet at the same time there are compelling reasons to visit The Continent as a first lesson in international awareness.
The obvious one is Europe’s place as the seat of Western culture. Both for better and for worse, much of our American society is based on European precedents. Understanding the history of Europe is very important to understanding the history of our own country—even though Asia, Africa and South America may better define our future.
Europe is a vast living museum of history, an unparalleled opportunity to understand the big picture of the past. Traveling to Europe can help your whole family realize how individuals banded together into tribes, tribes into villages, villages into cities, cities into states and states into countries.
It’s not that Europe is more historic than any other continent. It’s just that its history is so accessible—so ubiquitous, so well-preserved and so well-presented. In the space of just a few days, you and your children can visit Cro-Magnon caves, Roman ruins, medieval fortresses, Renaissance palaces, and Dickensian factories. That makes the contrasts between eras so much more striking.
The rise and fall of societies was a constant revelation to us. The Moors had held sway over all of Spain, building fabulous palaces and mosques, but now Morocco was so poor. Spain had colonized much of the Americas, and was now so self-contained. Tiny England had a global empire in the past, but spent the present in a never-ending round of petty strikes. All our lives and all our children's lives we’d been told the United States was the greatest, a perennial world leader. Traveling in Europe reminded us that leadership comes automatically to no one; it must constantly be earned.
Why Stay Longer?
All of the above benefits can be found whether your trip is for two weeks or two years. But the longer trip, of a month or more, offers its own special benefits in personal and family growth.
Our recommendation of long trips bewilders some of our readers and exasperates others. “Do you know how hard it is to get away for even then days?” parents e-mail me. “Your book is unrealistic!” I plead guilty as charged. It is very difficult to carve out a longer trip. If your circumstances just won’t allow a long trip, skip the chapter on long-term stays, and accept my apologies. Scores of families contact us every year for advice on longer trips, however, so I will continue to tout the benefits of an extended stay abroad if at all possible.
One big benefit of the longer trip is the creation of a powerful,, shared family culture. Years after you return, your family will hold a solid core of private jokes, food preferences and memories in common, tying all of you together securely. At home, parents and kids may barely see each other. Dinner is rushed, with some family members already at play rehearsal or PTA, others not yet back from work or basketball practice. On weekends the kids sleep till noon, and no one can ever agree on a family outing. Only a drastic departure from daily routine lets you build a collection of shared experiences.
When people ask me what was the best part [of my husband’s temporary military duty in Germany], I tell them “two months in a two-room apartment with no English-speaking TV and no toys.” … It was fantastic for our marriage, for our kids, and for our family as a whole to draw together and count on each other. So many “inside jokes” since we’ve gotten back… lots of neat memories that we’re hoping to move back to Europe and expand on. – Ellen Manuel, Bellevue, NE
One of the best shared experiences that comes out of an extended trip can be discussions. At home, school and work suck up time and the phone rings at just the wrong times. Yet we had all the time in the world to answer when, a week into our trip, Sam suddenly asked us to explain "how come Jesus was so important that everyone built so many churches to him?" Or a month later, in Morocco, when he wanted to know what made some people rich and other people poor.
Discussion isn't something you can force. Don't for a moment picture yourselves climbing off your transatlantic flight, hopping in your car, and driving away into the sunset discussing politics. Give it time. The longer your trip and the less hectically-scheduled it is, the more discussion opportunities will arise. Thrown together in a car for days on end, or sitting around in a TV-less, phone-less rental home, the art of conversation will eventually be reborn.
Staying longer also gives your kids valuable coping skills. Travel is not always a day in the park. And there's a lot that kids (and adults) can learn from coping with the ups and downs of foreign travel.
"Take a trip like ours and you’ll be subjected to so much that you can stand anything." Libby’s words sum up one of the most lasting benefits of taking an extended trip outside the country. If you take a week’s vacation in luxury hotels, your kids won’t learn to cope with anything but jet lag. Stay a bit longer and live like the locals, and you’ll all inevitably learn something about flexibility.
Coping means learning to eat new foods when you’re hungry and there’s nothing familiar on the menu. Coping means putting on extra sweaters and blankets when there’s no central heat. It means showers down the hall in a strange hotel, and figuring out how to use awkward stand-up toilets.
Is there anything more important you can teach your children —anything that could be more useful to their future than learning how to make the most of any situation? Start planning now, and make your dreams happen. What's your excuse for not taking your kids to Europe?
My father suffered a very damaging stroke at age 49. Much of his right side was paralyzed, he couldn’t talk, and he could barely walk. He decided to take my mother and all five of us kids (ranging from age 15 down to twins age 5) to Europe. We were there for 3 months, through 17 countries, on a bare-bones low-budget trek financed by a loan on his life insurance. Well, he lived for 35 years after they said he’d soon be gone, and that trip was the source of literally decades of wonderful shared family memories. The lesson here is to take the trip whenever you can and let no obstacles stand in your path. — Thomas Zoss, South Bend, IN