I don’t need persuading that travelling with our mini tribe is a good investment. But any evidence that suggests that through doing something we love we are creating peace makers of the future – given our current political climate – this is a bandwagon I’m whole heartedly jumping on!
According to International Development expert, Anna Titulaer, the secret to peace and conflict resolution is empathy.
Families who travel do so because they want to understand the world better. But travelling also gives us the opportunity to understand the world of others better – their feelings, desires, and needs. All travelling increases empathy: simply by entering another country – tasting the food, trying out local modes of transport, using different currency, it increases our understanding of that culture and empathy towards the people who live there.
But are there ways that we can maximize these travelling opportunities to help our children understand the feelings and perspectives of others? Here are 4 ways that we are trying to actively educate for empathy on this crazy travelling journey of parenthood:
1. Stepping out of our comfort zone
We try to go backpacking at least once a year with our mini travellers – mostly because we love the challenge of it and the contrast that it gives to our normal busy lives. And because, when we step out of our comfort zones, we learn more about ourselves and others. By limiting what we bring to what we can carry on our backs, and challenging ourselves to explore different places, it gives more context to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others, and opportunities to meet people from all walks of life.
(It also forces us to stay very ‘present’ because nothing makes time slow down like navigating new countries with these three little turtles).
You don’t have to go backpacking to step out of your comfort zone. Camping is another way that we strip everything back to basics. And when we rely on the kids to help untangle guy ropes, or keep us company as we painstakingly burn sausages on a fire – the outdoorsy togetherness can open up opportunities for meaningful connections that are harder to achieve at home.
2. Using local Guides
In our 20’s we prided ourselves on trekking independently through China, India and Nepal – mapping our own routes, discovering our own paths. Since having the kids, travelling has changed, there is less spontaneity, more need back up plans, and … we’ve discovered local guides!
In Sri Lanka we met an amazing driver, Sam, who took us on a 7 day tour through the jungles, mountains and tea plantations. The children loved him; they peppered him with questions, asked him to teach them useful phrases, and poured over photos of his family and home. When you share stories with people, you give something of yourself and receive the gift in return of someone else perspective on life. When you travel you meet people from different backgrounds and cultures, each with their own stories. It helps breakdown prejudices and allows us to see the similarities between our cultures, as well as opportunity to celebrate the differences. Communication is the easiest route to empathy. And using local guides on travelling adventures with the kids allows opportunity for story sharing and connections with people they might otherwise not meet.
3. Exposing our children to poverty
A lot of people worry that introducing children to life’s harsher realities will be too upsetting. But the reverse is often true. When you expose children to the sufferings of others, they can end up feeling grateful for what they have, and empowered to find ways to meet others needs.
My husband and I first went to Africa as teenagers. Seeing the level of poverty in the slums of Kibera, and experiencing life in the remote villages in Tanzania was a massive culture shock. Over the next 10 years we travelled frequently, but travelling and voluntary work were synonymous – exploring a new country always involved stints of volunteering alongside the people who lived there. My early experiences of seeing extreme poverty in Mexico City where my Father was adopted, and then Africa as a teenager, empowered us to travel with more purpose.
Since having children we have discovered that there are fewer opportunities to volunteer abroad usefully as a family. There are lots of obvious reasons for this – children’s ‘help’ is messy, time consuming and usually unsafe! But we believe that to increase empathy in our children we need them to see and understand the reality of how others live so they are able to humanize images they see in the news, and begin to understand the complexities of our human race.
4. Modeling empathy action at home
Travelling helps us to realise how very lucky we are. Simply being able to travel and see the world puts us in the privileged minority. How can we help our children to learn from what they experience abroad, and begin to flex their empathy muscles at home? Are there ways that we can encourage our children to look out for those in our own communities who cannot access the same opportunities that we have? The homeless, the elderly, refugees? Is this a choice, or as the privileged minority, is it our duty?
Over this past year we have worked hard to help our children turn their blossoming empathy in to action. We, like many, have been affected by the refugee crisis in Europe and felt we needed to play a part in supporting the refugees on our border in Calais. It didn’t take much for the kids to imagine what it would be like to have to permanently leave our home, friends and belongings with only a backpack; or to live in freezing flimsy tents in winter, with no toilets or running water.
The images of families and unaccompanied refugee children making this treacherous journey to Europe, with only uncertainty ahead of them, spurred us into action. For 18 months we made monthly trips to the Calais camp with aid and donations. The kids have been fully involved with every trip. Every month they met after school with their friends to pull labels off thousands of pairs of socks, painstakingly fold underwear, make up tiny spice bags and hundreds of packs for women and children in the camp.
Last summer, on our way to a camping holiday in the South of France, we took our children into the refugee camp with us. They walked through the shelters, were offered tea and invited into peoples ‘homes’. They were shocked by the conditions that other children their age were living in and we felt energized to do more as a family to respond to this crisis. We have now set up a centre to support unaccompanied refugee children who have been settled in the UK. It has been a privilege that people in that camp trusted us with their stories and gave us the opportunity to respond to some of the need that we saw.
So we’re going to keep travelling with our children. Keep forcing ourselves out of our comfort zones – knowing that with each little journey we are giving them the gift of empathy… and hopefully getting that little bit closer to world peace.
We are still at the start of this journey of educating our children to empathy. We would love to hear other ideas that have worked for you and your family.
I am a Speech & Language Therapist by profession, wife to a compassionate adventure seeking geek, mother to three mini backpackers, and a lover of people and travel. You can see more of our adventures at ourfamilywanderlust.com or follow me @aliceadelebrown.
For information about our work with unaccompanied refugee children, see our new fledgling account @meetingneed.