Life Lessons Learned from Traveling


Life Lessons Learned from Traveling I’ve always had a strange affinity for maps — as a child I stared at them in wide-eyed wonder. I desperately wanted to go somewhere. Anywhere. My family didn’t have a lot of money, so foreign travel seemed out of the picture. Instead, I traveled with my imagination. We had three acres of land — the forest was my playground. I traveled to fictitious countries with made-up friends that I created out of brown paper bags, sat in trees for hours reading books about far-away places, and cut out the pages of seed catalogs to paste onto paper gardens.

Later in life, I had the serendipitous chance to travel cheaply. While working overseas, I still felt like I won the lottery whenever I managed to find a used copy of National Geographic with an epic map still intact, inside. And now, the Sailor and I have a giant world map full of dots, to signify where we’ve been individually and collectively. Visitors often remark on the amount of places we’ve been, and yet I often simply see a lot of places on that map where we’ve yet to go.

Someone asked me recently if I was okay with my child traveling when he got older. I didn’t really understand the question, because I’m okay with him traveling now. Fellow contributor Beth makes great points about the benefits of traveling with kids here. I think they were referring to the fact that I started gallivanting the globe solo at the age of 19 and would I be fine with him doing the same thing.

While I am thankful the Interwebs were not documenting my every movement back in the nineties, and I’m especially grateful that my mother didn’t seem to want to know every detail of my international exploits, I of course want my son to experience more of the world when he gets older and more independent.

I feel like traveling taught me a lot in life and I hope to instill the same things in my son even earlier than I learned them. He’s starting to learn them now, even at only five. So no matter what age your children start to travel, or whether they only traverse across their own city later in life, here are a few of the many lessons they might learn:

Traveling teaches flexibility. I’m a firm believer that flexibility will serve you often in life. Whether you travel with your family, on a tour group, or on your own, you can’t always do what you want. Weather factors into plans, schedules change, and there are always other people to consider, even when traveling solo.

Traveling teaches patience. Having to wait for trains, planes, buses and traffic, gives us a great opportunity to see the world around us. While I’ve written about long-haul flights made easier with a device for your child, I guarantee you, my child has far more patience than me some days waiting for a flight in the airport when he’s not on a device. He’s busy staring out the window at the planes, watching people and just generally excited that we are doing something different. He literally gets excited about 12-hour road trips because he gets to look out the window of the car. How many of us can say the same thing?

Traveling teaches wonder. Most of my best writing has been born out of trips I’ve taken. All of us need a new perspective every now and again — even if it’s simply going across town to check out a new coffee shop. And like my son watching cars out of the window on a road trip, sometimes our brain simply needs some down time to wander and wonder.

Traveling helps us go through life with less stuff. Admittedly, this one occasionally backfires on me. It’s astounding to me how much we’ve all traveled individually and as a family, and how much stuff we still tend to acquire when we’re home. But take a few trips with a child carrying only hand luggage through train terminals and you’ll soon understand the metaphor that you don’t need a lot of baggage trailing behind you as you go through life.

Travel experiences mean far more than actual stuff. See above. I have a good friend who gives her nieces and nephews money towards a travel fund, rather than toys, on their birthdays. Many children already have more toys than they know what to do with, so the last thing they need is more stuff. Consider starting your own travel fund for your child or a relative.

Traveling shows us that people are different to us, and that’s okay. Growing up, my town was fairly homogenous as far as race and culture, but we thankfully had a number of exchange students in our school that helped to pave the way for me to show an interest in other cultures and languages. If you live in an area where you only interact with people who look like you and act like you, traveling to a different part of the world (or even a different part of the city where you live) can help you see things a little differently.

Traveling teaches negotiation skills. I would never dream of haggling over the price of tomatoes at the local Aldi here, but overseas, I can barter like a champ — in many cultures it is the norm and is welcome.

Traveling teaches respect. Other cultures have a lot more formality than ours often does. My husband was horrified by the casual way I addressed my mom the first time he overheard me on the phone. In his culture, parents and elders are addressed far more formally. And it’s not simply language — something seemingly small like covering up legs, arms, or your head, to go into a house of worship helps to show us what other cultures value and why.

Traveling teaches confidence. The first few times I tried to order train tickets in a country that didn’t speak English were a disaster. Now, dealing with anyone in my native tongue seems easy by comparison!

Sometimes we all just need to get a little out of our comfort zone. That might mean jet-setting to a new country, setting foot in a different part of town, or simply having a week where you learn about a new culture. However you travel, remember the riches you’ll gain along the way. The only questions now is, where will you go?

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Brenda Steffen
I spent my twenties and a good chunk of my thirties living and working in various countries. I met and married a South African sailor and I was quite content to keep traveling without kids. We landed in Chattanooga in 2013 and our son arrived over the summer of 2014. We haven’t really slept since. Sometimes jet-lag gets the blame. Or Daylight Savings, or even a good book. Usually though, it’s the Peanut. You can often find me charged up on caffeine, chasing after my son at Coolidge Park, the zoo or the library. You can also find me online on my blog.