Being parents traveling with young children and educational scientists at the same time, we publish our thoughts on education, children and world travel every now and then.
Our first two pieces on that subject we published on Expedition Portal, "Overlanding With Kids - Going beyond "normal" education" and "Age is just a number!"
This is our newest piece ...
Everybody knows the situation: one is traveling in a different country or spends time with people from a different cultural background and suddenly is confronted with absolutely "strange" behavioural patterns in everyday situations, which give rise to a feeling of being amused or sometimes even of being disgusted. A lot of people fear "the strange", they fear behavioural patterns which seem inexplicable at first. Many even fear the very people acting that "strangely". Why does this stereotypical thinking exist and in what way does it affect traveling families?
Actually it is exactly this pigeonholing which has been so very important in the human evolution. The prehistoric man had to differentiate and inescapably decide very often between concepts such as "This is dangerous!" and "This is not dangerous!" or between escape and attack. If and when these experiences were repeatedly observed they became concepts, "stereotypical concepts".
Children need exactly these concepts in their first few years to become socialized in their home culture, both when it comes to everyday life in their native family (i.e. the family sub-culture) or when it comes to communally agreed on concepts in a wider range. For children, these concepts provide orientation in their culture and also security. Both aspects are immensely important for the children's first five or six years after birth and they provide time and ease to enable them to find themselves in this field of socialization and for them to be able to develop their identity and self-consciousness.
Long-term-travel-with-kids-critics might now use their chance and argue that exactly the arguments just stated speak pretty much against long term travel with (young) kids from a sociological and developmental psychological perspective.
We, however, experienced exactly that differently during traveling with our children.
After having experienced the eating habits in Africa, eating with the right hand from one commonly shared plate, Anouk on the flight back from Ethiopia last winter used her right hand to eat her pancake with apple sauce.
Of course, our kids discover cultural differences, be it the toilet without a proper seat and without toilet paper in southern France, on the Balkans or in northern Africa, be it using hands eating from one commonly shared plate in Africa, different hair-do styles in Ethiopia, different styles in clothing and many other aspects.
For us these perceptions of parallel worlds and different ways of seeing "reality" have always been food for thought and inducements of communication, because children, naturally born explorers, ask frank and freely as soon as they discover things and patterns of behaviour strange to them. These questions are constant challenges for parents to inform themselves on the background of their children's discoveries and create chances for conversations in which on the one hand the meaningfulness of different behavioural patterns can be discussed (and so very often be discovered), but in which on the other hand we become aware that and why we do things differently at home in the children's native culture.
This shows that traveling is not causing "cultural loss" in children (as some of our relatives had assumed before we set off for our recent Transafrica trip), but a matter of learning about different concepts, a matter of self-reflection and questioning what is behind ones' own culture. In this process children (and adults!) discover and most surely also understand also their own cultural identity.
Infobox: East African Time
In East Africa such as Ethiopia and Kenya, the hours of the day are measured differently: at sunrise (six o' clock), it is 0 o'clock, at midday it is "6 o'clock" and when the sun sets, it is "12 o'clock". After six o'clock p.m. (European time), it starts again and midnight, it is six o' clock.
Parallel to that, we hope that through this experiencing of different realities and different approaches to common concepts our "travel children" will develop an understanding that there nearly never is just one "right", one certain approach to something, but that manifold and indeed comprehensible different cultural norms and behavioural patterns co-exist next to each other.
Infobox: Men holding hands in public
In many countries, where homosexuality is strictly forbidden and even punished with a prison sentence, men who are good friends hold hands in public - something that might be seen totally different in many western countries which are relatively open when it comes to homosexuality.
This openness is at the same time an important "weapon" against any kind of racism and xenophobia which will support the idea of a meaningful "world citizenship", because the "pigeonholing" learned in the important phase of socialization is constantly used by politicians from any kind of political side and in all countries on this planet to divide and rule people by creating fear and influence them to act accordingly.
In Muslim countries, the weekend is not Saturday and Sunday, but Friday and Saturday. Even European schools in Muslim countries follow this pattern and so Sunday is a regular schoolday!
Parallel to an openness for other humans, cultures and concepts the children learn that there always are various different approaches to a solution, which will most certainly lead to a higher flexibility and creativity in the processes of finding solutions to problems, which then can positively affect success both privately and jobwise for the coming generations.
Finally, it is also the discovery of the many things people everywhere on this planet have in common which is so very impressive but also reassuring at the same time: the children discover that in all cultures, in all countries, the concepts of humanity, love, need of family and friends, of shelter et cetera exist. The predominance of these basic similarities in comparison to the rather superficial differences clearly states how similar people from different cultures and with different skin-colours are and how abstruse in contrast to that wars and conflicts between cultures and countries are, bearing in mind the substantial common grounds.
In addition to all these aspects stated so far, we will have to question our "western way of living" in these important conversations with our children. They also discover how "Coca-Colonized" people have become worldwide, how many western products are accessible globally for western prices and how modern "mobile-mania" using smartphones and the yearning for western products and TV-culture changes cultures and reduce our common wealth of worldwide cultures year by year, day by day. This helps creating a political awareness in the coming generations which hopefully will later on lead to trade and communication on an eye-level base.
Still, it is clear that traveling with children simply is difficult and challenging sometimes. All those new experiences can cause fear every now and then and it is the parents' job to react fastly and confidently to the children's emotions and experiences and provide support again and again. We experience this day by day when our kids try to get our attention - not always the way we want it! At the same time, completely unexpected problems arise, such as eating and drinking habits, because of course our children expect to be able to eat exactly the food they know from home, instead of always adapting to new types of food, spices and drink or always having to eat pizza, French fries and pasta. ... Here as well, parents have to deal with challenges and provide a safe harbour for their children.