By Sarene Marshall
During this election season, with its constant “family values” drumbeat, I’ve been evermore conscious about that most challenging parental task of imparting values on our children, especially when their childhood context differs so much from our own.
Given my work on global climate change for The Nature Conservancy, international travel and conservation are two core parts of my life. And I believe strongly that, in today’s globally connected society, cross-cultural understanding and an appreciation for Earth’s wonders (and their relationship to our survival) are critical skills to pass on to my two young daughters. These were lessons that I didn’t pick up until later in my life. Although I speak a second language fluently (and bits of two others), and my work involves frequent international travel, I didn’t get my first passport until I was 17 – years ahead of most people in my family.
Our young girls are more fortunate, having had a few chances already to travel to other countries. My husband and I see family vacations as an opportunity to teach these life lessons in ways that are fun and beneficial for everyone. So, since it’s the month of spring break — and summer vacation is just around the corner! — I thought I’d share some of our travel tips for living our values on the road:
- Skip big resorts. On business travel, I spend a fair amount of time in cookie-cutter hotels that are indistinguishable from one city/country to the next. When on vacation, for wallet-friendly lodging that provides a better feel for the country you are in, we steer clear of chain hotels in favor of guest houses, B&Bs or rental apartments. Using TripAdvisor and VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner), we’ve found places to stay around the world that have cost a fraction of the amount of nearby big-name hotels. Beyond the cost savings, these come with many other perks the big resorts wouldn’t have provided. For one, smaller places put you in closer contact with locals, who can give you “insider” tips, and, of course, you’re supporting small businesses.
- Choose local food. If you’ve opted for an apartment, you’ll save a bundle of money preparing breakfast for yourself (not to mention the benefit of lounging in the morning, rather than getting starving children dressed before you’ve had coffee). But you’ll get the opportunity for a cultural immersion, too: grocery shopping in a foreign country stretches your awareness of all kinds of differences – from currency to food choices to social norms. (What? No free plastic bags?) And, when you do eat out, skipping familiar international chains removes chicken nuggets from the option set and forces even picky kids to make their way with an alternative (maybe more adventurous?) choice.
- Pass up the tour bus. There is nothing like seeing a country from the perspective of people who move around it every day. Driving yourself around, or experimenting with public transportation, in unknown lands can open up your vacation to unplanned adventures – accidentally or intentionally deviating from the path can help you discover hidden, more authentic spots, away from the throngs of tourists. And asking directions in a foreign language (or sign language!) can be an entertaining and educational experience.
- Unplug, and get active. There’s no point spending a bunch of time and money to travel away from home if the kids are going to spend hours glued to the same-old video games or movies they could tune into at home. While we do sometimes pull out electronics to deal with boredom in an airport, we otherwise avoid them while on vacation. After all, we see trips as special opportunities for new experiences and spending quality time as a family. One thing that all but guarantees success on this front is planning active days – walking around historical sites or even just swimming at the pool or beach. Plus, I’ve found that the more active the kids are, the more likely they are to experiment with #2, above.
- Get out into nature. Part of the learning experience from foreign destinations is seeing different natural environments, so we always try to include time on our itinerary for enjoying our destination’s natural wonders as a family. Make sure to consult guide books or web sites before hiking or swimming in unfamiliar areas, but less ambitious activities – such as listening to the sounds of nature, or identifying unusual trees, flowers and birds to record in a travel diary – are almost always available. (For more ideas on simple nature activities you can pursue with your kids, visit Nature Rocks.)
We recently put these rules into practice for ourselves on a trip to Puerto Rico, and couldn’t have had a better time. As for our goal of instilling family values, not only did our daughters scarf down every unusual meal that was put in front of them, they said the best parts of the trip were kayaking in a bioluminescent bay, hiking in the rain forest and hearing the famous Coquí frogs. Music to my ears!
Sarene Marshall is the managing director for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Team. She holds an MBA from the Wharton School of Business and an MA in International Studies from University of Pennsylvania, and is fluent in Spanish. Sarene, a mother of two, enjoys gardening and gourmet cooking.
[Image: A shot of the author and her daughters traveling in Puerto Rico. Credit: Sarene Marshall.]