As you know, I’ve been traveling non-stop with my son since 2009. Not only have we traversed new lands and experienced new cultures together, we’ve also journeyed through a range of developmental stages as my son grows into an adult. My son was just 10 when we left to travel and now we find ourselves weeks shy of his sixteenth birthday.
Adolescence is a wonderful stage, a time of great transformation, shaped by changes in the body and mind, experienced at an accelerated rate. Throughout the adolescent years, the body grows and changes, the teenager must learn to negotiate new responsibilities, evolving relationships and ultimately develop a new sense of self. It’s a time of self definition and determining how one relates to the world. However the danger is, if the teen is not engaged, boredom can set in, indifference and even rebellion can be a part of the teen’s experience. All parents of teenagers will agree that the teen years present a unique set of challenges, but can a family still plan a round the world trip? Is it actually possible to combine long term travel and the teenage years?
Yes. But the key is keeping your teen engaged every step along the way.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at 7 strategies to keep a teenager engaged while traveling long term as a family.
1) Travel with music
It’s no secret, teens connect to the world through music. Actually playing music can help make your teen’s travel experience more interactive and less passive. If you teen already plays an instrument, make sure they bring it with them on your journey. If they do not, the road is also a great place to learn if your teenager has the willingness to learn.
A great instrument to consider for travel is a parlor-size (or 3/4) guitar. The guitar is one of the few polyphonic instruments that can be easily carried around from location to location. It’s also very easy to start learning (but hard to master). Most teens will be able to learn a few open chords to begin playing within a very short space of time. If a guitar is too bulky, consider other options like the harmonica which is fun to play, easy to learn. If you look around, you’ll find many other options, many which have international origins, like an mbira, the African thumb piano, flutes from around the world and smaller string instruments that pack in half the space of a normal size guitar.
As your teen begins to learn a new instrument, it becomes an open invitation to engage with others on the road and connect through music. Music requires discipline, passion and dedication which are skills that help develop your teen’s character and give them skills they can utilize throughout their lives and apply to other difficult endeavors.
2.) Research, plan and budget
Travel provides an excellent opportunity to empower your teen with real-world experiences by tapping into responsibility and resourcefulness. Prior to your travels, ask your teen to be accountable for planning one portion of your family’s round the world trip, based on their specific area of interest, likes or passions.
Here are some examples to share with your teen to inspire: If your teen is interested in mythology, plan a trip to Greece to see Mount Olympus, the “home of the gods”. If your teen is interested in the ballet, plan a stop in Russia to see the famous Bolshoi Ballet. If your teen loves fashion, include Paris on your itinerary. If your teen is interested in archeology, visit the land of the Great Pyramids, home of the ancient Pharos. There are no limits, only possibilities and encourage your teen to dig deep into their interests and come up with several creative suggestions.
After you and your teen decide on which excursion to include in your family’s round the world trip, empower your teen to plan that segment of your travels. Indicate what the family budget is and suggest tools for research. Define the parameters for your teen to work within by providing budgets for entertainment, food, lodging, transportation, etc. Empower your teen to present the family with their research and discuss the options. Not only will your teen gain valuable real-world life experience, they will feel incredible satisfaction during that segment of your family’s trip.
3) Find ways to make history personal and come alive
Sure your teen can learn history and memorize facts, but that really isn’t the point of traveling nor will it keep your teenager engaged. However, if there an emotional reaction to the information, teens will be engaged and active about the travel experience. Therefore, the key is to to make history personal through emotional connections.
As travelers, when we find a personal angle, focus on something relevant or moving to us, it makes history come alive. Not only will your teenager connect with the place you are visiting and its unique history, but often times your teen will be inspired. This has been our strategy as we’ve traveled through a variety of countries, sites and attractions.
Another idea is to create relevance through our personal family history. Ask grandparents or other family members to contribute first hand accounts of family history that relate to geographical locations.
If the travels include a location that is of interest to your teen, but no personal connection to your family, then ask your teen to dig into some of the facts that make the sites come alive.
4) Dive into worldviews with your teen
First of all, what are worldviews and why are they important?
Worldviews are the framework through which individuals interpret or make meaning of the world around them. Many worldviews are collective, shared by groups, nations or specific cultures. Every single human being on this planet experiences the world through their own lens, influenced by their culture, economic status, gender, biology, environment, family (and endless other variables). Regardless of the influences, worldviews define one thing: How each and every person on this planet relate to the world around them.
Make identifying worldviews into a game. Here are some questions to consider: How do the people in your host country see the world? How is it similar than the way your family experiences the world? What are the differences? In which ways did you notice our global interconnectedness today? How did today’s experience demonstrate our cultural diversity? As teens are defining how they fit into the world, travel presents the perfect opportunity to explore worldviews as a family, which in turn, serves to keep your teen engaged while traveling.
5) Explore the local cuisine
Food and teens. There can’t be a more natural combination.
But unless you have the rare adventurous eater, one of the most common complaints I hear from parents of teens is that they are not willing to step outside of the culinary comfort zone. Travel can address that problem and keep your teen engaged at the same time.
My son does not cook at home, has no interest in it, but as we travel, he loves to take local cooking classes with me as a way to dive into the local culinary delights. He has confided in me that this was a way for him to know what goes in a particular dish, makes him more comfortable trying new thing and has confessed the classes are usually a lot of fun.
Cooking has turned out to be a great bonding experience, and the perfect way to keep my teen engaged. It also provides real life-skills that he will take with him through his life.
6) Encourage self-reliance
Nothing is more important to a teenager than expressing their independence. You can support your teens development into self reliance as you travel, only if you commit to each other’s safety. When everyone feels safe through negotiating boundaries and agreeing to a set of rules, everyone wins. Most other countries support teens expressing their independence and don’t foster the same culture of fear as we do in the United States, but it’s all about bi-directional respect that works for the whole family.
Often times, I ask my son to run to the store and pick up essentials for cooking. I’ve often encouraged him to venture out on foot and explore on his own. Additionally I urge my son to jettison out of his comfort zone and plan a day to himself that includes activities or organized excursions with other travelers.
Every teen wishes to assert their independence and by trusting and allowing them to do so while traveling, means they will stay engaged and involved. Because teenagers have a higher level of independence they are capable of complex social interactions which will in essence keep them engaged.
7) Include volunteering
Because teenagers are capable of much more complex relationships than younger travelers, volunteering is the perfect way keep your teen engaged. In addition to the service aspects, there are greater benefits to volunteering such as experiencing compassion, tolerance, flexibility and a deeper cross-cultural understanding. Additionally volunteering keeps the teen engaged through hands-on experience which in turn helps to build greater self esteem, practice critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork.
Keeping your teen engaged is a joint effort and it’s up to us as parents to advocate the best possible travel experience for our teen and the entire family.
A version of this article was originally published on Matador Network.