If you’ve ever tried to sign up your child for a volunteer gig with Little Helping Hands, you know that the hottest ticket in town isn’t for a show at the Scoot Inn; it’s loading trucks at Mobile Loaves and Fishes, cleaning toys for The Thinkery, or assembling meals at Caritas. Shakey Graves has nothing on Austin Pets Alive dog bandana decorating—an event that sells out within one minute of being posted.
Of course, this kind of organized volunteering isn’t the only way for parents to expose their children to giving, and GivingCity has written a useful article on how to volunteer with kids in Austin. But, there’s another way to cultivate your little one’s humanitarian side, and you’ll have a prime opportunity to take advantage of it during spring break or summer vacation: the family trip.
While scientific research into how we apply knowledge gained through travel is a fairly new endeavor, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the idea that children become more altruistic and compassionate when they reflect on meaningful firsthand travel experiences. In this post, for example, a mother describes how her kids donated the substantial contents of their piggy banks to a charitable hospital after witnessing poverty in India.
Perhaps you can relate to, or have observed someone else, being transformed by travel. Were you moved to donate by a post-Katrina trip to New Orleans? Did your child feel a tad less entitled when they discovered that Spanish, not English, is the first language of Mexico? Just do a cursory search of “how kids benefit from travel” and you’ll find a world of blogs written by impassioned parents who believe travel is an ideal teacher not only of history and geography, but of how to be a good person. They credit firsthand experiences on the road for their children’s grasp of tolerance, acceptance, adaptability and their tiny place in a very big world.
Only recently, parents have gotten some research-backed support for all of those cool claims. In 2013, a review published in the Journal of Travel Research concluded that travel in forms ranging from study abroad to the family vacation has the potential to result in “personal growth, life skills development, general knowledge, and social and cultural awareness.” Another 2013 study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that traveling abroad can make you more open to experience, more agreeable, and even more emotionally stable.
Many of the new theories on how travel affects us are rooted in the concept of “experiential learning,” which is the profound discovery that occurs when someone learns through personal experience. It’s not hard to imagine how actually being there and doing that is more eye opening than reading a textbook chapter. As a case in point, the Department of State found that 95 percent of 1,755 teens from primarily Muslim countries who spent a year in the U.S. through a Youth Exchange and Study program demonstrated increased understanding of U.S. politics and government, the economy, the people and culture.
Cross-cultural understanding through travel goes both ways and, just a few weeks ago, Iran tapped into the idea when they launched an international tourism exhibition with the slogan, “You are invited.” Tehran would be quite a trip for spring break, but you can help develop your child’s inner humanitarian whether you provide an educational travel experience abroad or to your parents’ place in New Mexico.
As long as it involves exposure to and reflection on new ideas and cultures, travel can stimulate important social discussions that expand your child’s worldview. Once they understand that people experience and view the world differently, they are likely to become more empathetic and, in turn, more altruistic.
Jill Coody Smits is the author of “Paris When It Giggles: A Realistic Travel Guide for Adventurous Parents,” as well as the writer of many articles, blog posts, op-eds and essays. Her work has appeared in Psychology Today, Southwest Airlines’ Spirit Magazine, Southern Living, The Washington Post, CNN.com and many other publications. She’s currently researching the second destination to be featured in the “Realistic Travel Guide for Adventurous Parents” series (It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it). She lives in Austin with her husband, daughter and two four-footed sons.
Slider photo “Torre Eiffel” by Juanedc.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0