1. Let your child choose the destination.
And never tell them their reason for wanting to go to that specific place is ‘not good enough’. It can be as simple as they happen to be into bears. Or trains. Or a certain television show that was filmed there. Or they want to go because some kid on their soccer team went there once with his uncle.
If a kid thinks something is his idea, to him the idea must be pretty cool. If the kid thinks the parent came up with the entire travel plan, it’s already questionable in their eyes.
2. Give them a map and make them figure out public transportation.
Show them that you trust them to pay attention. Work together to mark out a plan to get from point A to point B, then back off and let them be the guide. They will have to look for landmarks, street names, and they may have to ask other people on the bus or the subway for help. They will notice way more about the city than if they were zombie-ing out in front of their phone, and they’ll feel so cool and capable when they get you to your destination.
3. Encourage them to learn another language.
Forcing them to go to French class three times a week with some stuffy teacher they can’t stand is probably not going to encourage a deep love of all things French. Make language fun.
If you have a trip to Mexico planned, start sprinkling Spanish into their daily lives. Entice them to want to learn the language. Plan a scavenger hunt with all of the clues in Spanish, and they have to translate everything to get to the end prize. While cooking dinner, rock out to music in a style or genre that you think they would like, but find bands that sing in the language they want to learn (let’s just say that my kids dig hip-hoppy Calle 13 in Spanish much more than they do traditional Mercedes Sosa).
4. Get them in the habit of asking ‘why’.
Seeing Sikh men in turbans might not seem so blatantly weird once they figure out that each turban color and style has a purpose and different ones are worn on different occasions. Brainstorm with your kid on why they think in some cultures people eat sitting on the floor — do they think it’s because they are just too lazy to make chairs or is the reason something deeply spiritual? Why do some people wash clothes using rocks (and how does that even work?). Why in some cultures is it common for males to wear skirts? Do they think it makes it easier for them to hunt or does it help with the heat? Why do some cultures pickle most of their food?
Help them create a habit of not just immediately labeling everything as ‘weird’, but just different from their own customs. From there they will be open enough to be able to question both the other culture and their own, and see that people have reasons for doing things the way they do. They will understand that there is much to learn from all cultures.
5. Give them a camera.
Encourage them to take photos of whatever interests them, whether that be the woodworking of the doors, antique cars, food at the market, or street animals. At the end of the day, or at the end of the trip, have them tell you what attracted them to take that specific photo. Create a photo book (a real hardcover book with the images printed, not just a Facebook album!) of their favorites so they can show their friends or grandparents what they experienced on the trip.
Make photography fun and accessible. Teach them how to use your fancy DSL. Show them how to change the shutter speed to make the waterfall look like it’s flowing in slow motion. Your kid will probably spend much more time appreciating the movement of the waterfall than if he didn’t have a camera — without, you might get a ‘yeah, it’s a waterfall, so what.’
6. Eat locally. Figure out what local food they like, and learn how to make it with them.
If you are in Argentina and your kid develops an addiction to dulce de leche, ask locals how to make it. Best case scenario is someone invites you to their abuela’s house who will happily spend the day making a big batch of dulce de leche with your child. Otherwise you and your child spend a rainy Sunday afternoon cooking together back home, reminiscing about your travels… and you still end up with a batch of yummy dulce de leche.
When traveling, eat with locals as much as you can. Use sites like Couchsurfing or the Travelstoke app to connect with locals — many would be excited to connect and host your family for a traditional dinner. If your child is anything like mine, the situation goes like this: I make falafel at home and hear ‘ew!’ and ‘Um, I’m not hungry’, and ‘Are you frickin’ kidding me? Can’t we just have pasta?’. Your new local host offers falafel to your child, and all of a sudden falafel is awesome and is their new favorite food.