AS A PARENT, I used to think about travel experiences that would keep things easy and comfortable for everyone involved. I took Ava, my horse-obsessed daughter, to Lexington, Kentucky to basically visit every horse within a three hour radius of the city. I took my surfer daughter Stella to the beaches of Uruguay. I took Noah to Galapagos where he chilled with the giant tortoises.
All good, but I’ve found that these experiences are not the ones that have shaped them the most, not the ones they end up talking about years later.
The ones that have are the ones that initially scared the shit out of them.
One of Ava’s biggest fears is open water, so I took her scuba diving in Puerto Piramides in Peninsula Valdez of Argentine Patagonia. For days before she threw out a lot of sassy teenager “I am NOT going”, but, lucky for me, she happens to get her stubbornness from her mother. We went.
Two days before, I planned snorkeling with frolic-y sea lions with Patagonia Divers, because I couldn’t imagine that anyone with half a heart couldn’t enjoy playful, curious sea lions. It was basically baby steps toward scuba. After scoping out the friendly animals, she was the first one in the water and the last one out, GoPro in hand and a beaming smile on her face, ready to rock Instagram the second she got back online (I’ve found this to be a successful tool in getting kids to do things they are afraid of — make the activity social media-worthy, and before you know it, they will be hashtagging #yolo and #travelstoke pretending like they have been psyched about this activity all along. Okay, maybe not #yolo. As soon as I wrote that I can just imagine my kids rolling their eyes, saying “that is SO 2014”).
Scuba day came and as soon as she saw all of the equipment and heard about orca sightings that morning, everything became much more real. She turned quiet and pale, but impressed the hell out of me when the guide asked who wanted to go first and she raised her hand. The twenty minutes she was under were long for me, not being able to know how she was reacting, what she was going through emotionally. Watching her surface to give me a thumbs up sign was so gratifying — she had faced a fear head on and came out the other side a champ.
My son experienced something similar with white water kayaking. We signed up for a weekend intensive course, not having any experience. I think we both imagined ourselves cruising down the river, one with the current, looking fierce AF. Instead, every practice roll made us both feel intense panic, wanting to scream and cry from the claustrophobia of feeling trapped in the kayak submerged underwater, basically hating life and the fact that we voluntarily signed up for this waterboarding. After a few practice rolls he decided that he would spend the afternoon instead practicing his paddling technique and turns. I could see that the rolls had him as terrified as they had me. I was so beat up emotionally and physically that when the next morning of the course came, over coffee and French toast I found myself inventing super lame excuses of why I might not be able to go kayaking that day.
Noah called me out on it and informed me, the supposed mom in the situation, that he thought about it and the only way out was through. We would be afraid until we confronted the fear completely. And that meant getting in the kayak and rolling. All day long until it became no biggie emotionally. And at the end of the day when the instructor asked who wanted to continue with the sport, he was one of the very few who confidently raised his hand.
It’s normal that kids feel fear, but I don’t think it’s okay if we let them dwell in it, or if we plan all of their experiences tiptoeing around it. Create travel experiences that will drive them towards the fear and accompany them as they safely confront it. These are travel moments that will shape them into being stronger, more adventurous, and more resilient human beings.