Growing up, one of my favorite comics was Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. The older I get, the more I realize I’ve turned into Calvin’s dad, who occurs frequently in the strip. He is old and boring, but consistently present for his precocious son. He tries to instill life lessons into his Calvin, a child who often prefers an easy road in life. The recurring theme is that Calvin’s dad has him do hard things to build character. This is an opinion the imaginative six-year-old does not share.
At 31 years old, I now find that I am agreeing more with Calvin’s dad than Calvin. I like to push my kids step out of their comfort zone to try new and/or difficult things. It does not matter whether we are at home or abroad. However, I definitely believe that travel provides unique opportunities for challenging oneself. Traveling presents all sorts of challenges: new places to navigate, new languages, new foods, and new experiences. You are forced to get out of your comfort zone when traveling internationally (and sometimes domestically). I like this. I enjoy the thrill of the unknown. But my kids often don’t.
Case Study: Our Florida Boating “Disaster”
Back in August I took the older two to Daytona Beach for a few days. It was a pretty lazy trip, but we did enjoy a couple excursions away from the beach. One of these was an ill-fated boating trip in the Ocala National Forest.
At the recommendation of a friend, I decided to take the kids canoeing at Juniper Springs. The run was unfortunately closed, so we ended up driving to Silver Glen Springs instead. My goal was to get out on the water in the mid-morning, returning to the beach in the afternoon. I figured we’d spend no more than 1.5-2 hours on our little adventure. But we had run late, arriving after 11:00 AM.
Soon we had our vests on and the canoe in the water. The first 10 minutes were great. The water at Silver Glen Springs is wonderfully clear, and we had all the makings of a lovely day. But then a squall blew over. Florida rain isn’t California rain. We were drenched in minutes.
As it was still 90 degrees out, I didn’t care how wet we got. Sure, it’d be tough to dry out in the humid Florida climate, but the sun would still help.
But this was the end for my daughter. You’d have thought we were dying. I tried to help the kids push through and still enjoy the experience, but it was a losing battle. Several minutes of complaining later, I gave in. Neither child wanted to continue the adventure. The irony of her shirt in our “after” photo is perfect.
Doing Hard Things is Good For Kids
The “difficulty” of our canoeing experience is all a matter of perspective. Aside from worrying that the water would damage my phone, I didn’t care how wet we got. The rain posed no risk. It was still warm, and honestly refreshing. My kids, however, did not see things the same way. This was a miserable situation for them, and they could not see any good in it. It was difficult.
But it is exactly the sort of difficulty they need to learn resilience. Getting rained in not what I’d planned for the day. It was unexpected. Things didn’t go our way. Such is life at times.
While this experience was forced upon us, there are plenty of times where you have to take the step yourself. In my kids’ case, I sometimes have to push them to take that step with the encouragement of “you can do this.” I know they don’t want to. But that is entirely different than being able to.
My kids are prone to stay within their comfort zones, which is why I find it good to push them outside the comfort box. Life is full of difficult times and situations, and it is critical for children to build resiliency and tenacity. Things don’t always go the way we expect. We will be faced with unanticipated challenges. We may be fearful of saying yes (or no) to a new opportunity. Learning how to deal with these life issues should start early.
Kids need to face small challenges that they can overcome. Letting them attempt hard things grows important traits and, dare I say it, builds character. Sure, there will be failures. Not letting them fail will actually cripple them in the long run, as they will never encounter an important aspect of life. But success will happen alongside the failures and kids will learn they they can overcome challenge.
Whether it is learning a few words in a new language, ordering at a restaurant, trying a new food, or being encouraged to participate in a new experience, I try to get my kids to jump into something they don’t want to do. They’ve certainly watched me fail. I was laughed at by two Chinese guys at the Great Wall when trying to order two sodas, using the limited Chinese words I think I know. I got us lost in Metz, France in a rental car. I also lost a rental car key in the ocean in Costa Rica before we’d even brought our beautiful three kids home to the U.S. You learn to persevere and overcome.
Examples of Tough Things I’ve Made My Kids Do
Hiking is one of the things my kids enjoy least. Which means I’ve made a point of planning it into our trips at times, as any good father would. One of the first was a relatively easy hike in Saguaro National Park. A few days later we would endure the 100-degree heat of Death Valley. I will never forget their faces as we took a (maybe) quarter-mile hike across the flats at Badwater Basin. It wasn’t interesting and fun to them. It was misery. Why would dad make us do this??
Last year I took the older of my sons on a quick trip to Las Vegas. He was a good sport the day we headed out to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. We hiked a few miles in the desert sun.
But things turned into a whine-fest when we headed to the Fletcher Canyon Trail up on Mt. Charleston two days later. I got everything. “My foot hurts.” “My leg hurts.” “I’m tired.” “I can’t.” “It’s too hot.” “Are we there yet?” I just smiled and kept hiking. Lo and behold, he made to the end alive.
I try not to take over ordering for my kids at restaurants anymore (or on flights). They often prefer if I do. But the older two are 10 and 13 now, for goodness sake. You can do this.
The food itself is often an issue as well. The Taipei night markets provide some interesting culinary options for expanding the taste buds. But what did my child order? Fried chicken. I let him off the hook that time.
Having the kids help me plan transportation is something else I started during our last international trip. It’s too easy for me to just whisk them along. Instead, I pulled up London in Google Maps, showed them out origin and destination, and we reviewed the tube options together.
Travel provides the wonderful opportunity for stretch yourself and get outside your comfort zone. This is something I hope my kids appreciate later in life, although they may always now. My hope is that they will grow into adults who are able to push through the challenges of life by helping them face their fears and do hard things now.
What are some ways you push your kids to do or include them in to help them grow through travel?