Travelling can be easy. Travelling with kids can be easy too. If your kids need a bit of downtime or a touch of home it isn’t hard to find pizza or pasta these days, Netflix can come along for the ride and kids all around the world enjoy bonding over a mutual love of Spiderman and Paw Patrol. But there is still one area thing that can make travel more difficult for children: cultural expectations around interaction. For adults, having kids in tow can actually make it easier to integrate in to new places and cultures but it isn’t always as easy for the kids in question, especially when they’re growing up with the western notion that families are nuclear and other people simply stay on the periphery.

I have two well travelled kids but they’re still pretty British in their expectation of how people will interact with them. Basically, they want to be left alone, not be touched, or spoken to, by strangers. Problem is, they’re both blonde and cute and so, in so much of the world, they attract a lot of attention. While I don’t necessarily think any way is ‘better’ than another, I, too, hail from the UK and am most comfortable with a reasonable amount of personal space. I remember well how I growled at a woman on a bus in Rwanda after she leaned in to stroke my hair, and then how guilty I felt given that I lived there and understood both the cultural norm and how interesting my hair might be to a rural Rwandan. If I struggled with this in my twenties whilst living abroad, it isn’t so surprising if small kids struggle too.

As a family, we are still learning how to navigate this one. So here are my tips on how to help your children deal with cultural expectations.

  1. 1. Be aware of how you talk about ‘strangers’ generally with your children

We have always been very careful in how we talk about ‘strangers’ and we encourage the kids to respond when people they don’t know speak to them now that they’re a bit bigger. We don’t actually ever talk about ‘stranger danger’, rather we focus on the fact that most people are good but there are specific circumstances that require kids to be wary: adults asking for help or offering something special, for example. We do this in the belief that children shouldn’t be scared to talk to adults and understanding that in our adventuring family, we need our kids to (eventually) be able to talk to anyone from any culture. This is, I should add, a work in progress as our children still regularly pretend to be shy.

  1. ‘My body, my rules’ and ‘No means no’ ‘vs’ ‘people do things differently in other countries’

We are firmly instilling the messages of ‘my body, my rules’ and ‘no means no’ in to our children. They understand that they have the final say over who touches them and how. This is undoubtedly an extremely important message to teach children but currently we are struggling marry this message with the reality that other cultures simply interact differently with children. The seeming contradiction is a complex one to grasp for small children. If your kids are young they will need help understanding that they need to employ some flexibility in implementing these ingrained rules while away.

(I actually wrote an article about teaching consent recently).

  1. Actively acknowledge that you’re going to be in a country where people are more ‘touchy-feely’ and talk to your children about how they can handle this

We have learned that it is important, before every trip we take, to remind our kids about cultural differences and how in many countries not only do they stand out because they are so blonde, but that people are very likely to want to interact with them physically and verbally. We are still very much at the stage where my kids often edge away nervously with seriously pissed off looks on their faces if a beaming stranger approaches them.

On holiday recently my five year old and I had an interesting conversation about cultural differences and how we have to find ways to deal with them. We spoke about how in some countries people automatically talk to their dad and not me, assuming he’s the decision maker. We talked about how that really isn’t the case in our family, that daddy and I are equal partners with our own strengths but that there are times to pick a fight over this and times when it isn’t worth it despite it offending me to my strident feminist core! We then likened this to his situation as a young boy resenting people constantly ruffling his hair or touching his face when we are away from home.

We agree with our kids that it isn’t great that they are being touched against their desire (that’s a weird sentence to write but you know what I mean!) but primarily, it is a case of having to accept it or saying something politely. We have started trying to help them find the right words to say no, although often the ‘toucher’ is just too quick and there is no time.

  1. Let them know they have your support

Our kids know well that we will support them as long as they aren’t rude to people trying to chat to them. I am trying to give up the easy ‘sorry, he’s a bit shy’ because I don’t think it’s helping anyone. My kids aren’t that shy, they’re just not yet brilliant at interaction they’re not expecting. If I keep glibly saying they’re shy, a) I’m excusing what is becoming poor manners, and b) they could well imbibe the idea that they are shy. I understand that it can be unnerving to have total strangers ask you personal questions but kids need to know that generally these questions come from a good place and a desire to be nice. We often help our kids with their answers, or rephrase questions that they might not have understood.

  1. Model the behaviour you want to see in your kids

It is so easy to be suspicious of strangers coming up to you on the street when away from home. I know I can be guilty of assuming people are going to try and rip me off if I stop for one second to talk to them. So I try to remember that most people are good and just being friendly too. And I also realised that my kids aren’t going to stop and talk to people if we don’t show them it is fine to do so. Just as we model not littering, standing up to racism or trying new foods, we also need to demonstrate that we can be friendly to strangers.

  1. 6. If need be, do protect!

I have, at times, intervened to save my kids. When we lived in Mexico we walked past one guy every day on their way to school. Every day, without fail, he would touch the kids’ heads or faces. And it got too much for them. He just wasn’t going to stop and they were eventually fed up with it so we either walked with me between them and him, or we walked a slightly longer route to school to avoid him.

In Portugal my son suffered from a waitress who didn’t see to understand that she should leave him alone while he was eating. She kept trying to tickle him and interact with him. He was only three so, in this situation, I did intervene and ask her to leave him alone. There are limits after all and I’m pretty sure most cultures would agree that everyone has the right to eat unmolested by others!

 

As I said, above, for us, this is still a work in progress but I feel we’re getting there. I’m sure that as our kids get older we will find this easier and the benefits of such friendly and open cultures will reveal themselves to them but as yet, we’re just not there.

How do you work with your kids to help them manage different cultural expectations or are you lucky enough to have garrulous, confident kids who don’t bat an eyelid at interaction with unknown people?

If you are considering extended travel with small children, you may want to check out my article full of tips for flying with small children or my FAQs for those figuring out if they should take some extended travel time with small kids.


Cassie

Mexico Cassie is technically British Cassie but who cares?
Currently in the process of moving one family across the ocean and back to Mexico. Hurrah!

17 Comments

Deni · 07/12/2017 at 12:40 am

This is definitely an interesting post to read! It’s important to teach kids that they have autonomy over their own bodies, what’s an appropriate touch vs an inappropriate one, and what’s stranger danger vs a friendly chat. I don’t have kids myself, but I have lots of little cousins who would have a lot of difficulty discerning the differences and subtleties of experiencing different cultures. I really commend you for teaching your kids the subtleties of social interactions at a young age. It’s a tough job, but an important one! Thanks for sharing!

    Cassie · 07/12/2017 at 10:22 am

    Thanks for reading. Fingers crossed it works on my kids, and others who read!

Juergen Klein · 07/12/2017 at 2:15 am

Funny, my first thought about the headline was “we need to teach this many adults, too”! And when I read through your post this was reinforced. So many of your suggestions are applicable to people of all ages who are not used to being in a foreign environment. But if you start early, like you obviously have to, you will give them a good start in life. Like you said: “most people are good”. The openness, created by this simple statement, will make almost every interaction with foreigners much easier.

    Cassie · 07/12/2017 at 10:21 am

    You’re totally right! So many adults don’t understand either. Maybe I should rename the article!

      Juergen Klein · 08/12/2017 at 1:46 am

      No, leave it as it is. This is your experience with your kids. You’ve brought up many suggestions other parents will appreciate. (And maybe some adults will start questioning their own reactions.)

Rachelle · 07/12/2017 at 5:00 am

This is a great post, and I love that you stress the no means no with your kids. Even though there are cultural differences, we all need to be able to feel comfortable when we interact with other people. Plus, kids will look to their parents to know how to respond, which is why it’s really good to be the best example we can be.

    Cassie · 07/12/2017 at 10:20 am

    Thanks for stopping by to read my blog. I’m always glad when people agree with this message as I think so many just don’t take in to account how hard travelling can be for little kids if these messages haven’t been shared.

Samah · 07/12/2017 at 1:53 pm

“Basically, they want to be left alone, not be touched, or spoken to, by strangers”

I never knew I could relate to a British kid at times lol.

Growing up and living in a western country, I guess we find it really odd for strangers to act touchy-feely with us, and not being used to it, I can understand the irritation. Although I don’t have children of my own, I think it’s a great idea that you’re teaching your children the difference between inappropriate interactions vs normal cultural interactions, and I agree, sometimes the line can be blurred. It can be difficult to integrate in a new culture, but it can be okay to let your guard down and just be friendly about it.

    Cassie · 07/12/2017 at 4:13 pm

    Hah! Are you sure you aren’t a British kid?

Lisa · 07/12/2017 at 4:08 pm

This is a really interesting topic and read, especially for me as I don’t have kids. I can imagine that it’s not easy trying to explain to your kids why people want to touch them, or tickle them affectionately when all they want to do is eat! I think it’s great you’re teaching them about different cultures and early on too.

    Cassie · 07/12/2017 at 4:13 pm

    Thanks. I hope it also makes people remember that kids are people too and are entitled to sometimes just want to be left alone. Argh, it’s a minefield!

Ha · 08/12/2017 at 12:46 am

I really love this post. I think it’s really crucial to educate children to identify dangers and deal with them. All the tips are great, especially ‘My body, my rules’ and ‘No means no’ tip! I suggest to let children learn some martial arts as well.

Martha · 08/12/2017 at 3:56 am

This is such a great article! I do not have kids of my own, so I may be out of touch with these topics, but last year I discovered the importance of teaching your children boundaries and not forcing them to hug/kiss strangers that you deem OK. That was life-changing for me. You made a similar point in your “my body my choice” section. That’s so great. That’s for the insightful and well thought out read.

Dan · 08/12/2017 at 4:03 pm

I’m currently raising mixed race kids in a country that is very hands on. My kids do look different to the others in the street and it’s impossible to stop people cooing over them, pinching their cheeks and offering them food and other small gifts. It’s also a country where the threat of kidnap is high, the police are not great and people trafficking is well established. What that means, other than a deep resonance with your post, is that I often have no idea how to react to the various situations I encounter. My kids are still quite young and I generally keep them in care sight at all times, but I still trying to figure out what to do in the future when they start school and have a social life. My current best idea is encouraging a martial art like judo, teaching them a keen sense of self-awareness and trying to have communication with them about what is and what is not appropriate touching and other behaviour. Fingers crossed for the future!

Ami · 11/12/2017 at 6:01 am

While reading your post, the one thought that I had in my mind was that – isn’t this applicable irrespective of travel. These days the kids have to be made to feel secure no matter where they are and these suggestions definitely work towards that. Well compiled and very sound advice.

    Cassie · 11/12/2017 at 8:14 pm

    Thanks. Yes, of course these suggestions are relevant for general life but I’d say travel situations are more likely to throw a curve ball at kids than their home situations.

Learning From Your Travel Mistakes · 07/12/2017 at 2:15 pm

[…] from mistakes I’ve made, I’m trying to incorporate my own learnings in to what I’m teaching them about the world and travelling in […]

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