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. 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.
- ‘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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.