Drugs. Alcohol. Prostitution. For many parents, these are activities they want their children to avoid. And with good reason.
As a result, they shelter their kids from exposure, especially to the very unpleasant and ugly consequences. They avoid the participants in such activities, evade the conversation, speak in hushed tones and glaze over the topic.
Especially as it relates to travel, parents are weary of taking their children to locations where they might get offered drugs, or be in contact with people drinking alcohol or participating in other unseemly behavior.
But why not? I think it’s actually a good thing.
Now before all of you with traditional values write me off forever as a bad mother, first hear me out.
We shouldn’t avoid this type of exposure. It may not be necessary to go in search of it, but if you live (and especially travel) in the world, it often can’t be avoided.
In fact, it can be beneficial, especially if it happens to you as a family (while you’re traveling) and while your children are young. And if you make a point to talk about it together. That’s critical.
In today’s society, we have it all wrong. We avoid any contact with anyone who’s involved, even to the point of not talking about it, or whispering in hushed tones about Uncle Bob and his drinking problem. It’s not openly discussed. It’s definitely never observed. Then by the time our kids our teenagers, someone they respect or think is ‘cool’ offers them drugs or alcohol and they think, “Why not? It can’t be that bad, I’ve never heard much about it.”
That’s when you have problems.
While never intentional, our travel experiences have exposed our family (young children included) to many situations involving drugs and alcohol (and worse), and I’ve come to appreciate those introductions.
Kids in tow, my husband has been offered drugs in the streets of Central America. He’s also been proffered prostitution services while holding my hand. Finding drunks passed out on the streets is a common occurrence in many Central American cities, especially on weekend mornings. We’ve discovered used condoms on the road while taking a family walk. We’ve lived next door to prostitutes involved in domestic violence (and heard all the screaming); gay men (who were such great neighbors), and unmarried couples. Children included, we’ve been invited to parties where adults were smoking (sometimes more than cigarettes), and drinking beer and other alcoholic beverages (yes, we went.)
My overall outlook on these events, being a non-drinking, non-smoking, non-druggy married woman and mother of five small children (all 10 and under)?
It’s been a good for my kids.
Take for example, the time when my five year old son was offered cigarettes from our very nice neighbors while we were living in the Dominican Republic. He refused, came home to tell us about it, and it’s been a bragging point ever since. It’s one of those ‘defining moments’ for him. “I was offered cigarettes and I said ‘no’! Do you think I have to worry about him trying them as he grows older (he’s now almost nine)? Not if he continues to cherish that memory.
Which is why I don’t shy away from these ‘exposures’. Again, we don’t necessarily seek them out on purpose, but if you live in the world, you can’t avoid them, and they provide perfect learning opportunities. So don’t be afraid of them, and don’t avoid them on purpose.
Here’s three reasons why it’s a good idea to let your kids be exposed:
1. It starts conversations that need to be had
When in Belize City, we were climbing into our truck when someone offered Greg some ‘good green’. After refusing and driving away, our kids asked, “Dad, what’s ‘good green’?”
This, and similar experiences have provided the chance to talk about things with our kids that we might not otherwise — explaining things such as good green, weed, and marijuana being all the same thing and that coke is not always a drink.
Having these conversations lets our kids know that they can come to us with questions like these, and also gives us the chance to discuss the consequences of drug and alcohol usage.
As parents, we know these are conversations we should have with our children. Being exposed to experiences where these conversations can happen naturally isn’t necessarily the goal of traveling as a family, but it can be a nice side effect.
2. It provides examples of long-term consequences
When I was in high school, the most I knew about drugs and alcohol was that it was an activity the ‘cool’ kids indulged in. I wanted to be a cool kid too. Sure, I’d heard about the ‘bad’ side of it, but I never saw it.
I never saw the passing out, the vomiting, the abuse and broken relationships, the drunk on the street urinating on himself — the ugly side of alcohol indulgence and total loss of self-control (and self-respect.)
On a weekly basis, as we walk the streets of Panajachel, Guatemala, we’ll inevitably encounter 1 to 4 drunks passed out on the streets (more if it’s a weekend or a Monday morning), in some form of degradation — in a puddle of their own urine or vomit, shoes or other belongings missing. Glamorous, isn’t it?
Yet this has been a powerful enforcer for our kids of a great reason not to drink. If alcohol leads to being like one of these guys, why would I ever want to do that?
Celebrating my sons 8th birthday, we went on a Mom/Dad/Son date to the market and bought smoothies. As we sat together, sipping our smoothies with giant smiles, laughing and having a great time, an unkempt, macabre man approached. His eyes were bloodshot, his lips wounded and scabbed. He was unshaven, uncut, unwashed and inebriated.
In broken, slurred Spanish he said, “Such a happy family. You are so happy. I am not happy, because of alcohol. But you are a happy family.”
I couldn’t have planned a better lesson about the negative consequences of alcohol, if I’d hired actors myself and gave them a script.
3. It teaches them tolerance and respect
Our children were young when we were living in the Dominican Republic. One moon-lit evening, we were invited to a birthday party of an adult friend. Invariably, we had to bring our kids (which was okay with the hosts.) There was dinner and drinking. We had a really great time, and so did our children.
Afterwards they remarked, “I think they were drinking beer.”
“Yes, they were,” we told them. And then we had one of those conversations that I talked about earlier.
But, nearly as important was the lesson they were taught about tolerance and respect.
Yes, those people were drinking, which is something we don’t personally do (for a variety of reasons, which we explained to our children.) But because they were drinking doesn’t mean that they can’t be our friends and that they are ‘bad’ people.
We went to the party. We talked and laughed. We had a great time. We respected their choice to drink, and they respected ours to not drink. And that’s okay.
That’s the attitude I want my children to have, especially as they age and mature and get out into the world on their own. They will come across people who do things differently than they do. That’s okay. They can still be friends. They can respect those differences. And they can still choose to live by their own standards, without giving into peer pressure.
The time to let your kids be exposed to drugs and alcohol is now, while they are young and you can have those critical conversations, instead of waiting until their ‘cool’ friends introduce them to something that’s a lot of ‘fun’. If it happens that way, then it’s too late.
Now after addressing those points, I do have something else to say… This approach has worked great for us because we’re nomadic, on the move. Each of these encounters was temporary, made with transient friends. And while we still claim them as friends and appreciate the relationships, the people we spend most of our time with are usually those who share similar values and interests (I think you’re naturally drawn to each other.)
I’m not abdicating hanging out your local bar on a regular basis. When you live in one place, you have to be more careful about who you regularly spend time with. But when you’re passing through, when you’re meeting other travelers who come from diverse backgrounds, cultures and beliefs, it can be an excellent opportunity to learn tolerance, respect and natural consequences.
Another reason why you should travel more, eh?
What has been your experience exposing your kids to these things?
Mother of five amazing kids, author, family travel expert and full-time traveler. Besides writing about their family travel adventures, Rachel also shares information on The Art of Family Travel, how to Fund Your Lifestyle, and is co-author of the popular book, Living Deliberately: How to Create a Ridiculously Awesome Life.