Hi Frugalistas! I’ve been thinking long and hard about this post. It’s a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a while, but acknowledge it may polarise my readers. It is an important topic though. One of the great things about traveling is seeing, learning and understanding history – some of that history is sad, some of it is a bit scary and some is just plain horrific. When you are traveling with children it doesn’t matter where you go – sad, scary and horrific history exists. As a responsible parent what is your role? Don’t touch the topic or embrace it and make it an important and meaningful part of your visit?
We took our daughter, Miss G, to Germany a few years ago when she was seven years old. We were going to be traveling through a large part of what had been East Germany, and would be visiting elderly relatives of my husband’s who had lived through the war and then either lived in, or escaped from the Communist regime. We were also visiting Munich (where we planned to visit Dachau concentration camp), Nuremburg (a major Nazi site), Dresden (bombed to oblivion during WW2) and Berlin, home of the “the wall”, checkpoint Charlie etc.
We are not psychologists, teachers or anyone else for that matter who really understands children, but these are the principles we used to “manage” our daughter and give her a great experience during her trip:
1. We understand our daughter
Our daughter is quite mature and has an enquiring mind. So we knew pretending nothing bad had ever happened was never going to work – the inevitable “why” questions were going to come, so we planned a plotted version of 20th century German history that she could understand. That Hitler was a very bad person, who did terrible, terrible things. That a lot of people were killed just because of their beliefs (no detail about how or why really), and that after the war the wall went up until about 20years ago. That was enough detail for her.
2. We did a lot of research on where we were visiting
What this did was allow us to focus on telling her about the things we thought she could understand, and that was appropriate for her age. That meant learning that Dachau had actually started out initially as a prison for political prisoners, rather than what it ultimately became. It meant focussing on the re-building of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, and on how the people of Coventry (whose cathedral was also destroyed in the war) had given the people of Dresden a special gift as part of the rebuilding. It was also about the power of the people in bringing down the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany.
3. We didn’t go everywhere or see everything
We didn’t go to the gas chambers at Dachau, nor did we mention them. We didn’t go to the Nazi sites in Nuremburg.
4. We gave our daughter permission to control her experience (within reason)
When we went to Dachau there was a museum, which MissG asked to visit. There was also a sign saying the museum was not suitable for children under 12. We explained this to her, and asked if she still wanted to go in. When she said she did, we explained there might be some upsetting things in there, and that the rule was if she decided she had had enough we would leave straight away. She controlled when we left the museum (which interestingly was about the time I was starting to feel a bit overwhelmed too).
5. We focussed on aspects of the site that a child would find interesting or entertaining
Although we are not religious, we lit a candle at the Frauenkirche in Dresden to remember all the children and their parents who were killed in the bombing. At Dachau she loved the toilets in the living quarters (kids always love a bit of toilet humour!) In the Dachau museum we focussed on specific details she found interesting – like the old style German handwriting, the uniforms people wore etc. In Nuremburg we omitted the Nazi stuff and spent the day focussed on the Christmas Market. In Berlin we visited the part of the old East Berlin that bears MissG and my husband’s surname. She loved that – there was a place named after her.
6. We found plenty of fun things to do in fun places
We visited the beautiful town of Rothenburg, and my daughter spent a morning playing with some bilingual local children in the snow on their toboggans – something she had never done before. We went to Neuschwanstein and pretended we were king and queens for a day. We ate great food in some fun restaurants. Fun things that kids love, and that let kids be kids.
So what was the outcome? For me, a great trip, in fact, one of the best trips I’ve ever done. For MissG, a raft of memories that she talked about at school and wrote about at school and still remembers and talks about from time to time.
I honestly don’t believe it is necessary to pretend the whole world is a giant Disneyland, but like many things we do when traveling, planning and understanding before you go is key.
What do you think? If you are a parent, how do you handle these more sensitive aspects of travel?
I think your approach is great! From the perspective of my own experience as an educator as well as in fact leading tour groups of students in Europe. Even though those were teenagers – what and where had to be considered. I love the idea of exposing children of all ages to new cultures and foods and ways and history – but some of it needs to be accompanied with a reflective conversation either before, after or both!
Thank you. I think it must be quite different actually living in Europe – we have led very sheltered lives here in Australia. But yes, thinking about how to do it successfully does take a bit of effort
Actually, the kids who I used to bring to Europe was in my California days… we’d come every summer and the kids were from a tiny island off the coast of California that is VERY sheltered and conservative. But it was a blast every single time 🙂 And now some of those kids have followed my lead and also live in Europe! lol
My children have traveled quite a bit in Europe and I think your approach is sound. Knowing your children is so important. We chose to avoid some places to prevent the inevitable nightmares and trauma that would have happened with one of my three sons. He can always visit places we chose not to go when he is an adult. We also homeschool and have been able to plan trips based on the historical time period we were studying. This really enriched our experiences. My boys already knew a lot about the history, art, culture, etc. of places we visited. The pre-trip planning has been invaluable. Lots of discussion ahead of time and after…Thanks for your post.
Thank you Lorri for your thoughtful comments. We also had the opportunity to talk to our daughter beforehand, and to be able to talk about her own family’s experiences – including the experiences of relatives she knew. I think that time beforehand was important to allow her to think about things ahead of time, rather than ‘springing’ it on her.
Thank you for taking the time to comment.
citygirlnomore (@citygirlnomore) says
Sounds like an amazing trip. I would have no qualms whatsoever in taking my two children aged 6 and 10. Educating children from a young age, especially with travel and experiences rather than protecting them from the world can only make them a better person. These atrocities did happen, thankfully a lesson never to be repeated and are part of our world history. Once again a great post.
Thanks. I’m a bit surprised by the positive reinforcement from other mothers. I honestly expected some negative feedback – maybe we travellers who are also mothers are an enlightened group!
I’m glad you wrote this post, Jo. And I think how you manage your daughters experience seems great. Of course, it’s easy for me to say since I have no children of my own – but this topic is certainly something we discuss at home when we think about our future and the type of travel we do.
Visiting places such as museums that concern sensitive periods in history is something I feel strongly about – it’s important and I always plan to do more of this. Particularly with WWII. I only listened to my Gran who is 86 tell us in detail last week about her experience when a bomb exploded in their street, blowing in all the windows of the house, and killing the family next door, with the exception of one child. People like her won’t be here to tell their stories forever and we need to remember everything – no matter how harrowing.
The war is a topic covered at primary school age in the UK, so I can see how beneficial visiting places like Dachau could be. I think it’s about giving a child as much information as they can understand and process, but no more until they are ready.
I like the idea of this enlightened group – you have much to teach the rest of us!
Thanks Clare, for adding your wisdom and thoughts on this topic. As I said earlier in the comments, we are very sheltered here, just having lists of names on war memorials and old photos of relatives who served. We don’t have the vivid memories of your Gran or the horrible memorials like Dachau and places even worse. I really believe it is important that we visit when we have the opportunity – to bear witness and to remind ourselves of the fortunate lives most of us now get to live.
If our kids are traveling with us, I think they should be a part of it. As an experienced traveler, I’m sure when your time comes, you will manage your children’s experiences perfectly. I think it is probably easier for experienced travellers who have more confidence to tackle these more ‘difficult’ experiences perhaps, anyway.
Gena Tadych says
This is a such great post Jo. I wholeheartedly agree that you should base your decisions on knowing your child and then giving them control and permission to let you know when it is too much for them. I firmly believe that the travel experiences we have given our son, the good and the difficult, have had a hand in the wonderful young adult he is today.
Thanks Gena. Your comments are much appreciated. With only one child, who is now only 10 everything we do with her is a bit of an experiment. It’s been reassuring to have the positive feedback from other ‘more experienced’ Mums on this question.
Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment.
Anita @ Anita's Feast says
I’m not a mom, but I am appreciate your thoughtful preparation for your daughter’s early forays into the Big Wide World. Interesting how doing so enriched your own explorations, isn’t it? Most of what you did to manage a child’s travel experience applies nicely to everyone. Much of the time I enjoy digging into the history of the places I visit…but sometimes it is nice to just sit and admire the view (or go go shopping). Lovely post, thanks.
BEEN THERE and nice pics 😀
I really like your approach and suggestions. When I read your teaser on Facebook, I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. I think you did it just right. We’re headed to Cambodia next week to visit Angkor Wat. For the longest time, I associated the country with genocide and the Khmer Rouge. I have struggled with whether or not to bring my kids to the Killing Fields. Just reading other people’s blog accounts of their visit brings me, a mature woman, to tears, so I decided that I couldn’t introduce my kids to that level of wickedness at this point in their lives. I’ll mention it while we’re there in an age appropriate manner, but I won’t go into all the details. Seeing all the child beggars will be educational in and of itself.
Great piece Jo!m
Great piece Jo!
Cambodia is a tough one. I think your approach is a good one