After two weeks in France, my wife, 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter all agreed that we had a great trip. Frankly, I’m a little surprised at how well we all got along. This trip was the most time we had spent together in such close quarters for a long time.
During the school year, we rarely have more than two dinners a week where all four of us are present. In fact, at one point this past Spring, my daughter told me she didn’t like family dinners.
“Do you want to suggest something else for me to cook?” I asked.
“No, it’s not that,” she said. “I don’t really like the company.”
So, what made our fortnight in France such a success? Thinking it over, maybe I just got lucky, but there do seem to be a few strategies that made traveling abroad with teenagers a big success for our family.
6 Tips for Traveling Abroad with Teens:
1. Set the tone you want.
Tired from a red-eye flight, a quick stroll through the Louvre, and the first of many pedestrian miles, the kids were grumpy. So was I. My wife was her usual cheerful self—the kind of cheeriness that just makes the kids dig deeper into their scowling. I took a breath and pointed out that their mother was just as tired and hot and hungry as we were, but she had a better attitude about it. After a moment or two of silence, we reset our conversation so that the griping and whining were replaced by joking and laughter.
2. Let them help set the pace.
As parents, we had a larger schedule in mind as we were walking through a city or a museum, but the kids quickly learned that if they announced that they were stopping to draw, we would have a seat and wait for them. Everyone packed a sketchbook. Some of the drawings started out shaky, but by our last full day, we all sat under a tree in the Trocadero, sketching the Eiffel Tower across the river. We were in no hurry to join the crowds and the careful observation required of drawing will help us remember the structure more than a quick photo would.
3. Stay in crappy hotels.
This is an unplanned—yet effective—consequence of being cheap! In Paris, we stayed at a one-star hotel where the bathroom was down the hall (my son’s comment: it was okay because the place was very clean.) You know what one-star hotels don’t have? Fluffy pillows, big lobbies or swimming pools. The result: no one was rushing to get back to the hotel, and everyone was fine staying out during our lingering dinners.
4. Mix up teams.
Our kids got along better because they were part of a team. There was our quartet abroad, but it was also the two of them, dealing with lame parents. If they began to bicker, rather than address their quarreling head on, it was easier to hand them some money and tell them to buy some sodas. Forced to interact with strangers in a foreign language, they inevitably helped each other out. Similarly, we paired off in different combinations occasionally and didn’t always insist on being a foursome.
5. Do not get international phone plans.
Did I mention I was cheap? We secured an international plan for one phone (mine, because I needed the GPS to drive around) and everyone else’s internet use was limited to WiFi (the French pronounce it “wee-fee”). The kids still had downloaded videos and non-networked games to chill out with, but it certainly cut down on phone use.
6. Consider what you want them to learn.
Neither of our kids takes French, so any foreign words they picked up was a bonus. I wanted to prep them for budget travel on their own. If they weren’t fascinated by the same art or history that I was, well, that wasn’t the point. More important: How do you navigate a new subway system? Wash socks in a sink? Make a lunch out of bread and a tomato? Those are aspects of the trips my wife and I remember from our youth, decades ago and a few tax brackets distant.
What did I want my kids to learn? That the world is a big place, but it’s accessible with a good attitude and a smile.
The question I ask myself now that we are back in the U.S is: Why not do this at home?
Answer: we have a nice washing machine and the bread isn’t as good here. Sigh. Vive la France!