I’VE ALWAYS said that the two most important things a Black American parent can buy for their young children are swimming lessons and a passport.
That’s because swimming and travel are effective tools for teaching children not to be limited by fear.
When both of my kids were young, they took swimming lessons, and now they’re capable swimmers. That was the (relatively) easy one. Travel was trickier.
Not only was it less goal-oriented—you either swim or, ahem, sink—I had admittedly set the bar quite high. I wanted to help my children develop into . . . wait for it . . . sophisticated travelers.
As soon as I had the means, we began a new family tradition: one major trip per year. The farther away the better. Lean financial years sometimes limited our trips to domestic destinations. But on good years, we’d go for broke.
Like the year the three of us and my partner went to Japan, where we admired the Meiji Shrine, walked the streets of Shibuya, hit the Tsukiji fish market, and even made it to the Ghibli Museum. (Though the hotel toilets were my nine-year-old son’s highlight.)
Or the year we bolted to London, where we visited the Tate Modern, went on a shopping spree at Fortnum & Mason, and then took in a gaggle of West End plays, including the impossible-to-get Harry Potter and the Cursed Child—parts one and two in a single day. (Though my daughter, then 18, still talks about the hotel happy-hour cheese trays.)
I saw these trips as an opportunity for me to blow their young minds while simultaneously turning them into model global citizens.
Which, let’s be honest, made me look great. With every stamp that filled one of my kids’ passports, it was less likely anyone would suspect that when I was their age, I’d never even flown on an airplane.
I liked to tell my kids that the difference between being a tourist and a traveler was “acting like you belong here, wherever you are.”
I must have told them this about a dozen times before I finally realized that it wasn’t them who required convincing that they belonged—it was me.
I’d seen so little of the world; my kids were merely conduits for my own self-discovery. And, I’ll admit now, I may have overcompensated.
Picking foreign locales, agenda-packing itineraries, priming mind-blowing cultural experiences—while my kids do still recollect fondly our big trips, our approach to travel together has changed for the better and not at all because of me.
My daughter is 22 now and my son is 16. Scheduling anything involving the both of them can be difficult. They’re both busy with other important things. Like being indecisive. And Instagram. Our last trip—before the pandemic shut down travel—was a short one: a road trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, only five hours by car from my home in Los Angeles.
There were no big moments on this trip, no real plans other than to see the aquarium. We spent most of the time on the road, at rest stops, grabbing something to eat, and catching up.
We didn’t even linger that long at the aquarium, opting instead to return to our hotel rooms to rest before dinner.
While the kids slept, I stared out my hotel-room window at the peaceful bay. I thought about how, as a young father, I may have tried to force memories into my children, captaining epic trips to distant lands in hopes of forever altering their gray matter.
I know that travel helped my kids grow, but maybe they didn’t need me applying such firm pressure. Maybe learning to travel is more like learning to swim: You ease into it.
Outside the hotel window, a sea otter danced among the kelp beds as I sipped a glass of Scotch. I contemplated canceling our somewhat-elaborate evening plans and ordering room service instead.
We could all eat dinner in bed, watch mediocre television, and goof off—like the sophisticated travelers we are.
This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Men’s Health.
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