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The Trials, Tribulations and Treasures of Traveling with Teens

Cecelia Maloney (cec) and Trisha Stapleton

So. You're planning a family trip to Europe. You have teenage children and you're bound and determined to introduce them to the richest art and historical treasures of the world, and instill in them a life-long love of travel and cultural exploration.

Riiiiiiiight! Wouldn't it be great if it would work that way?

We are two high school teachers who have traveled in the US and abroad with teenagers for the last 20 years. Traveling with teens has presented us some of our greatest challenges, but at the same time, many of our greatest rewards. Perhaps we can increase your rewards and deflect your challenges by offering the fruits of our trials and errors. If you want to cultivate a copasetic family experience, here are the essentials.

Let Go of Your Expectations

First of all, let go of your expectations. We learned this the hard way. On our first trip to Florence, Italy with our students, we expected them to be as enraptured with the art treasures as we were. Unfortunately, their perusal of the magnificent cathedrals and world's finest museums rivaled Chevy Chase's cursory glance at the Grand Canyon in National Lampoon's Vacation. The sudden draft we felt as we stood gazing and marveling at the beauty inside La Chiesa di Santa Croce was not from the crevices in the centuries-old church; it was our students hightailing it out the door to play hacky sack in the piazza.

Playing hackysack with Italian waiters

Playing hackysack with Italian waiters

We were annoyed and exasperated until we were reminded of the wisdom of one of our beloved professors who taught us in Italy when we were their age. Dr. Fred Licht said that for young people, experiencing Italy is not so much about appreciating the art as it is about marking their territory. He told us, "It's like puppies peeing in the corner: it's a way of establishing their presence in a new place and of saying 'This place is mine from now on'." We learned to let our students have their own unique experience, confident that this was just the beginning of what would become a life-long love of Italy.

Not only is it important for young people to have these independent experiences for their development, but it also gives them a chance to discover things on their own that they can't wait to share with you and their friends. So what if they don't know that Michelangelo is buried in Santa Croce. Their game of hacky sack with young Italians is a memory they will carry with them forever.


When making your daily plans, ask your children what they'd like to do. Don't force them to go along with you to visit every church and museum. If you have to see the Bargello and the Medici Chapel in the same day, give them the opportunity to choose which one they prefer, if they don't want to see both. Perhaps while you "fate un giro" (do a lap) around Santa Maria Novella, your teens can visit an Internet Cafe. They love to have time to communicate with their friends back home, and it gives them the opportunity to reflect on the trip and write about their experiences.

On the subject of museums, it would be worth your while to study up on the collections and choose the main works you want to see. A gallery like the Uffizi can be daunting to a first-time visitor - don't try to see everything! Also, it's a good idea to check at the information desk to see if they have suggested activities for young people, such as scavenger hunts (you know, how many Madonna and child motifs are there, or which portrait has the best cleavage - something your teenage son will be looking for anyway!!) This may sound a little "geekish", but it might help them focus their attention on the art instead of feeling swept up in a sea of tourists.

Make a game out of your visit to the museums and offer a reward such as extra spending money for the flea market or an evening at a local disco, where it's your turn to endure the head-banging throngs! Guidebooks will often tell you where the local discos are, in addition to other teen "hang-outs", such as the steps of the Duomo in Florence and the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Students "engaged" in Trisha's lecture on the steps of Santa Maria Novella

Students "engaged" in Trisha's lecture on the steps of Santa Maria Novella

Sleep is a Good Thing

Remember, teenagers need more sleep than adults, and sleep is a good thing. As teachers traveling in a group, we couldn't afford our students this "luxury", and we sometimes had to spend our day in the idyllic Tuscan countryside listening to the whining complaints of sleep-deprived, grumpy teenagers. (Do we sound bitter?)

And speaking of sleeping, if you can, get adjoining or adjacent hotel rooms so that your teen can have his or her own bedroom. You may have noticed that your teenage son or daughter hibernates at home in the bedroom for long periods of time. Spending a lot of time alone just thinking about things is a normal part of a teen's development. Privacy is important to them and they need a lot of it.

Reflect Daily

Help your kids collect and process their observations at the end of each day. We encourage both you and your children to keep a journal, and to record more than just a trip log. Prompt them by asking about their feelings and reactions to the new culture. What do they see, smell, feel, hear, etc.? Set aside some time to share each other's reflections. You might meet together at the end of each day to write or draw in your journals, and then talk about your experiences. This is a great time to share laughs, and add to your repertoire of vacation memories and family history.

Here are some writing prompts we have used with our students that sparked great discussions:

  • Describe five "photographs" you missed with your camera today.
  • Make a list of images or experiences that you saw or had today.
  • Art reflects culture. What did the art you viewed at the [Uffizi, Louvre, etc.] reflect about the artists' times, culture, and interests?
  • Architects consider how buildings affect people. Describe how you are affected by churches, train stations, and/or piazzas. How do cafes and restaurants in Europe reflect the lifestyle (or as the Jamaicans like to say, the "livity") of the people?
  • What is it like being an American in another country?
  • What are you learning about yourself on this trip?

One of our favorite writing prompts is a "timed writing". The idea is to set a timer for a minute and respond to a prompt, keeping pen to paper, and writing non-stop. If you get stuck, re-write the prompt. For example, the prompt might be "I hear.". For the next minute, write about everything you heard throughout the day. If you get stuck, write the prompt over and over until you get unstuck. It works! And it's fun! With our students, we did five consecutive prompts of a minute each:

  • "I hear."
  • "I see."
  • "I taste."
  • "I feel."
  • "I smell."

Have a Great Trip!

Barring the inevitable "This sucks." or "Do we have to.?", if you follow these four guidelines - let go of your expectations, negotiate, sleep is a good thing, and reflect daily - you and your family will be off to a good start.

And, remember, in the words of Clark Griswold, National Lampoon's intrepid Father of Old-Fashioned Family Fun, "Nothing easy is ever worth doing!"

Group shot at Piazzale Michelangelo

Group shot at Piazzale Michelangelo

Cecelia and Trisha teach at SAIL High School in Tallahassee, Florida. They have survived 20 years of traveling with teens and have enjoyed almost every minute of it!

© Cecelia Maloney and Trisha Stapleton, 2005

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