Their Bad Mother

I love traveling. I especially love traveling with my kids. There
are, of course, a great many challenges associated with traveling with
young children, but I think that it’s worth it: there is nothing in
this world that is so amazing that it couldn’t be made more amazing by
the interpretive lens of a child. So whatever traveling I do, I try to
involve my kids, and I hope that as the years go by we end up doing a
lot of it.

But as much as I want my children to appreciate the wonder of
travel, I also want more than this: I want them to appreciate them what
a tremendous privilege it is to travel, and I want them to be humble in
the presence of other cultures. I want them to regard travel as a way
to learn, and a way to contribute some good to the world. So when I saw
that one of the nominated projects in the Changemakers competition proposed leveraging the goodwill of travelers to advance the cause of maternal and infant health
– by encouraging travelers to raise funds for, assemble and
deliver/donate birth kits to needy communities in or near areas that
they will be traveling in – I was immediately intrigued. It’s easy,
effective – and it actively promotes the idea that travel can
accomplish some good, and not just yield a great collection of

It did, however, raise a concern for me, one that applies more
broadly to the idea of volunteer-tourism and socially responsible
travel, especially if we understand such travel as something that can
be done with kids (of any age): is the good that is accomplished by
such travel undermined, in any measure, by teaching kids (or, in the
absence of kids, teaching ourselves) that we – Western travelers – can
or should play a kind of savior role in the world, that it is our place
and our duty to dispense goodwill and assistance to all those poor,
unfortunate communities that are so distant from our own? Does that not
impart a kind of superiority complex, in the manner of a kind of
latter-day noblesse oblige? The lesson that we can and should
help when and where we can is, of course, a good one – a necessary one,
even – but isn’t there something of a complicated problem in teaching
our kids – or ourselves – that cultures and communities other than our
own are lacking and that we – on our holidays! – can fill that lack?

I don’t know – I know that I’m not the first to raise these
questions about volunteer-tourism, and I’m not even sure that they’re
fair questions. But they are questions, and if I’m asking
them, mightn’t my children also ask them? Children do, after all,
possess keen – and sometimes inconvenient – radar for these kinds of
complicated and uncomfortable nuances. It’s one reason why they make
such excellent travel companions. But it’s also why we need to think
carefully about the kinds of adventures we pursue on our travels. End
of the day, I think that the idea of tackling maternal mortality
through volunteer-tourism is a good one, and one that has the added
benefit of raising awareness of a global problem that is often
overlooked. And perhaps anxieties about privilege and the impact of
privilege as these pertain to travel need to be exposed to exactly
these sorts of questions – in which case, this kind of project probably
provides more opportunity for so-called ‘teachable moments’ than
appears at first glance.

I posted this as a contribution to Changemakers’ brand new MommyMovement website, dedicated to mothers’ reflections on and contributions to making the world a better place. I’ve reposted it here because I want it to be a touchstone for me as I plot travel adventures with my kids. I want to make sure that as I explore the world with (and through) my children, I remain – and encourage them to always remain – mindful of and humble about our privilege.

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