We have always travelled a lot with our children. They both had passports from 3 months old, and since then they have spent lots of time every year visiting their family in Portugal. We also lived overseas with them for several years, and in 2014 we spent five months on a ‘Road School’ tour around Europe and across China. The benefits of travel are many – not only do they get used to coping with change, but they also get exposed to different cultures, landscapes, historical contexts, architectures, and so on and on. Over the years they have started to understand how people, places and social mores in different countries differ, but also how we are basically the same beneath the skin. When you first visit a new country, the cultural habits can seem odd, strange, incomprehensible. But after a while, they become the new ‘norm’ and you adapt your behaviour to suit that of the country where you are travelling or staying. (Or, if you don’t, you are likely to become frustrated or get yourself into trouble.)
One great example of cultural differences is in the way our children go onto ‘Portuguese time’ when we are staying here (as we are at the moment). We all wake late, eat a long lunch together, then head off to the pool or beach far later than we would do if we were in England. If the children are asleep before midnight when we’re in Portugal it is a surprise; in the UK this would be deemed ‘bad parenting’ by many. One of the children’s cousins told me that she gets her toddler to have a nap at 8 o’clock in the evening, so that she can wake her up for the family meal at 10pm. To the English, the idea of doing such a thing would be incomprehensible. No one works between midday and 2pm, because lunch is basically sacred. And if you try to go out for an evening meal before about 8pm, you will find that most restaurants are not even open yet.
Notions of what is socially acceptable vary from culture to culture as well. When we first arrived in China, we were surprised at how the people would approach us, asking to take photographs of our children. At first we thought (in our reticent, suspicious English way) that this was some kind of scam. But after a while we realised that they were literally just fascinated by them: both by how they looked, and also by the fact that we had two children when in China most families are limited to one. There were lots of other fascinating differences between the cultural and social mores in China, and in England, which I plan to explore in my upcoming Road School book. However, I’m definitely not going to watch “Are Our Kids Tough Enough?” on BBC2 tonight. Partly because I suspect it will annoy me – the idea that you can separate an approach to education from its cultural, social and political context is plainly daft. But mainly because we will have only just got back from the outdoor swimming pool and we will be busy having a BBQ in the warm evening sun. (And that is definitely not something I would be saying if we were currently in the UK.)