Travelling with children and cultural issues: When your kids embarrass you

Observations from the mouths of babes are not always cute and endearing.

One friend tells the story of taking her three-year-old on a bus to see the musical The Lion King in Las Vegas.

The little fella had repeatedly watched the movie, in which Whoopi Goldberg voices the character of a nasty hyena.

Discuss cultural taboos with your children before heading overseas so they understand your expectations.

Sure enough, when he heard an African-American woman talking loudly on her mobile phone, he pointed and screamed, “Hyena! Hyena! Hyena!”

“We couldn’t stop him,” my friend said last week, shaking her head. “I still cringe but it was the only other time he’d heard this accent.”

This reminded me of a trip to the Philippines, during which our then five-year-old fell in love with the beautiful tour guide, Lily.

Stroking her arm in a restaurant one night, suddenly something clicked.

He stood up on the chair, eyes wide, and trilled, “You’re black!”

A series of questions followed: “Why are the people here dark?”, “Does the colour rub off?”, “Is it like a suntan?”

Differences are difficult to explain to small children, as I discovered on our trip to Thailand,  where we passed posters for “ping pong shows”.

(“Oh, I love table tennis, Mum,” Grace said. “Can we go in and have a play?”)

So, what is the best way to prepare your children to avoid cultural cringe?


Take the kids to the library, or use Google to research your destination. Show them age-appropriate documentaries about family routines there. Get your child to point out, on a globe, atlas or map, where you live and where you’re going. Find a game that the indigenous children there play.


Have an open conversation about customs, taboos and rituals before you travel. For example, it’s an insult to show the soles of your feet in much of Asia and the Middle East. Explain the history of these habits, emphasising that they’re different, not unusual.


Buy a small dictionary or translation app. Alternatively, book the family into language lessons before you go. Make them feel comfortable by not laughing at their accent. Despite years of French lessons, the kids were too nervous to speak the language last year in Paris. (However, they were more than happy to criticise their mother’s appalling accent!)


Make dinner one night in an international style: eating around a low table for Japanese; chopsticks for a Chinese meal; or with your hands for Indian or African.


Most of the people I know with an exchange student have worldly kids. My sister has hosted young women from Japan, Germany, China and Korea –a marvellous cultural experience for her three children.

Intrepid Travel also advises parents to take children to cultural festivals in Australia.

“Perhaps stay somewhere with some western comforts in a quieter area at first, and don’t overload them with so many ‘new’ things in the one day,” Intrepid’s destination manager for the subcontinent, Ryan Turner, explains. “It’s best to balance the familiar with something a bit more culturally challenging to give them time to adjust at first.”

Still, it’s a long and potholed road.

Like the time we were driving, when Grace saw a woman wearing a niqab.

“Mum, that lady looks Buddhist. A wonder if she’s going off to meditate?” she pondered.

It seems there are many lessons still to be learned.

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