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Belize City - 6Drugs. Alcohol. Prostitution. For many parents, these are activities they want their children to avoid. And with good reason.

As a result, they shelter their kids from exposure, especially to the very unpleasant and ugly consequences. They avoid the participants in such activities, evade the conversation, speak in hushed tones and glaze over the topic.

Especially as it relates to travel, parents are weary of taking their children to locations where they might get offered drugs, or be in contact with people drinking alcohol or participating in other unseemly behavior.

But why not? I think it's actually a good thing.

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Now before all of you with traditional values write me off forever as a bad mother, first hear me out.

We shouldn't avoid this type of exposure. It may not be necessary to go in search of it, but if you live (and especially travel) in the world, it often can't be avoided.

In fact, it can be beneficial, especially if it happens to you as a family (while you're traveling) and while your children are young. And if you make a point to talk about it together. That's critical.

In today's society, we have it all wrong. We avoid any contact with anyone who's involved, even to the point of not talking about it, or whispering in hushed tones about Uncle Bob and his drinking problem. It's not openly discussed. It's definitely never observed. Then by the time our kids our teenagers, someone they respect or think is 'cool' offers them drugs or alcohol and they think, "Why not? It can't be that bad, I've never heard much about it."

That's when you have problems.

While never intentional, our travel experiences have exposed our family (young children included) to many situations involving drugs and alcohol (and worse), and I've come to appreciate those introductions.

Kids in tow, my husband has been offered drugs in the streets of Central America. He's also been proffered prostitution services while holding my hand. Finding drunks passed out on the streets is a common occurrence in many Central American cities, especially on weekend mornings. We've discovered used condoms on the road while taking a family walk. We've lived next door to prostitutes involved in domestic violence (and heard all the screaming); gay men (who were such great neighbors), and unmarried couples. Children included, we've been invited to parties where adults were smoking (sometimes more than cigarettes), and drinking beer and other alcoholic beverages (yes, we went.)

My overall outlook on these events, being a non-drinking, non-smoking, non-druggy married woman and mother of five small children (all 10 and under)?

It's been a good for my kids.

Take for example, the time when my five year old son was offered cigarettes from our very nice neighbors while we were living in the Dominican Republic. He refused, came home to tell us about it, and it's been a bragging point ever since. It's one of those 'defining moments' for him. "I was offered cigarettes and I said 'no'! Do you think I have to worry about him trying them as he grows older (he's now almost nine)? Not if he continues to cherish that memory.

Which is why I don't shy away from these 'exposures'. Again, we don't necessarily seek them out on purpose, but if you live in the world, you can't avoid them, and they provide perfect learning opportunities. So don't be afraid of them, and don't avoid them on purpose.

Here's three reasons why it's a good idea to let your kids be exposed:

1. It starts conversations that need to be had

When in Belize City, we were climbing into our truck when someone offered Greg some 'good green'. After refusing and driving away, our kids asked, "Dad, what's 'good green'?"

This, and similar experiences have provided the chance to talk about things with our kids that we might not otherwise -- explaining things such as good green, weed, and marijuana being all the same thing and that coke is not always a drink.

Having these conversations lets our kids know that they can come to us with questions like these, and also gives us the chance to discuss the consequences of drug and alcohol usage.

As parents, we know these are conversations we should have with our children. Being exposed to experiences where these conversations can happen naturally isn't necessarily the goal of traveling as a family, but it can be a nice side effect.

2. It provides examples of long-term consequences

When I was in high school, the most I knew about drugs and alcohol was that it was an activity the 'cool' kids indulged in. I wanted to be a cool kid too. Sure, I'd heard about the 'bad' side of it, but I never saw it.

I never saw the passing out, the vomiting, the abuse and broken relationships, the drunk on the street urinating on himself -- the ugly side of alcohol indulgence and total loss of self-control (and self-respect.)

On a weekly basis, as we walk the streets of Panajachel, Guatemala, we'll inevitably encounter 1 to 4 drunks passed out on the streets (more if it's a weekend or a Monday morning), in some form of degradation -- in a puddle of their own urine or vomit, shoes or other belongings missing. Glamorous, isn't it?

Yet this has been a powerful enforcer for our kids of a great reason not to drink. If alcohol leads to being like one of these guys, why would I ever want to do that?

Celebrating my sons 8th birthday, we went on a Mom/Dad/Son date to the market and bought smoothies. As we sat together, sipping our smoothies with giant smiles, laughing and having a great time, an unkempt, macabre man approached. His eyes were bloodshot, his lips wounded and scabbed. He was unshaven, uncut, unwashed and inebriated.

In broken, slurred Spanish he said, "Such a happy family. You are so happy. I am not happy, because of alcohol. But you are a happy family."

I couldn't have planned a better lesson about the negative consequences of alcohol, if I'd hired actors myself and gave them a script.

3. It teaches them tolerance and respect

Our children were young when we were living in the Dominican Republic. One moon-lit evening, we were invited to a birthday party of an adult friend. Invariably, we had to bring our kids (which was okay with the hosts.) There was dinner and drinking. We had a really great time, and so did our children.

Afterwards they remarked, "I think they were drinking beer."

"Yes, they were," we told them. And then we had one of those conversations that I talked about earlier.

But, nearly as important was the lesson they were taught about tolerance and respect.

Yes, those people were drinking, which is something we don't personally do (for a variety of reasons, which we explained to our children.) But because they were drinking doesn't mean that they can't be our friends and that they are 'bad' people.

We went to the party. We talked and laughed. We had a great time. We respected their choice to drink, and they respected ours to not drink. And that's okay.

That's the attitude I want my children to have, especially as they age and mature and get out into the world on their own. They will come across people who do things differently than they do. That's okay. They can still be friends. They can respect those differences. And they can still choose to live by their own standards, without giving into peer pressure.

The time to let your kids be exposed to drugs and alcohol is now, while they are young and you can have those critical conversations, instead of waiting until their 'cool' friends introduce them to something that's a lot of 'fun'. If it happens that way, then it's too late.


Now after addressing those points, I do have something else to say... This approach has worked great for us because we're nomadic, on the move. Each of these encounters was temporary, made with transient friends. And while we still claim them as friends and appreciate the relationships, the people we spend most of our time with are usually those who share similar values and interests (I think you're naturally drawn to each other.)

I'm not abdicating hanging out your local bar on a regular basis. When you live in one place, you have to be more careful about who you regularly spend time with. But when you're passing through, when you're meeting other travelers who come from diverse backgrounds, cultures and beliefs, it can be an excellent opportunity to learn tolerance, respect and natural consequences.

Another reason why you should travel more, eh?

What has been your experience exposing your kids to these things?



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30 Responses

      • Spencer_Hanson

        @rdenning Yes, still in Costa Rica – San Luis de Heredia area. We’re thinking we might move to Granada, Nicaragua area next month though.

      • rdenning

        @Spencer_Hanson Awesome… maybe we’ll see you there, or somewhere 🙂

  1. Courtney Baker

    I hear ya!  I had a discussion in a small group at church once where the parents took the stance “if the book talks about gay relationships, then she’s not doing the project. We’ll take an F and move on.”
    Why not instead, read it together, and talk about each other’s opinions on it.
    I think as a people, we really like the mysterious things. Shielding kids from all things just makes them more curious. Besides, personally, I’d really like to be there when the first encounter happens!

  2. catherineforest

    What a great post! I totally agree! I remember being afraid of drunk men as a child, because my grandma used to avoid them like plague when she was with me (and shopping downtown). I really relate to what you are saying AND to the fact that it is very different when you travel… This is such a great way to live in the world with our children while being totally connected to each other.

    • RachelDenning

      @catherineforest Yes, I agree with you. It is a great way to show our kids the world and what it’s like without them being disconnected from the family and it’s culture.

  3. Mare Weston Stewart

    This is so true! And what better than to have your own children see you as that role model that when you receive illicit offerings, you turn it down. Your own children see you do not avoid temptation and condemn others for their weakness but practice tolerance while staying true to your own convictions–you don’t succumb to peer pressure. Well written and very insightful. Thank you for sharing this!

  4. Cheryl Mondloch Potts

    I agree….100% !! Better that they encounter these situations with you….than without you, later in life.. Great way to ‘educate’ your children. Thanks for sharing…

  5. Dwayne Robbie

    Excellent points made in this article. Better to have the chance to talk about different situations with kids rather than avoiding the subjects and having them needing to figure it out as teenagers.

  6. Chris Lewis Little

    Not really while traveling but the kids Uncle, my brother was hooked on Heroin. He is clean now but we talk about all the bad stuff he went through all the time. It isn’t pretty either but if talking about it keeps my kids away from drugs it is worth every conversation and uncomfortable question or answer.

  7. Barbe Wolfe

    Completely agree! “Teachable moments” are around us all the time whether we are traveling or not. We need to use them instead of avoiding them.

  8. ForrestBeck

    Hey Rachel,
    Wonderful article!  This is such a critical point for kids and I personally think it could be extended to many different topics.  
    Unfortunately, it seems so many families prefer to pretend things don’t exist or just talk about them behind closed doors without allowing kids in on the conversation.  Sure, there are some things that kids don’t need to be actively engaged in discussion, but most conversations will make a topic much less loaded than it otherwise would be.  And as you pointed out, this strengthens their resolve.
    Take care and hope you are all well.

  9. Steve Cook

    You hit what is a sore spot for many people. Whenever I touch upon this subject they tend to get mad at me. I challenge the lifestyle that so many choose. We claim to be Christ followers, but we buy our nice home in the suburbs away from everything, shielding our children from what happens in the real world (not that the suburbs don’t have their problems) and in doing so, we teach them to avoid it. It’s the exact opposite of what Jesus did. Jesus was from Nazareth, the slums of the time. He wen to and lived among the lowliest of the low. If we really want to be Jesus followers, we need to take a hard look at how he REALLY lived and recognize that most of us do not live the way he did. I am 100% in favor of exposing my kids to such things and teaching them God’s ways through it. I don’t want my kids to hear about how we should be like Jesus, but instead I want them to see it and experience it for themselves. I’d like to share this post on my blog if it is OK with you. Just email me and let me know.

    • RachelDenning

      @Steve Cook Your comment is very thorough and contains a lot of truth! You are welcome to use this post. And it was really great to meet you and your wife (and the rest of the group). Sorry we couldn’t spend more time together!

  10. mytreasuredcreations

    I think some “bad” behaviors are easier to explain than others. I am learning as a Mom that every question from my kids is followed by a silent prayer by me asking for wisdom of HOW and WHAT to respond. 🙂
    What did you tell your kids about Dad’s offer by the kind lady??

    • RachelDenning

      @mytreasuredcreations That’s a great way to approach it. I don’t think the kids were around when Greg received the offer for ‘services’ — we were on a date 🙂

  11. familyonbikes

    When I was growing up, my parents frequently offered me beer or hard alcohol. Whenever Dad mixed himself a screwdriver, he offered me one. I always declined because I had tasted his and knew how vile it tasted.
    When I started to drive, my parents said, “We know you will experiment with alcohol. That’s OK, just remember to never, ever drive drunk. We don’t care where you are or what time of the night you call, but if you are drunk, call us and we’ll come get you. If you can’t get to a phone – stay there. We would prefer that we be worried out of our brains for a night, but have you come home safely eventually, than for you to try and get home while drunk and never come home again.”
    While all my friends were sneaking alcohol or drugs, against their parents’ approval, I had nothing to sneak. I mean – when your parents offer their house for parties, what’s to hide?I am grateful for them for being so open with us. I learned early about alcohol and drugs, and never felt hte need to use them.

    • RachelDenning

      @familyonbikes That’s a great insight… you never felt the need to use them because they weren’t kept from you.
      My husband said his experience was similar… he left home at an early age, and was surrounded by drugs an alcohol. He never had anyone telling him not to, but had no interest in trying them — it just seemed ‘stupid’ to him. He was worrying about finding food to eat anyway 🙂

  12. karinh1979

    @TravelwitBender @rdenning as with all things it has to be age appropriate no way very young children can discern situations

    • rdenning

      @karinh1979 @travelwithbender Which is why ideally, you would be there with them to help them discern 🙂

  13. our_oyster

    This is a great post! And so true that we just avoid these conversations, and then wonder why people become binge drinkers – it’s because they never learned good attitudes towards alcohol and how to respect it, not abuse it


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