Filial imprinting is the process by which babies learn to recognize their parents. The desire in many creatures to be parented is so strong, many orphaned infants will imprint on another species. In Fly Away Home, a movie inspired by true events, orphaned Canadian Geese imprinted on a dude who taught them to follow the migratory patterns essential for their survival in the wild by having them follow him while he flew a glider.
Filial imprinting isn’t just for the birds. Humans are born- just like geese- helpless, and require parents to teach them how to survive.
WE’RE PRODUCTS OF OUR ENVIRONMENTS
When I was a kid, I couldn’t think of anything more fun than being Mowgli from Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Imagine, being raised by wolves and befriending a bear and a black panther! Given the chance, I knew I could fight a man-eating tiger and swing from trees! Hanging out in ancient ruins in the middle of the jungle sounded like my cup o’ tea!
At the age of eight, I was convinced that my life would be complete if only I could figure out how to get a wolf family to adopt me. It’s lucky for my parents that I hadn’t heard of Tippi Degre, the somewhat real-life Mowgli who grew up with wild animals until the age of ten, or else they might’ve had to contend with a runaway to Africa.
Another book that inspired me- don’t laugh- was ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’, a story about Ayla, a Cro-magnon woman from prehistoric times who, adopted by a Neanderthal nomadic clan, was raised to revere and even embody animal spirits. I clearly remember drawing the designs for a time machine that I imagined would take me back 18,000 years so that I could hang out for awhile with Ayla and her pals.
Silly, I know. But remember, I was eight. Anyway, what does any of this have to do with travel? Bear with me…
I imagine that for early human nomads, the parents taught their young very basic survival lessons which involved learning to find food and shelter and how to avoid being eaten by the same sorts of predators I wanted to anthromorphize as a child. Today, in modern societies, we’ve fashioned ourselves into much more complicated creatures. While some of us still live in nomadic cultures or in communion with nature, most of us live rooted in cities, towns or rural expanses of farmland. Survival- while still focused on food and shelter- takes many different forms, but our days typically aren’t filled with the same dangers. It isn’t often, for example, that we need to worry about being hunted by tigers or cave bears.
What has replaced nomadic hunting and gathering is a bountiful world filled with an infinite array of choices. It’s easy for most of us to decide what to eat, where to live and who to become. We have so many choices today that our ancestors didn’t have, such as shopping in grocery stores, picking a profession (or, for many of us, professions!), going to a variety of schools and finding mentors far outside our family circles. While geese wouldn’t stand much of a chance in the wild not knowing migratory patterns (which they are born needing to learn), our parents’ priorities and earliest lessons are no longer restricted to teaching us simple survival tactics. The world, as they say, is our oyster, yet let’s not forget that the choices our parents make while we’re young still impact us profoundly.
I’m a writer. For me, books are companions and words are as powerful as the tides. While most people have only systems such as endocrine, nervous and circulatory, I seem to also have one focused solely on communicating the written word (escribatory system?). Writing is an act as powerful as breathing- without it, I’d wither and die. I’m not exaggerating; my livelihood depends on my ability to write. I’d have a hard time eating were it not for my ability to get writing gigs.
While I’d love to think that I came into writing on my own, I didn’t. My mom read to me when I was an infant. She whispered stories into my tiny ears as she rocked me at night. I imagine that the sound of turning pages helped lull me to sleep.
Reading to an infant/toddler heavily determines what sort of independent reader she becomes as an older child, and influences future academic and economic success. Can you imagine not reading to your children? To close doors to their futures before they’ve even taken their first steps? I don’t remember my mom reading to be when I was a baby, but I’m sure reaping the rewards today.
The things we teach our children matter. They trust us to teach them what they need to know. Much like baby geese who will follow some weird dude flying a small place or glider, we’ll follow our parents wherever they lead. We won’t remember a lot of our infanthood, but the things that happen during that time sure inform who we become. There have been innumerable studies about the benefits of reading to your child. Same with speaking foreign languages. Heck, speaking to your child in any language helps her become a better language-learner.
If everything an infant or toddler does informs the person he or she will become, then we must assume that the same would go for traveling, right?
Many people would say ‘No’. I’ve heard again and again how travel is wasted on the young. That young children can’t form “real” memories, so it’s best for them to stay home.
I beg to differ. Here are a few reasons why:
1. THE ROAD TO BILINGUALISM STARTS IN THE WOMB
Data tells us that while children are born with the ability to learn speech and language, they gain the skills necessary to speak by listening, processing and practicing the words of languages around them. Infants can detect the “melody” (the pitches and rhythms) and of their own language as early as a few days old.
According to the Association for Psychological Science, “hearing two languages regularly during pregnancy puts infants on the road to bilingualism by birth.” Yes, folks, hearing more than one language- EVEN IN THE WOMB- can help children with their language-learning skills. Science writer Annie Murphy Paul says, “we might imagine that our new babies are clean slates, when they’ve actually already been shaped by us.”
Children learn, on average, twenty new words a day. Imagine, now, that you are traveling with your child and she has- even before being able to speak- learned the word for ‘water’ in more than one language. Perhaps she can recognize ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘love’ and ‘yes’.
Your kid might not remember the markets and vacation sites you visit, but her brain will be more plastic and much more receptive to learning languages. If you ask me, this isn’t a bad thing.
2. HARD, COLD CA$H
Esther Duflo, the young “rock star” developmental economist who joined Obama’s team this year and was once named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, has demonstrated that the farther away people go from home to be educated, the more income they will make over their lifetimes (and for their home communities).
While money isn’t everything, I like the idea that travel- which I’ve been told by well-intentioned friends shouldn’t be my priority for my kid- will eventually lead to her making more money. While many of my friends’ kids stress out and prepare for taking state tests in their schools (which doesn’t, in any way, increase that kid’s chances later in life), my kid will be learning about other cultures and traveling to distant lands, completely unaware that hanging over her head is a golden ticket. Awesome.
3. Facing the “Great Unknown”
My homebase is in the economically and racially diverse neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn. It’s a tough neighborhood. A few blocks away sit some of the city’s public housing projects. Helicopters fly overhead many evenings, drugs are sold on the street and homeless people sleep in some of the abandoned buildings. My kid is street-smart. But being WORLD-smart is a whole different ball of wax.
Last summer, when we left for two months on the road, my daughter clung to my hand. She could deal with New York, but she was scared of the rest of the world. By the time we returned, she felt she could do anything. She started her own business, took greater charge over her education, and just generally made her feel more confident in her abilities.
While traveling, the unexpected happens constantly. In Lisbon, I became incapacitated with the flu. In the Algarve, we ran out of money. Once, on an overnight train between Spain and Portugal, we had to deal with being put on two different sleeper cars on an overnight train. We learned to face our fears on the sides of mountains, were forced to communicate with people who didn’t speak English, eat unfamiliar foods, and just generally had to climb outside our comfort zones each and every day. The result? My kid’s comfort zone grew wider. Things that previously scared her became no big deal. The “Great Unknown” became… known.
This is the greatest thing about travel. Scared of people you’ve never met? Then meet them. You’ll no longer be scared. People are ultimately just people.
The earlier you expose your kid to the world, the better. She’ll learn that people are good, that the world is beautiful, and that she can fit in anywhere. The sooner she considers herself part of the world, the sooner you won’t ever need to worry about her forming prejudices against people, cultures or places.
WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
So, your child has imprinted. You’re trusted to do what’s right. To show her not only how to survive, but to teach her what’s important to you. Unlike our ancestors, you have some big decisions to make that will determine the course of her future. Want to help your kid become a global citizen? Then travel. Travel while your kid is young. Travel broadly and boldly. Teach your imprinted chick about the world. Don’t stop to worry whether or not she’ll remember the things you see. Fill up photo albums if you must. But don’t doubt for a second that what you’re providing your kid kid will be ingrained in the very fiber of her being. She’ll live more boldly, be more adept at communicating, and open to the world around her. According to leading economists, she might just make a little more money over the course of her lifetime, too.
I’m part of a wonderful group of traveling families who also wrote posts about why travel isn’t wasted on the young. I encourage you to click on the links below for many different viewpoints about this subject!
Mary from Bohemian travelers
Nancy from Family on Bikes
Catherine Forest from Catherine et les fées
Alisa from Living Outside of the Box
Bethaney from Flashpacker Family
Jenn Miller from the Edventure Project
Kris Herwig from Simon Says
Heather Costaras from Living Differently
Kalli from Portable Professionals
Kirsty from Barts go Adventuring
Anne from The Journey is the Reward
Sharon from Where’s Sharon
Annie from Practical Adventurology
Lainie from Raising Miro on the Road of Life (with Aimee from Suitcases and Strollers)
Nichola from We Travel Countries
CoreyAnn Khan from Adventure Bee
Natalie Berg from Magnificent World