Family travel with a social conscience: The one thing travel should teach our kids

The year is 2012 and I'm on an aid trip to Uganda.

During the first week, we meet a woman so close to death she can't digest a tube of food paste. A child so malnourished her stomach is distended, as if pregnant. And a mother so badly abused, the government passes laws against domestic violence.

I'm desperate to talk to the kids to explain the work I've been doing with ActionAid.

But the first thing they ask when we're connected on the mobile is, "Mum, what presents are you bringing home?".

I'm so angry I can hardly speak. But the incident serves as an epiphany.

I want them to grow up to be good global citizens, not spoiled brats who pick up the phone in five-star hotels and say, "I want something".

Here are five thought-provoking ways to incorporate a sense of social justice into your family's travels:

1. Involve children in a discussion about where to go, beyond the beaches, shopping and attractions. Talk about where the money from hotel chains actually goes. How much do the locals earn? Is this providing employment, or treating locals as slaves? And has over-development damaged the environment?  

2. Eat at the home of a family, to understand their lifestyle. The kids were mesmerised by the stories of our 90-year-old host – who, upon marriage, had blackened her teeth to make her less appealing to other men in the village – on the outskirts of Hue, in Vietnam. 


3. Take them on a different kind of culinary adventure. Context Travel now runs refugee cooking classes, to explore the issues in Europe through an altered lens. Context calls these new offerings #deeptravel as part of its pitch to "intellectually curious" families.

4. Contribute to a local charity. Intrepid family tours take you to vetted and registered charities in developing countries. Instead of buying plastic trinkets, Taj and Grace gave their pocket money to Children's Hope in Action, after talking to the orphans who lived there.

5. Go to the untouristed side of town. On a recent trip to Los Angeles, we explored the gentrified downtown then strolled to its outskirts. Mexican shopkeepers told us of their hand-to-mouth existence as undocumented migrants. It was heartbreaking.

As a starting point, research voluntourism organisations to make sure they're small scale, not some form of government-funded neo-colonialism.

Create a Facebook page for a sponsored family trek, donating the proceeds to your charity of choice.  

Or choose a spot like Atauro Island on Timor Leste, with world-renowned reefs and a focus on culturally appropriate tourism.

The important thing is to do it professionally. Don't engage in "poverty porn", by exploiting the plight of the poor: it's patronising and pointless. Certainly, spend time gaining an understanding of the underlying problems, but make sure you actually do something about it, instead of making it worse.

Being a global citizen is all about having an ethic of care for the world, and working towards an equitable and sustainable existence.  

Perhaps this is the greatest gift we could give our too-spoiled kids.