Keeping it real in the age of affluence

Family travel opens eyes

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Trekking in the Andes with a guide and donkeys, bedding down on the floor of a schoolhouse, and visiting a village of 18 families, the Gallaghers of Calgary, Alberta found themselves about as far from materialistic North American society as they could get.

"When you are in situations like that, it is not a material thing at all, although you have to purchase tickets to get there," Heather Gallagher says. "At the time, you're never 100 percent sure how it will turn out."

For children growing up in affluence in a society obsessed with materialism and achievement, family travel can open windows on a different sort of world.

With the material resources this generation has at its fingertips, raising children is a challenge, says David Gray, whose sons Darren, 20, and Jeffrey, 17, both attended Stanstead College, a boarding school in Quebec.

Gray and his wife Joyce Schoepp wanted their boys to grow up "realizing that they are quite privileged on a global scale and in Canada."

Exposing them to injustices and imbalances through travel to areas of the developing world made their sons more aware and socially responsible, Gray says. At home, Gray and Schoepp try to model through day-to-day behaviour the values they want their children to emulate. A home in a natural environment, good books and "a lot of music" show what they think is important amid a tide of North American materialism.

With parents busy from morning to night, it's all too tempting to indulge children instead of spending time with them, says Dan Kindlon, the American author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age.

"With all the indulgence going on, coupled with the high motivation to achieve, (young people) don't have time to think about anyone except themselves." He found children often lack character because they are not getting enough TLC: time, limits and caring.

Heather and Fred Gallagher of Calgary have three children: daughter Kelsey, 15; Ryan, 18, who graduated last spring from Brentwood College School in Mill Bay, British Columbia, and Michael, 20, another Brentwood College grad, now at Queen's University.

Heather decided to give up her career so her husband could actively pursue his. With the boys earlier and now with Kelsey, an avid figure skater, "we spend an awful lot of time in the car," she says.

Rose Reisman says her husband never took up golf because he knew it would eat up hours away from their four children, all of who attend or have attended private schools in Toronto. Natalie, 19, attended Havergal College and is now at the University of Michigan in the U.S.; David, 17, and Adam, 11 are at Upper Canada College, and Laura, 15, is at Bishop Strachan School.

The Reismans' family holidays - at least three times a year - were always spent "alone with the kids," because holidaying with friends or relatives "changes the dynamics," Reisman says.

She and her husband Sam came from different backgrounds. While he grew up in a wealthy family, Reisman says, "we had no money at all, my family, no excess income." As a result she has "more fear of spending," while he believes money causes a problem with children only when it becomes an issue.

"They never have taken advantage," Reisman says. "They're good kids." The children have learned to downplay signs of affluence. When one young friend reacted with awe upon discovering the Reismans travel in a private plane, their son simply shrugged, "Yeah, it's cool."

To spend family time together, "We insist on sitting down and staying after dinner to talk," David Gray says.

In fact, simple rituals - eating dinner together, attending religious services - make a big difference, Kindlon says. After-dinner conversations develop an inner moral compass that Kindlon says is lacking in many youngsters brought up to focus on achievement and success. For her part, Schoepp recalls discussions about sports, how if a team is not doing well it's still important to commit to the team until season's end and not bail out. As well, they talk about how clothes don't make the person, and about moral issues.

"One of the concerns I have had for a long time is that kids today - and adults, too - have no compunction about cheating," David Gray says. "It's possible, for example, to not pay the fare on the public transit system. If everybody did that, the system would collapse. My parent's generation never would have dreamed of not paying." He wants his sons to appreciate that they have community and social responsibilities.

"We both have incomes, although we're not wealthy," Gray says. "We try to involve them in investment decisions, encourage activities such as piano, guitar, art, sports, cultural activities. We'll invest in the opportunity to travel as a family. We're not very interested in a grand TV screen and for a car we just need something to get around."

Most parents do pretty well at showing their children they care, Kindlon says. It's harder to set limits, even simple ones, such as keeping a bedroom tidy, he says. It's best to discourage talking on the phone for hours or allowing children to retreat to a computer in their room to email their friends all evening. "If you abandon children to their peer group, of course they are going to have more influence," Kindlon says.

The Gray children were given responsibilities, such as walking the dogs. "They have to do things and not be paid, even if other kids are," Schoepp says. "Early on they were given small allowances but they had to reserve some for certain things, rather than just spending. And they had to have summer jobs."

The Reismans don't give allowances or reward their children for doing chores. Although they have help in the home, "we expect them to do certain things." And in the summer, "I wouldn't give them an opportunity to just hang out," Rose Reisman says. All the children went to camp and the older ones took jobs as camp instructors. Kindlon also found that regular community service by young people keeps them from becoming self-centred. "To perform some kind of meaningful role increases their self-esteem," he says. "Young people are hungry to help others." He didn't measure the affects of family travel in his book, although he says "purchasing hardship by seeing the Third World can be a good thing . . . Kids then realize how difficult life is for others."

The Gallaghers believe that travelling together exerted a positive influence, helping produce children who "rise to the occasion" and share deeper bonds. Heather is convinced that's why Michael applied to live in international residence at university and why Ryan chose to live with a student from Taiwan at Brentwood.

She hopes that travel as a family will continue. "Maybe the group will get larger," she muses, and attract their sons' future significant others.

—Lillian Newbery
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