“So what do you think?” a rookie expat asked me this morning. “Should I let my two daughters, aged fourteen and seventeen, go off on their own, taking the bus from Seville to Granada?”
Parents bringing teens to Seville face endless dilemmas like this one. This is a safe city; pockets get picked and purses snatched, but violent crime is rare, and even large groups of drunken youths rarely erupt into anything beyond a scuffle. Here the drinking age is eighteen, and kids as young as fourteen may be served if they’re not too baby-faced. It’s not uncommon for local teens to head out at midnight and party in youth bars and street groups until dawn. To visiting American kids, raised to believe that they won’t have this kind of night on the town until they turn twenty-one, if ever, this is heady stuff. Their parents’ first reaction – “over my dead body” – usually crumbles in the face of persistent wheedling.
If the parents happen to be visitors in our home, it’s at this point that they usually ask our opinion. And Rich and I always tell them the same thing that I told my new friend this morning: this is a judgment call only a parent can make.
Most eventually cave and allow their teenagers to go out, but only if they give their word that they won’t drink any alcohol. The kids always nod solemnly and race out the door to the nearest youth bar, where they down rum and Cokes with newfound friends until it’s time to stagger home, eating handfuls of peppermints along the way. In the morning, the parents always assure us that their kids didn’t have a single drink; they just walked around admiring the local culture. And I always say, “Yes, the cathedral is lovely in the moonlight,” and pretend to believe this is what happened.
The astonishing thing is that the parents actually believe the kids’ story. Do they really think that teenagers want to spend their vacation looking at churches and old paintings? A few do, of course, but usually, as veteran teen tour leaders Cecelia Maloney and Trisha Stapeton found with their first youth group, “Their perusal of the magnificent cathedrals and world's finest museums rivaled Chevy Chase's cursory glance at the Grand Canyon in National Lampoon's Vacation. The sudden draft we felt as we stood gazing and marveling at the beauty inside La Chiesa di Santa Croce was not from the crevices in the centuries-old church; it was our students hightailing it out the door to play hacky sack in the piazza.”
Kids need to find some way to interact with the environment that will make them feel it’s their own. My niece toured five European cities with her high school class, and the main story she told upon return was about a face off in which she bested some snippy Spanish girls. It was the point where the trip got real for her.
“Help your kids connect with European children their own age,” recommends travel guru and parent Rick Steves. “By staying in B and Bs or small guesthouses, you'll find it's easier to meet other traveling families.” He also recommends hostels, where the communal kitchen can provide a great place for kids to make friends.
Not everyone finds it congenial to take long journeys with adolescents. “Give some parents a choice between traveling with teenagers or with a pack of hungry badgers, and they'll choose the badgers nine times out of ten,” said a TravelSense article. To avoid stress and conflict, the article suggests providing kids with plenty of activities, space, exercise, sleep, food, and the chance to go off on their own in safe places.
What is safe? That’s something parents have to decide for themselves. But even when teens take risks that terrify you, sneak around behind your back, and act like grumpy badgers, you’re building memories. “You grab the opportunities as they come,” said a single mom who took her teens abroad. “Our lives are made up of what we do in the present, and of the memories we carry into that vast unknown landscape ahead.”
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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