10 Biggest Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Child’s Heritage Journey (and believe me, I’ve done them all!) By Bambi Wineland
I've been in the travel industry for nearly 25 years. You would think that in 2011, when I took my daughter back to China for the first time, it would be our trip to remember - but I messed up. I messed up on the one opportunity I had to take my adopted child on her FIRST trip back to her birth country – her Heritage Journey. I’ll never forget those first few moments ...
The elevator doors creaked open and Jo Jo and I were floored. The jet lag, the heat, the PEOPLE hundreds of them! It felt like we were walking into a zoo. The humidity was palpable.
There were hundreds of moms, dads and little Chinese girls with brothers and sisters in tow. There were girls wrestling in chairs, children running through the lobby, kids crying, parents talking too loudly and tour guides trying to get a handle on the chaos.
Jo Jo and I were shocked and, honestly, a bit frightened.
My anxious, introverted little girl shrank into an oversized red chair and curled her legs under her. It seemed as if she was trying to become invisible. I went into extroverted tour guide mode -- because that’s what I do.
I spotted who I thought was a tour guide and began walking across the room to the tour desk. When I looked back at Jo Jo, I saw her take out her rain jacket and pull it over her head and shoulders – now she was just a head.
Returning to her I could see the life being sucked right out of her. She was not in her element. Knowing this was our fate for the next two weeks, I tried to make the best of it and find something she could connect with. I said, “Jo Jo, look at that little girl, she looks just like you”.
She pulled her jacket over her eyes and nose, covering everything but her mouth, and said, “oh my God mom, really?” She was now just a voice a very unhappy voice.
At that moment I knew exactly what I had done. I had signed us up for a trip that did not “fit” my daughter.
I knew this stuff; I had been in the travel industry for years. I know that it is essential to fit a trip to the individual – not visa versa. Some people are not made for group trips and that’s ok. That’s why companies customize trips. What I did know … I had messed up.
After we returned home, I began researching heritage travel for adoptive families. I have learned so much about birth country travel since I took my daughter to China. But the most important thing I learned is that this is likely the most important trip you will ever plan for your family. Make sure you get it right!
With that in mind, I’ve laid out the 10 biggest mistakes to avoid when planning your child’s heritage journey.
MISTAKE#1: Assuming that all birth country trips are the same.
As I said above, all birth country trips are not the same and will NOT necessarily fit your family. There are many companies that offer customized birth country travel. If that’s what your family needs, find one.
When you are ready to plan a Heritage Journey for your family, be sure to work with a
company that specializes in travel for families with adopted children. Also, work with a company that asks a lot of questions! You want to be certain that they understand your family, its dynamics, its issues, needs, and desires; then helps you create a travel experience that fits your family.
MISTAKE #2: Overlooking each traveler’s needs with regard to comfort, food, levels of stress, etc.
Be proactive. If you sign up for a group trip, know the size of the group. Will everyone in your family be comfortable in a group trip, or would it benefit you to customize a trip exclusively for your family? Review the itinerary, every hotel and all the types of transportation available, and make sure everything fits the specific needs of your family.
MISTAKE #3: Not being present with your child and your family on a trip of this magnitude.
Being present when you travel with your child is probably the most important gift you can give him or her. Being present is also fundamental to connecting. If one of your goals for this journey is to deepen family bonds, be sure you are employing every strategy to accomplish just that!
MISTAKE #4: Allowing your child to have too much screen time.
My number one goal when I work with a family to plan a Heritage Journey is to help them build stronger connections. I talk to families about hormone interactions, using adrenaline and adventure activities, etc. There are many strategies we can employ to facilitate creating deeper connections. But one of the biggest ways to undo all that effort is too much screen time.
So make a plan. Decide how much screen time your family needs, set it aside and stick to it.
MISTAKE #5: Not insisting on rich, positive cultural interactions.
Exploring an adopted child’s culture helps a child feel whole, which builds self-esteem, a positive identity and cultivates pride in his or her heritage. A Heritage Journey also provides internationally adopted children the ability to connect with their homeland on a different level, and more importantly, to share it with their adoptive families. Being in his or her birth country allows an adopted child the opportunity to be amongst (potentially for the first time) people they might resemble and with whom they share a rich cultural heritage. Simply put, recognizing that he or she is ‘similar to’ others rather than ‘different from’ others can be powerful in shaping a young identity.
MISTAKE #6: A Heritage Journey can be a very emotional journey. To treat it as just another trip is a big mistake.
Birth country travel can be a very rewarding experience. However, we must understand and embrace the fact that our children are likely to experience a range of emotions while on their Heritage Journey.
As parents planning this important journey, we need to understand our family dynamics; know everyone’s preferences; understand the logistics; but most importantly, we need to consider potential emotional triggers. The more we know, the better we can plan for potential triggers. The more we can plan for emotional triggers, the less impact those triggers will have on our children, our family and consequently, on our once in a lifetime trip!
MISTAKE #7: Not stepping out of your comfort zone.
Taking risks builds self-esteem and promotes a positive identity, which in turn helps build deeper connections. If you are unwilling to step outside your comfort zone you are missing an opportunity for selfgrowth and family transformation.
MISTAKE #8: Not keeping a journal for self and family reflection during and after your trip.
There is much research around the benefits of reflecting on your trip and one of the best ways to do that is by keeping a journal. Journaling has many benefits – bolsters self-confidence, promotes healing, builds emotional intelligence, and so much more.
So grab a journal and carve out time at the end of every day to capture the trip with your family. Take your children with you to select the journal or one for everyone. Pick a fancy pen. Make it a special experience.
MISTAKE #9: Not preparing your child for the differences (food, poverty, clothing, comfort, hygiene, etc.) can make it very scary!
A Heritage Journey often makes adopted children think more about the complexities of their life how they relate to their birth country, their birth family, their adopted home and how they fit it. The goal of heritage travel should be to have our children leave their birth country with a feeling of connectedness; that the people with whom they share their heritage are warm, wonderful, genuine people. When an adopted child receives this message, he or she is given a meaningful piece of their identity and belonging feels good.
The best thing you can do for you child is to talk about poverty; read books about the culture; look at pictures of the people, their houses and their communities. Prepare your child for the differences - it will lessen the possibility of negative impact.
MISTAKE #10: Not choosing a reputable travel company can be a costly mistake.
Unless you are a seasoned traveler, a Heritage Journey is a time to hire professionals. When parents employ a reputable travel company that helps them plan a thoughtful trip, using a reputable ground operator and considers the needs and desires of their family, they will be able to relax and focus on the family; they will be able to remain present, calm and enjoy themselves; and they will be able to have experiences that will inspire a lifetime of positive memories.
Now go explore your child’s birth country!
Bambi Wineland is the mother of two internationally adopted children, a traveler, a Certified Professional Coach and the Founder and CEO of Motherland Travel. Motherland Travel designs Heritage Journeys for families with internationally adopted children. To find out more about Motherland Travel visit www.motherlandtravel.com.