Family vacations can help build generational virtue

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Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of “The Ethical Life” podcast.


“Why can’t we go to Disney World like everyone else?”

This is the response we got from our kids each summer as we told them about our vacation plans. Every year we packed them up into the car and hauled them 1,000 miles across the country to see their grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. And every year they complained that we were depriving them of a “real” vacation.

It did no good to tell them that only a few of their friends went to Walt Disney World. (They were convinced otherwise.) Nor did it do any good to remind them that they always enjoyed spending time with their relatives. (They insisted they did not.) The worst thing to say was that they would appreciate it when they got older. (They disagreed; they were wrong.)

Among the greatest ethical challenges facing parents of every generation is how to spend their two most precious resources: time and money. The annual summer vacation takes up a great deal of both, which makes deciding where to go for a week or two both controversial and momentous. There were several years when my wife and I would lie awake at night worrying about how to pay for it, but we never missed the trip. That was non-negotiable. Our kids were going to spend time with their relatives. How we were going to pay for it was something we just had to figure out.

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US News and World Reports ranks Orlando No. 1 in its listing of the “best family vacations in the USA.” If “best” means most popular, the publication is certainly right. Walt Disney World boasts 58 million visitors each year, making it the most popular tourist destination in the world. But is that what “best” vacation really means?

I have always thought that the best way to evaluate different kinds of experiences is by asking which alternatives contribute most to growth, measured by both breadth and depth. Breadth is achieved through seeking out the new; depth is achieved through engagement with the meaningful.

The problem with many of the most popular tourist destinations is that they allow for neither breadth nor depth. They might be located in faraway places, but the diversions they offer could be found anywhere and with anyone. Neither the places where they are located nor the people one encounters while there are essential to the experience. Their goal is simply to entertain, not to enrich. They are junk food — enjoyable to consume but without nourishment.

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A summer vacation that is genuinely substantial, one that provides both breadth and depth of experience, should result in what the ancient Greeks called magnanimity — literally, having a “great soul.” This comes as one’s soul expands in response to knowledge of the world’s history, traditions and geography at the same time as one’s love of people deepens, through spending time in conversation, sharing stories, hopes, dreams and memories.

I remember the first time this happened to me on a summer vacation decades ago. I was 12 years old, and my parents decided we would take a 1,200-mile road trip to western Montana to visit some old friends. This was a big deal. We had never vacationed more than a few hours from home before, and our 1969 Mercury station wagon had lots of miles and was prone to overheating.

The trip lasted only a couple of weeks, yet the experience was immeasurable. On the journey west, I saw the North Dakota Badlands, the Little Bighorn River and the Rocky Mountains. I saw buffalo, antelope, mountain goats and elk. I spent time talking to my mom and dad, learning things about them they had never shared in the busyness of everyday life. On the long car ride, I shared books with my sister and helped entertain my baby brother.

“Everything good,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is on the highway.”

When we arrived at our destination near Kalispell, Montana, we reunited with Duane and Arlene’s and their five kids. We kids had grown up together but hadn’t seen one another since their family moved west two years earlier. They took us camping near a high mountain lake, and we sat by the fire late into the evening. I sat there listening to the stories, watching the smoke curl up through the pines, obscuring the stars that seemed so close, just out of reach beyond the tree tops. I wondered at the friendship that persisted over the years and across so many miles, how it could be rekindled with just a few words and then burn brightly once again.

We hear a great deal these days about the importance of building generational wealth. But it is a myth. Wealth rarely gets passed down further than the second generation. After the third generation, 90 percent of the wealth acquired has been lost. What does get passed down are character traits embodied in communities of people who care for one another.

It seems to me we should care much more about generational virtue. We do that by tending to the souls of our children, ensuring that they have experiences that nurture love in their lives, so that they in turn come to care deeply for the world and the people in it.

The other day I talked to one of my sons on the phone. I asked about his summer plans, and he said that he and his new wife are planning a trip to Colorado to see his aunt, uncle and cousins. That’s a great way to start a life’s journey together.

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