Agency begins at home.

This past summer, we took a family holiday to Sri Lanka. Beautiful country with such a range of landscapes, travel options and things to do – be it beaches, heritage, culture, and the most amzing food.

I am usually the sort of person who prefers to have everything mapped, planned, budgeted and organised, but we decided this holiday to not over plan. We had a few things on our list of “Must Dos” and did not want to put ourselves in the position of wanting or needing a couple more days in one spot, to have the options taken away because of bookings and pre-booked tickets.

Our boys are now also of the age (11 & 15) that we decided we could travel in ‘semi-backpacker’ style – travelling on a range of local buses, trains, tuk tuks and cars and accommodation ranging from backpacker hostel types to homestays to small hotels.

We left Vietnam with one bag between all 4 of us deciding all we needed were t-shirts, shorts and swimmers and an agreed budget of no more than USD65 for all four of us for each night.

In this modern world, the internet is a wonderful tool when travelling – data available, maps, apps and google allowing us as tourists to always be connected and allowing us choice in research. During the trip we did reminisce about the days of Lonely Planet and Fodors and chatting to travellers in hostels and bars and never really knowing where you were going until you arrived.

We landed in Colombo, ticked off money, Sim cards and taxis and found our way to our Air BnB – all researched and organised online.

The next day, thanks to the Sri Lankan app of ‘Pick Me’, google maps plus travel advisor we were able to navigate our way through the sights of Colombo. During the day we also found our way to the train station, got ourselves tickets for the next day and then headed to the ‘green’ to watch the cricket players and kite flyers at sunset.

A wonderful dinner treat at the Gallery through a friend’s Facebook recommendation.

All of this researched online navigating our ways through apps and online tools.

The next morning, a Pick Me car to the train station and we sat back to enjoy our train ride to Kandy.

Having time to sit back, chat, play cards and read as we trundled through the tea plantations, I sat back to read a couple of the books that have been sitting on my shelf. ‘Empower’ by John Spencer was one of them. I found myself nodding along as I read, making notes and highlighting some points in preparation  for our orientation of our new teachers and how we, as a school, could extend our beliefs to our new members of the community.


Tea Plantations everywhere

With this headspace and hat on…I sat back, watched the tea plantations go by and started thinking….


John Spencer ‘Empower”  (@spencerideas)

Our boys were very capable young people, educated, thinkers and problem solvers and had access to the same tools and research we had. They were as able to research and make decisions as we were, so why were we, the adults, making all the holiday decisions for them?

Agreed they were tourists as were we, but they were being pulled along and so, far being very tolerant of the ‘pull’ but were not really being involved in the decisions or choices being made. They were passengers in their own holiday and we were not providing any opportunity for them to either navigate or drive. 

New city – new mindset


With this niggling thought we arrived in Kandy.

Our first task was to buy tickets for our next train journey, and I decided to start putting my thoughts into action. I asked my eldest to head to information to find out where, when and how to buy tickets for the next day whilst I handed my phone to my youngest and asked him to book the ‘Pick Me’ driver to our Air BnB. Both did as well as we could have. Driver booked. Information received and plans in place.

We checked into the Air BnB, and as we showered and got sorted, I threw my phone to the boys said I had ‘tagged’ a couple of sites and restaurants and asked them to come up with a plan and book a driver.

Their research led them to confirming we didn’t need a driver, we could walk, and that as well as the temple of the tooth at sunset, there was also a cultural dance and fire walking show – and they’d chosen a restaurant to suit all our needs within walking distance.

I wasn’t so convinced about the dance show as they can be a tourist trap, so I suggested they ask our host for information – they came back with free tickets, and suggestions to take sarongs for the temple as shorts were not allowed.  

All this whilst, I showered, changed, had a coffee and got luggage sorted.

Travelling through Asia means Google maps are not always your friend, but as this was not our  plan, but rather the boys plan, they led the way confidently and stopped to check with locals on where we were going.  As we arrived at the temple and purchased tickets, they also reminded the ticket master of the ‘student’ discount and presented their student cards – saving us about USD 100 total. 

We had a wonderful evening finished off with dinner and a few cold beverages.  During dinner – we talked about train plans. We had some option. If we managed to get reserved seating then all was well – but without reserved seating the reality was potentially standing for 7 hours. None of us had any  control over whether tickets were available or not, but our eldest thought if he and Dad went early enough , the man would remember him.

So the next morning at 6.30am, they headed to buy tickets. The Pick Me app didn’t give any success so they decided to Tuk Tuk it. We had already had conversations about ‘current rate’ so the eldest knew his budget and haggled well.  The reward was success – 4 seats on the 7 hour train journey – and time for local breakfast at the station.

My youngest and I joined them having had time to sleep in, have a balcony breakfast. This ‘handing it over’ was going well so far!


Kandy to Ella

The train journey from Kandy to Ella is famous – an incredible train trip up through the mountains, passed tea plantations and countryside.

We started chatting to some retired locals, and of course being from NZ, the conversation turned to cricket. We were given some of their fruit from their garden at home and talked of our plans and got some great tips.

We also chatted to fellow tourists who also had lots of information and tips. All the whilst including the boys, modeling for them and ensuring they were part of the conversations and questions.

Half way through the journey, I mentioned I had not yet booked accommodation for Ella. I had bookmarked a few on Air BnB and but that was as far as I had got.  I threw the phone (yes – it was getting thrown around a bit!) to the boys, reminded them of the budget and asked them to book. They found a great family room, below budget, with breakfast and wifi and all was done.  I also asked them to look for places for dinner – which they did.

As we walked to our hotel from the train station they recognised some of the restaurant names and stopped to check out menus, and the place itself. Some were quickly crossed off the list as “not as advertised’ and some new ones added.  

When we got to our hostel – the boys checked us in, as they had done the booking with us only providing our passports. They confirmed wifi and breakfast and also if there were any tourist information sites.

We were told – by the boys – that if we wanted to beat the sunset , we had 10 minutes to get ready as the walk was an hour and we could also do the 9-arch bridge on the way.


Now – if it had been the adults saying all this – the groans, and complaints and noise we would have got! But it was coming from the boys, their plans…… (I must admit I wasn’t really sure of a hike – but …… couldn’t look back now!)

We found our way, got lost, asked for directions – and when I say ‘we’ I mean the boys. We made it to the top for sunset, took in the awe of this incredible country and headed back to town for dinner.

The boys had decided on a perfect place – cold beers and ginger beers, burgers and local curries and the world cup soccer on. When we asked how they found this place, they had worked out it was the sister place to the one in Kandy the night before and they’d seen it advertised last night.

So…..that was it – one day in.  An 11 year old and 15 year old had booked transport,train tickets, accomodation, made plans and found us a place for dinner.

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Finding their way in an authentic setting.

The adults had sat back and followed their lead, providing some help if asked for.

We made plans together for the next days hike, and I volunteered to organise snacks and liquids whilst they researched the route. The next day the route was a little tricky along railway lines, through tea plantations and villages, but the boys had found a blog with detailed directions and thus had screenshot what we needed – just in case data was not available. ( 21st Century Learners!)

A gruelling hike ( for me!) and one where I realised this was the holiday that the students had become the masters – in more ways than one!

So from that point on we handed the boys the decision making – there were a few criterias such as budget, the fact we had a flight to catch home at some stage and also some ‘musts that we wanted to do as a family ranging from heritage, culture, surfing and food.’’

Were there a couple of hiccups along the way? Sure but no more than there would have been if the adults had been in charge, and really no deal breakers.

Were they more efficient on the apps and planning – absolutely.

Did they build skills and confidence as they interacted with the locals, problem solved and researched. Absolutely.

Were we included in the decision making – of course, but we didn’t lead it. It was our holiday too, so we were included and informed and had a say all the way – which is I think more than we had given them at the beginning of the holiday and we had a very stress free holiday – and gelled as a family having conversations, making plans, considering each others’ points of view and being together.

So, although very much an advocate of agency in education and schools…I feel as a parent I had not transferred this belief am now a believer that agency needs to begin at home.

As parents of toddlers, we do this so well as they learn to walk, to feed themselves, to dress themselves, to brush their teeth and to take responsibility of their belonging I wonder when this stops?

Why do we as parents stop promoting and pushing this growth of independence, this freedom to learn and to make mistakes?

As parents, I believe that we need to be providing our children with time, space and opportunity to exercise and have choice, voice and ownership of their lives.  They are capable young people, they are smart, informed and amazing problem solvers and we should be taking advantage of this skill set. We owe it to our children. They deserve it. 

Thank you to John Spencer (@spencerideas) for provoking my thinking ( again!) and helping us make this a family time and holiday to remember.


Other resources for parents :

Edna Sackson’s (@whatedsaid ) “Top 10 series” :

The case for the self-driven child : The case for the Self-driven child   (Thank you @makingoodhumans )

Anyone else have great resources for parents to support agency at home?


2 thoughts on “Agency begins at home.

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