An Insular Nation

We are outside security. Through thick glass, we watch our son hoist his backpack onto the x-ray machine and wait to be summoned by a uniformed TSA agent through the metal detector. He looks young for his eighteen years. He could pass for 14 years. In the next 23 hours, he will fly through Chicago to Tokyo’s Narita airport and will change planes there and fly on to Bangkok. He will land there at 8:15 PM their time and hopefully find his way to a cheap hotel.

Two years ago, we said a similar goodbye to our 14-year old daughter when she left with her teacher to beta test a possible high school student trip up the Rio Negre in Brazil. The trip began at the confluence of the Rio Negre and the Amazon Rivers in Manaos where UVM professor Jim Petersen was murdered this year. She is 16 now and leaves for Uruguay in January to live with a local family and anneal her three years of Spanish study into conversational fluency.

Why all this pain of letting go and waving good bye? Why not circle the wagons and live on happily in a “gated” family. How is it that half our elected leaders in Congress have no passports as was widely reported several years ago? We are a notoriously cloistered and introverted country. We have largely given up teaching our children geography and foreign languages. Many children of all classes in Europe and Asia are fluent in 2 or 3 languages, while our own children often struggle with expression in their own.

We have gotten two terse and happy emails from Thailand. He is making his way there and is acquiring his own stories after listening to ours for so many years. This is the hardest gift we give our children, the gift of trust and risk taking. In nature, children are abandoned to their fate and in being abandoned learn to survive. We have grown soft, often needing our children beyond their need for us. The “rebellious teen age years” may be more about our children doing for themselves what we are unable to do for them, letting them step out into the larger world and discover it for themselves. In “Like Water for Chocolate,” the aged duenna says to her young charge that “The life led in fear is the life half-lived.” We do well to teach our children about risk, but to let them develop their own fears and not lug ours around with them.

We have often thought that every high school degree should include a semester abroad. The risk- averse might choose Canada or England, the risk-seeking might go to Africa or China for their 4-month home stay. Visiting a foreign country when you are young, as veterans of AFS (AFS.org ) know only too well changes one and brings a world view to a young person that enriches their development. Overseas study is not only for the well- heeled, AFS and other programs enable children of all means to experience study abroad.

If we are to continue to as a world leader, our children must know and experience the world they are to help lead. Our bizarre political and military misadventures in the world are often dreamt up by people in power who have no experiential knowledge of the people, systems and cultures in which they are inspired to meddle. Furthermore, they are apparently unwilling to listen to the experienced diplomatic network whose job it is to go where they have not gone and know what they do not know.Letting our children move out through the concentric circles that radiate outward from family, through neighborhood, community, all-state events, national youth jamborees, a year abroad, and post-graduate, pre-employment pilgrimages of self-discovery are all part of growing up and becoming citizens of the world in which we live.

Having said all this, we look forward to being again outside the glass and seeing that familiar, but older and wiser face coming towards us with a wave and a smile.

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