Stepping Outside this Insular Nation

We are outside security. Through thick glass, we watch our son hoist his backpack into the X-ray machine and wait to be summoned by the TSA agent through the metal detector. He looks young for his 18 years. He could pass for 14 years. In the next 23 hours, he will fly to Chicago and on to Tokyo’s Narita Airport and will change planes there and fly to Bankgkok. He will land there at 8:15 PM and hopefully find his way to a cheap hotel.

Two years later, we said a similar goodbye to to our 14-year-old daughter when she left with her junior high teacher to beta-test a possible student trip up the Rio Negre and the Amazon in Manaos, Brazil, where a few months earlier, UVM Professor James Petersen was murdered for his wallet. Two years later, she left for Uruguay 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 goodbye? Why not circle the wagons and live on happily in a “gated” family? How is it that a large number of our elected leaders, as was reported several years ago, have no passports? We have become a notoriously cloistered and self-referential country. We have largely given up teaching our children geography, civics, and foreign languages. Many children of all classes in Europe, Asia, and Africa are fluent in two or three languages, while our own children often struggle with expression in their own.

In nature, children are abandoned to their fate to learn to survive. We have grown soft, often needing our children and their dependency well beyond their need for us. The “rebellious teenage 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 ageing 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, and to let them nurture their own fears and not to lug ours around with them.

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.

If we are to continue 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 concocted by people in power who have no experiential knowledge of the people, systems, and cultures in which they are inclined to muddle. Furthermore, they are apparently uwilling to listen to experienced diplomats whose job it is to go where they have not gone, and experience people they do not know.

Letting our children move out through the concentric circles that radiate outward from family, through neighborhood, community, state, national, a year abroad and postgraduate, pre-employment pilgrimages of self-discovery are all a 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.