I mused aloud to my husband as we picked our way down the path, ankle deep in mud, on the back side of the soccer pitch above the town of Sumpango, Guatemala.
Once a year this sleepy little Mayan pueblo explodes as thousands of visitors pour in to participate in the Feria de Barriletes Gigantes, which is celebrated by flying some of the biggest kites in the world, in honor of Dia de las Muertas. I don’t know how many people attend. Thousands. Thousands upon thousands. The entire soccer pitch is filled, shoulder to shoulder, with enthusiastic watchers, faces tipped skyward. The streets in the village below are a moving sea of people. The hillsides are peppered with picnic blankets and families relaxing, flying their kites.
There are people everywhere. I have no idea where my children are.
The Man chuckled, “Probably a few.”
The young people were off on their own adventures.
It was an odd thing to see the article I wrote a couple of years ago, when we were coasting down the Mekong, in Laos, with our kids, resurface recently: the one about letting teens travel.
I still believe, passionately, that kids should be given as much freedom as they can responsibly manage, and I believe wholeheartedly in encouraging and allowing teens to take test flights from the nest, travel on their own, and have small adventures as a way of building confidence and laying the foundation for greater expeditions into the real world later.
I gave more than a few middle-aged people a heart attack the summer that I was walking across Spain on the Camino de Santiago. In the natural progress of a long afternoon in a cafe with cold beers we’d trade stories. I’d mention that I have four kids, and that we travel for a living.
Someone would ask where they were and incredulity would ensue:
“Well, the boys (13 and 16) are both in the midwest in the USA. They’ve got jobs – one at a pizza restaurant, and the other as an intern on a farm… no, they’re not together, they’re in different towns.
My daughter (17) is backpacking for 6 weeks with her boyfriend… I think they’re in Switzerland now, maybe Italy… I don’t really know, actually. I haven’t heard from her in a few days… Yes, with her boyfriend… he’s a good kid.
My husband and the 12 year old are in Canada in an off the grid cabin…. mmmhm, that’s right, we’re spread between four countries and two continents right now…. worried?
Why would I be worried? They’re all fine.”
“Great,” you say, “Good for your kids. Nice that they’re off having adventures. I hope they don’t die. But really, who cares?”
Indeed. No one cares, and no one should care. My kids aren’t special. They aren’t gifted. They might be considered, by some, to be lucky to have had the experiences they’ve had and the opportunities to learn and grow in these ways, but really, they aren’t lucky either.
So What’s the Point?
The point is, that there are some commonalities that I’ve noticed among young people who are encouraged to flap their wings as early as they possibly can. There is something about the experience of having to take responsibility for yourself in the real world, struggle through hard things, and get way outside your comfort zone that causes an otherwise ordinary teen to do extraordinary things.
So, what qualities do these kids share?
They Are Confident
They Have Perspective
They Are Dreamers… And Doers
They Become Socially Responsible
But what does happen, as a result of gaining perspective on the real world, is a sincere desire for a young person to take his place in the community as part of the solution instead of part of the problem. They’ll work to raise money for school books, or shoes for orphans. They’ll spend three hours a day volunteering to feed hungry kids, nursing mothers, and widows through a local NGO that needs more hands and willing hearts.
Just this month I watched a group of 8 teenage girls on their first big international trip come face to face with the real world in Guatemala. Rocked by the needs they discovered, they tightened their collective belts, pooled their money, came in under budget on their trip and saved enough to fully fund a year of private school for a girl in the village who needed it. That’s becoming socially responsible.
And, they’ll do it without you having to mention it, because it’s the right thing to do, and they know it.
Rebellion is Virtually Unknown
Instead of meeting a brick wall of impossibility and restraint, the world becomes a glorious garden of possibility, and they are free to cultivate in any corner and in any way that inspires them. Of course the “catch” is that there is no free lunch, they can do “anything they want” so long as they can find a way to fund it and make it work within the realities of family life. That’s the “community” part.
It’s still hard for me sometimes, even with the hard evidence in front of me, to press 20Q into my half-put-together 12 year old’s hand and throw him into a sea of humanity knowing that his grasp of the language barely holds water, with only two instructions:
- Don’t let one of those 8 meter kites made of giant bamboo fall on your head, and
- We’re meeting by the elote stand over there in six hours, don’t be late.
I’m not immune to hyperventilating when I haven’t heard from a kid who is not on the same continent as I am in four days. I’m not above using the “Find a friend” app to stalk her partying backside down to a particular street corner in Amsterdam and see that her little blinky blue dot is happily moving toward the canals. All is well.
I beat the drum of the 7 P’s (Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance) and pretty much tattoo that mantra on their forearms when they turn 13 and start to spin into a bigger orbit. Bases must be covered, contingency plans in place, back up funding at the ready, health and safety issues addressed, appropriate education procured, technology used to our benefit, and all of it approved by the parental units.
But then… but then… with a great big deep breath and a huge smile so that they don’t see me sweat, they’ve got to be catapulted out of the nest, because the last thing I want is for them to grow up “normal.”
Read more about traveling as a family and the benefits of making travel a priority for your children:
- Long-Term Travel as Education
- Why It’s Not Selfish for Parents to Travel with Young Children
- Giving Teens the Freedom to Travel
- Why Raise an Indie Traveler
- Why You Should Forgo the American Dream and Let Travel Transform Your Life
- Getting Outside the Box: One Family’s Journey to Full Time Family Travel
- 21 Reasons to Travel Around the World with Kids…From Those Who Have Done It