The greatest growth opportunities for our children are not always under the watchful eye of mom and dad.
When my daughter was 12, she came across a brochure for a foreign exchange program in France for children as young as 9. She glanced at it, turned to me, and said, “I want to do this!” I was horrified. Send my daughter 4,000 miles away to live with complete strangers? Um, no.
A little over a year later, I found myself waving good-bye at the airport terminal. Her exchange adventures continued from there, and today she is a self-confident, problem-solving, open-minded 17-year-old who speaks French, German, and Spanish in addition to her native English. She also counts numerous families in multiple countries as adopted parents and siblings.
Along the way, my husband and I gained great friends and grew our family with Spanish, French, and German children, too; these experiences were life-changing for my children and most of it happened a long way from home.
“What have you done with my child? We just picked her up at the airport. Oh my gosh, she is SO happy and confident and fearless!” -Lisa M.
There’s no place like home
It's definitely a leap – these days we’re fairly well programmed to believe that the only safe option for children is to remain firmly in the nest until they are 18, other than a week or two at camp, and then be ceremonially delivered to a college dorm room. The problem with this mindset is that along the way we’re also convincing our children that they can’t do without us. "When we act as if our kids' safety is always in question, at some point they can begin to believe it themselves, and that they are unsafe without us," says Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Stanford University Dean of Freshmen and author of How to Raise an Adult. Independence is a gift we give to our children when we allow them opportunities to take on challenges without mom or dad.
“When your children have established their sense of security, you must then encourage them to explore the world beyond the safety net that you provide. This ‘push out of the nest’ allows your children to test their own capabilities in the ‘real world’ and to find a sense of competence, security, and independence within themselves.” Jim Taylor, Ph.D. ‘Raise Independent Children’
Family and friends won't always understand. Those of us who've dared to let our children go so far from home have heard it all, from “Don't you love your son/daughter?” to “I could never do that!” (meaning, and neither should you). The truth is that it was difficult, but once I got over my fear, I realized that this amazing chance to explore, connect, and fill her young mind to the brim with new ideas and new experiences was indeed a gift — so I let go of her gladly (if tearfully).
Children need to experience the world firsthand in order to learn and grow. More and more, educators and parents realize that the important skills our children need to succeed in a rapidly changing world won’t be taught in old-fashioned ways. Innovative education places greater value in exploration instead of coming up with 'the right answer,’ and the key to true exploration is freedom.
“The gap between the skills people learn and the skills people need is becoming more obvious, as traditional learning falls short of equipping students with the knowledge they need to thrive.” World Economic Forum report New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning Through Technology.
Beyond core skills, key components to success today include adaptability, social and cultural awareness, communication, and curiosity. Give your 21st-century learner the chance to practice these skills in the real world — not only in a classroom — and they’ll be better equipped to navigate a rapidly changing world.
Foreign Languages for the Win
Learning a second language has been shown time and again to offer significant, life-long benefits - from better standardized test scores to broader career options to staving off Alzheimer’s disease. The classroom, though, is not the best place to learn a foreign language - as those of us who took high school French or Spanish (and remember very little of it) can attest. Send your child far from home, however, and they are likely to have the golden opportunity to be surrounded by a new language and the enviable chance to learn it the same way they learned their first language: by being immersed in the context- and language-rich environment of family life.
“During the first days of my exchange, beginning to understand and speak German was alternately frustrating and hilarious. Eventually, speaking German became surprisingly ‘normal’ – I didn’t have to translate words in my mind before speaking, or when listening to someone speaking German.” -Gemma M., 15
When I was willing to face my fears and push past the anxiety that so many 21st-century parents are encouraged to feel, not only did my daughter benefit, but her positive experience radiated out to the rest of the family and to other adventurous children and their families around the world. It was the happiest of adventures for my girl, and one of my proudest moments as a parent. So search out opportunities for your children to be far, far away from you and see if they don’t come back to you with a new, broader perspective, well-earned self confidence, and maybe even a second language superpower.