I’ve never been a helicopter parent. So I handle my kids’ travels in much the same way — stepping back and conscientiously trusting my children’s capability, maturity, and common sense to be able to fend for themselves on the road. And in the end, go figure. They step up and show themselves to be fearless, capable, mature, and full-of-common-sense travelers who can more than take care of themselves on the road.
The kids and I live in Argentina while their dad lives in Michigan. Since they were ages 5, 7, and 9, when my kids go back for visits, they get dropped off at the airport and they make the flight to the US by themselves. The airline is ultimately responsible for them, but in the 14 hours of flight time and all layovers, they have to entertain themselves and keep it together. I could fly back with them, but I choose not to for many reasons — the most important for me is that by getting them used to traveling solo, I feel that I am creating competent travelers who learn over time to relax and trust themselves when on the road.
When we are visiting friends in Buenos Aires, if my 14-year-old wants to go to the cinema across town and I don’t feel like it, I tell her to go. When she says she does not know how to get there, I show her how to use maps to figure out what subway stations she needs to pass through, or what bus, and send her on her way. I will always ship her with enough cash so that in an emergency she could hail any cab, get in, and have it bring her directly back to home base, but she has never had any issues that she couldn’t figure out alone. I love knowing that in any major city she lands in, she does not have to feel overwhelmed — she knows that all it takes to get around is a little planning and paying attention. It’s not exactly rocket science.
When my 16-year-old wants to head to Bariloche (which is a two-hour bus ride from where we live and a lot more busy and exciting for a teenager than in the sticks where we are), she is allowed to hop on a bus and go, provided two things. She needs to stay in contact with me by every-once-in-a-while phone messages, and she needs to travel at all times with the contact info of a good family friend who lives in that city.
While my family supports me, I do get a lot of crap from other parents for how ‘irresponsible’ this comes across. But I see it this way: my job as a mother is to raise my kids to be thoughtful, conscientious, and capable adults. If they are never tested as a child in a safe environment, if they’ve never been given positive examples and then have been trusted to put those lessons into place on their own, why should I expect them to turn 18 and magically be a functioning adult overnight? I’ve seen so many adults in travel situations who can’t for the life of them figure out how to catch a public bus, or who get freaked out having to switch terminals in a large airport. I’ve seen adult tourists who wear flashy jewellery and expensive cameras around their neck into shady-as-hell parts of Rio and then genuinely wonder why they get robbed. I see adults who want to travel to Japan, but can’t get past the fact that they would not understand the language and then use that as an excuse to never go.
A parenting goal of mine is to help my kids feel at home anywhere in the world. I don’t want fear of the unknown to stop them from taking or creating any travel opportunity, whether that means going to university in a far-away land or taking a job they always wanted (but the position happened to come up in Romania). I want them to view hopping on a plane and exploring any new city as something fairly straightforward and simple. I want to help them become profoundly confident in themselves. For me, what would be much more ‘irresponsible’ as a parent than letting my kids travel solo within a relatively safe, managed context is if I were to make every decision for them, demonstrating without words that I don’t trust them to be able to make good decisions for themselves, and then one day send them out on their own into the world and expect things to go well.
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