Voyages of self discovery

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” — Marcel Proust

One of our neighbors had a son who turned 16. We knew that not because we were close to the family, but because their son was the talk of the neighborhood.

It seems that he had passed his driver’s license test on the first day of his 16th year, and several hours later, he had taken out the neon sign for the local grocery store as he failed to negotiate the right turn into its parking lot while going twice the speed limit.

Apparently, the young fellow was a little bit unaccustomed to his new freedom.

It’s a story told often enough: Bright kids who go off to college only to drop out or flunk out. Not studying. Too much partying. A lack of internal self-discipline. It happens.

Let me suggest some increasing doses of travel as a learning tool for self-reliance, confidence building and all-around maturing. The act of traveling alone — or without one’s parents at any rate — has many lessons to offer.

My parents believed in independence and self-confidence as values, that they put me alone on city buses at age 5. The route to grandma’s house had been traveled with the parents before, so it wasn’t their first time on the bus. Grandma would be waiting at the other end of the 15-minute bus-ride, and the bus driver was alerted to make sure the child got off at the right spot. And with grandma’s smile to welcome and congratulate me on being such a big boy, I started to learn that I could do things on my own.

Fast forward several years. When the kids in our family turned 8, it was a family tradition that we would get our first ride on a railroad train. Grandpa worked for the Milwaukee Road, and he bought tickets for himself and each of us kids upon turning 8. We each boarded the big train in Tacoma and traveled with Grandpa to Seattle, where all the rest of the Mortons would be waiting at the King Street Station, having driven up, to spend the afternoon discovering Seattle and eating a dinner at the most popular restaurant in the Northwest in the early 1950s — Ivar’s Acres of Clams.

It was fun going to school the next day, the first kid in the class who had actually been on a train trip.

A few years later, our tennis club sponsored me and a group of four other junior tennis players to represent our club at the Yakima Juniors Tennis Tournament. It was my first tournament away from home. I was 12 and the others were between 13 and 18. There was no chaperone, so the older kids were to keep an eye on the younger of us. As the train pulled into Yakima, we were greeted by our host families and each whisked away to our separate host homes for the length of time we would be in the tournament.

The arrangement was that the host family provided us with a bed, and breakfast every morning. The host tennis club provided lunch for all the tennis players, and then we were on our own for dinner. One of my Tacoma tennis pals took me under his wing, since I didn’t yet know my way around Yakima, and we caught a bus to downtown to eat dinner at the old hotel on Main Street. It was the first dinner I ever paid for. I remember it cost almost $2!

For the next three years, my parents repeated the scene — one week to Portland, another to Spokane, another to Vancouver. Soon I was in the groove, very comfortable sleeping in beds other than my own, in homes of people who would share their generosity, and always delighted to see my parents’ smiling faces as I stepped off the train back home at the Tacoma station.

What I remember most about those days was the feeling of pride, confidence and even power as I would talk to my schoolmates about what I saw with my own eyes in Stanley Park, or Spokane Falls, or how golden and treeless the hills surrounding Yakima were. And my buddies were amazed that I went to those places on my own.

In giving me these experiences, my parents also gave me confidence and responsibility. Part of their teaching was that I was to buy a box of candy and place it on my made bed on the last morning that I was to stay at my hosts’ home. And when I returned home, before I went to bed on my first night back, I hand-wrote a thank-you letter to my host family, in which I was to comment on or ask a question about each of the family members.

It was always fun to see (and many times be hosted by) those same host families as I returned to play in those Yakima, Spokane, Portland and Vancouver tennis tournaments in the following years.

Can a parent teach self-confidence and independence? I think so, and I think travel is a great vehicle toward those goals. Good parents engineer experiences that have almost no chance of failure or danger by preparing kids for adventures and outlining back-up plans. But at some point, parents have to let go, say “goodbye” and let their kids experience a little on their own.

In this 21st century world, it is a little scarier all the time, with guns and drugs and pedophiles. Still, talking with your kids, then giving them a chance to use their good sense to negotiate on their own is a technique I wish more parents employed.

Today’s world offers unlimited travel experiences for children, with summer camps as a great beginning. There are bike trips with professional organizations in the San Juans, Scotland or Greece. There are hiking trips into the Olympics, around Mt. Rainier on the Wonderland Trail or around Europe’s tallest mountain on the Tour de Mt. Blanc. There are free international exchange opportunities through Rotary. Or, how about a high school student spending six weeks next summer studying at Cambridge, or learning a foreign language in a three-week immersion program in Cuernavaca, Seville or Perugia? Another new way to help your children expand their horizons is to encourage them to do a project with their church in a foreign place. Lately some of the Mercer Island congregations have been building homes in poor areas of Latin America, a wonderful expression of love and sharing.

Yet another avenue for building character in kids are the new generation of “Outward Bound”-inspired programs that have been designed for younger people, between the ages of 13 and 18. Four weeks in the Colorado Rockies, running rivers, climbing mountains, riding mountain bikes and camping out. Or going on science-focused adventures.

While the learning may be about sports or science or languages, the lesson of a lifetime is simply the experience of being away from mom and dad and other family, and learning that you can get along just fine on your own.

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