I will never forget the exhilaration I felt when, at age twenty, I stepped into a chaotic Roman intersection, extended one arm in my best imitation of a Heisman pose, and – shouting over my shoulder at my thoroughly dismayed family – explained, “You have to establish yourself in the crosswalk”.
Of course, I knew that traffic would stop, and my exhilaration was not the adrenaline rush of a high-stakes game of pedestrian Russian roulette. Instead, this moment – which occurred while my family was visiting me towards the end of my semester abroad in Italy – was exciting precisely because I knew what would happen. The Fiats would stop, my family would cross. And my certainty was significant.
For the very first time in my life-long relationship with my parents, I had acted as the resident expert.
Ralph Gardner Jr. recently wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal in which he discusses, in relation to his own daughter’s study abroad experience, how rewarding it can be as a parent to let your children call the shots. As a happily childless twenty-something, I cannot speak to that. However, I have been on the other side, most notably in that Italian crosswalk, and I can absolutely attest to the fact that there is something uniquely fulfilling, empowering even, about being able to teach something to those people who taught you everything.
During that ten day Tour d’Italia, I had the opportunity to truly demonstrate to my parents that their child was able to function in the world. I made our meal reservations, navigated our train travel, and guided us through the convoluted streets of Italian cities. Of course, I had not earned total trust – when the van we rented broke down, my father and I walked into a gas station where he blurted “¿habla usted español?” before I had a chance to explain our issue in my near-fluent Italian. However, all in all, this trip enabled me to take huge strides as a person and as a son, and the agency I was given positively impacted my relationship with my family in a way that I continue to build upon today.
And, as a seasoned camp counselor, I have witnessed firsthand the positive impact of empowering children. The essence of independence that camp provides – in the form of elective activities that allow children to pursue their own interests, or the sense of ownership over social interactions that defines a summer away from home – is instrumental to the development of confidence and competence that occurs in so many children at so many camps across the country. Even in an incredibly structured environment, the idea of empowerment and personal agency has an incredible, tangible effect on personal development.
Similarly, my experience traveling to Europe with a teen program enabled me to take crucial steps towards independence, and during that trip I built upon the foundation I had laid during my own summers at camp. Suddenly I was taking busses, haggling in markets, and making decisions regarding how to spend my free time in a totally foreign environment – small steps to be sure, but crucial ones in my personal journey towards self-sufficient adulthood.
And so, to the parents of the world, I would encourage you to let your children take charge now and again. Give them small steps to take, to accomplish things independently. If your child is forced to confront obstacles without your complete assistance at each step, they will be empowered to do even more on their own. You may be surprised to find that the confidence and resourcefulness you hoped to instill in your children has transformed them into confident and resourceful teens and adults. And for the sons and daughters, those individuals passively watching as your family struggles to cross the street in a foreign land, your time will absolutely come. You just need to establish yourself in the crosswalk.