I grew up in Manhattan during the most crime-ridden years in New York City. Despite the dangers, my parents – like the parents of all my friends – allowed us quite a bit of freedom. At six I regularly roller skated and rode my bike around the block by myself. By eight I took public transportation to school alone, walking to the bus stop, waiting for the bus, and crossing two big avenues by foot in the process. At 12 I took the often dangerous, graffiti-covered, pee-smelling subways solo.
I no longer live in New York City, but plenty of friends with whom I grew up still do, and they do not let their children do these things, even though they all did them.
At summer camp, I regularly took out a small sailboat unsupervised. I sometimes got caught in big storms and intense winds. I remember one storm in which I just couldn’t keep the boat upright. No sooner would I right the boat than the winds and rain would bring it down. It felt more like a Weeble than a sailboat. This was probably a good thing, as the mast might have been more likely to have been hit by the lightning that began striking nearby before I could get back to shore.
Can you imagine a camp allowing such a thing today?
And then there were car rides with no seat belts, no car seats for babies and toddlers, kids in the back of station wagons. My son would probably be dead were it not for the car seat that protected him when I spun out on black ice and nosedived over a 12-foot embankment, crashing vertically, when he was three years old.
So all things considered our protectiveness is a good thing.
But we risk something else if we extend our protectiveness too far. When we prod our teens to follow what seem to us like secure paths toward good colleges and what we think of as respectable careers – by doing what they’re told in school, taking AP courses and SAT prep classes, and padding their college applications with extracurriculars and community service – we may inadvertently be steering them away from following their passions, their creativity, and the possibilities for their calling as solutionaries. We may even unwittingly cause them to view community service as another “t” to cross, rather than as an expression of generosity that feeds their soul and brings them joy, which is what helping others ought to be.
A few years ago, I ran into a high school boy I knew and asked what he was going to be doing that summer. He rattled off a list of things and admitted they were all part of his plan to make his college application look good. It worked. He’s at an Ivy League college now, though last I heard he wasn’t all that happy. He’s such a bright young man; one of the better critical thinkers I’ve met. He has so much to offer. The world needs him. But will he find a path toward meaningful contribution that brings purpose and joy to his life? That’s yet to be seen; but I think the path toward purpose, meaning and the great joy that ensues from finding our calling can be elusive when we’re making choices based on “playing it safe.”
There are times when risk is important and times when protecting ourselves can lead to dimming the passion and compassion that the world needs from us. So take the risk to find your true path and become a solutionary.
You and the world will both benefit.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and free resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given several acclaimed TEDx talks, including “The World Becomes What You Teach” and “Solutionaries” and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
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