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Want Your Kids to Learn? Send Them Away

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I spoke to a corporate lawyer recently who told me his 17 year-old son was learning Italian but was too shy to use it on a family trip to Italy.

"Well, he can do a year of student exchange," I said. "He'll be forced to learn it properly."

"Oh no," said the lawyer. "I'd miss him too much."

I was quietly shocked. If a corporate lawyer in New York would discourage his son from experiencing the world, what encouragement can the average American teen hope for?

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As the school year closes and teens look forward to college, there are greater adventures beyond campus boundaries.

New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell was asked this month what one thing he would change about America. "I would send every high school kid overseas for a year," he said.

It doesn't sound like much. But this action would change the mindset of an entire generation. Living in a culture with different values expands a young person's perspective in ways they'll find uncomfortable and amazing.

They'll be forced to develop resilience and tolerance, they'll be faced with the sharp realization that everything is relative, and come home more well-rounded.

In my fourth decade, my year of exchange in Denmark remains the hardest thing I've done. Moving to the U.S. was a cakewalk by comparison. At 18, I had lived in Singapore and Africa with family, but doing it alone was something else.

I felt slapped in the face by Scandinavia's liberalism and was forced to redefine myself by more than my grades. The culture placed a high value on empathy for others, and placed community before the individual. It was sufficiently different from Australia to be uncomfortable and makes the self-obsessed individualism of New York look cringe-worthy.

Scandinavia gives teens more responsibility and asks them to use it appropriately. Drinking, sex and late nights are a normal part of life.

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"What are the house rules?" I asked my host mother in the first week. "This is your home. You must feel free to bring home boys, like your sister," she said. After two months they made a gentle enquiry about my personal life.

"Give me a break, I'm struggling with the three extra vowels!" I felt like shouting. Instead I indicated noncommittally that I would try harder to pick it up. But consider this: A lack of taboo and knowledge of safe sex meant a teen pregnancy rate of 7 per 1,000 teenage girls in Denmark at the time, compared to 53 per 1,000 girls in the U.S. By 2010, that figure was still 34 for the U.S.

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