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?

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.

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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.

At school, many of my classmates wanted to be social workers. No one mentioned money as a goal in itself; that would be frowned on as self-centered and shallow. My host brother wore only black and had a half-shaved head with piercings. He wanted to help street kids for a career.

Physical self-consciousness was also wonderfully absent -- the emphasis on a person's contribution and values meant teenage diets or obsession with appearance were viewed as superficial.

My host father helped the unemployed find jobs and took them on excursions to boost morale. It's no doubt part of the reason social-cohesion is almost palpable in Denmark and violent crime rates are low.

As I was forced to explain my stance on everything from socialism to welfare and the monarchy, I realized a person's values and beliefs are rarely tested in their comfort zone. Many are simply absorbed from home culture.

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Uncomfortable experiences were also educative. Denmark is very monocultural compared to the U.S. or Australia. With a mixed ethnic background, I experienced what it was like to feel part of a minority or "the other" in a society. For any teenager, it's a pointed lesson in empathy.

As my friends finished their first year of college, I returned home with a new perspective. I believed I could achieve anything after learning Danish and surviving a year overseas alone; I was less self-centered and dropped the idea money was any measure of success. I quit my law degree for journalism (ensuring professional success would never be reflected in monetary terms) and saw my home culture through more considered eyes.

A backpacking trip with friends after high school is no substitute. It doesn't require commitment to any place or culture and allows young people to travel in their own comfort-bubble.

Too many American parents deny their children rich lives because of their own fears -- of other cultures, foreign places, or the unknown.

If I'd been blunt, I would have told the lawyer that pushing his son into the world was the best thing he could do as a parent; no matter how much he'd miss him.

-- By Jane Searle in New York

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