The Humanist Dilemma: Should We Have Forced Our Son to Go on an Overseas Service Trip?

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Teen Wanted to Bail: My seventeen-year-old son is a senior in high school who reluctantly agreed to go on a week-long educational/service teen trip overseas during spring break. For more than a year he was cajoled by several relatives to do this, and he initially refused, but they really pushed him (they thought it would be a great experience, good on his college applications, and fun). He finally agreed to go, even though he continued to raise many good reasons why he didn’t want to. Once he agreed to go, my spouse and I made nonrefundable plans for a trip of our own at the same time on a different continent. Then our son started wavering. At that point it was really difficult and expensive to make any changes to get him out of his trip, or to cancel ours, or include him on it—and we figured he was just anxious and would get over it once his trip began.

Unfortunately, we were wrong! When it was time to part company, he was very vocal about not wanting to go. I would have been willing to let him stay home by himself with relatives checking in, and write off the cost of the trip (the money was spent whether he went or not), but my spouse was adamantly opposed to that. Starting with meeting the group at the airport, our son said the trip was disorganized and not as advertised—scheduled activities were switched every day and sometimes changed because of protests from the kids (for instance, when it was too cold for the planned days at the beach and hikes through water). Every single day every communication from him was dominated by “I want to come home!” And every day we thought it would probably get better the next day, but in fact it never did. When we picked him up at the end our son was furious with us for making him go through this.

I keep rethinking the whole thing and can’t shake feeling guilty. But I suspect I’d feel guilty the other way too, because then we’d never have known if he might have ended up enjoying it. What should we have done?

-Travel Torture


Dear Torture,

Ah, hindsight. It’s not always 20/20. Many parents are familiar with the angst of unhappy little campers begging to come home, but the wisdom is to make them stay and they’ll end up eager to go back next year. Here you have an older kid who is probably more mature and better able to judge whether he’s going to like something, but he’s still a kid and it’s still a new experience for him. Plus he wasn’t just a bus ride away from home, and you weren’t there for him to return to. On top of that, it would probably have cost as much or more than the trip itself to pull an underage kid out and put him on an earlier flight back, if it was even possible to arrange that.

So I believe you made the right choice in making him stick out the trip, even if it doesn’t exactly feel like it. Until the end, there was always a chance he’d decide it was OK or even good—and there’s still the possibility that in retrospect he’ll derive some valuable lessons from his experience. It’s not as though he was physically ill or injured (everyone got home alive and well, right?). So maybe he didn’t like the food, his companions, the staff, the weather, some (all?) of the activities—that’s still not sufficient cause to drop out and scurry home.

One thing you don’t clarify is whether the particular service project involved was part of, or the main reason, why your son objected. Was it a cause he didn’t particularly support, or something he felt opposed to in some way? I also wonder why he was coerced into doing this if he was so against it pretty much all along. Surely there must be something he would have been eager to do on his break, whether it was for fun, or good for college applications, or working, or accompanying you wherever you went, or just hanging out. Why were the relatives so intent on making him do this particular thing he wasn’t on board with, and why didn’t you give more credence to your son’s reluctance? I don’t even condone forcing four-year-olds to take ballet or insisting that ten-year-olds continue piano lessons, so I certainly don’t endorse strong-arming a teen into an overseas trip against his inclination, no matter how good it might look on his resume or how much the relatives would vicariously savor it.

Your son is old enough to make his own choices, even if those choices may be mistakes in your opinion, or, eventually, in his own. I know adults sometimes thank their parents for making them do things they didn’t want to do, and fault their parents for not making them do something they didn’t want to do. But I believe that’s a tiny minority compared with those who remain forever resentful of all the stuff they endured, or grateful they didn’t have to keep doing things once they lost interest. Maybe it’s handy for kids to have their parents to blame for whatever they did or didn’t do with their lives, but it’s healthier for them to start making their own choices and living with the results. So in the future, you and the relatives can chime in, but then back off and allow your son to take charge unobstructed.