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The Single Most Valuable Thing You Can Do For Your Kids

And it's something I never thought I'd do.

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aarp, the girlfriend
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When my three kids were little, people would always remark, “Enjoy your kids now. They grow up so quickly.” And, yes, they were right. But whereas days used to slip away like hours and weeks used to fly by like days, more recently our months as a family unit feel as though they’re elapsing like minutes. The pace of our lives has grown so fast, it’s kind of like watching my favorite movie with the fast-forward button depressed, when all I want to do is hit pause.

As a result, every fiber of my being just wants to persuade my three kids to stay as close to home as possible. Raising them has been the greatest joy of my life: watching them sleep; the back-to-school shopping; the jumbled basket of shoes by the front door; the constant noise, because it's usually the sound of their enjoyment; even the debates over an eyebrow piercing and all the worrying … so much worrying. I have relished every second of it.

aarp, the girlfriend, travel, kids

But instead of trying to convince them to stay nearby, I’ve been doing the exact opposite – and in a big way. After my youngest graduated high school last week, on June 21, she set off with two friends for a month in Europe. She paid for the trip herself, earning money working in a bakery. Meanwhile, my middle kid, 20, is in Southeast Asia for 10 weeks. He’s on his own, but meeting people along the way in hostels. When he graduated high school, he said he wanted to take a gap year. My husband and I told him that so long as he did something productive that we didn’t have to shell out a fortune for, we were on board. He went to Brazil to volunteer with disadvantaged children in and around Rio de Janeiro and came back a much more mature young man, one who was truly ready to start college. My oldest, thankfully, is nearby now, working full time in New York City. But he graduated last year after getting his degree at a university — in Amsterdam.

aarp, the girlfriend, travel kids

 Is it easy to see my kids strike out on their own, and in such a massive way? Most definitely not. I've mourned the end of an era, and felt a kind of hollowness I find hard to describe, one that even a very busy career can't insulate me from. I’m slowly being separated from my life as I’ve known it for nearly two decades. A wonderful life.

A few texts a week is simply not on par with being able to look someone in the eye every day. A real low came for me on March 22, 2016, when I heard the news of a terrorist attack in Belgium. My oldest son, studying in Amsterdam, said, "It seems as though the bombings are getting closer." The November before, terrorist attacks in Paris killed 129 people, including a 23-year-old California State Long Beach student, Nohemi Gonzalez, who had gone to Paris for a semester-abroad program. My son's divulgence rocked me to my core. But he stayed on in Amsterdam, completing his degree in December. Despite all this, my opinion still stands: Holding kids back can be a one-way ticket to incompetent offspring. Planning, dreaming and traveling is a way to teach kids to do and think for themselves.

aarp, the girlfriend, travel, kids

If it hadn’t been for my mother, who sadly passed away years ago, I probably would have chained my kids to their beds. But my mom, who thought it was a huge deal to drive the family from Missouri to Colorado one summer to see Pikes Peak, taught me a major life lesson: If you need to go far, far away to pursue your dreams, then do it. We were that kind of mother and daughter who checked in daily with each other by phone, so close that coming across my mother’s handwriting can still bring me to tears.

But this full-time wife and mother who had never traveled out of the country didn’t appear to bat an eye when, shortly after college, I told her I wanted to take my savings of $2,000 and move to Central America to try my luck at becoming a foreign correspondent. I realize now how difficult it must have been for her to see me off at DFW, although she didn’t let me know it. The only message she ever conveyed to me was that she wanted me to be happy. And she knew I would be happy only if allowed to write, and travel, and pursue my passion, so many miles away from all things familiar. I’ll never forget what she did for me, and the feeling she left me with — that she’d support me no matter where I went, or what I did.

And that's exactly the gift I want to give my own children. The letting go can be incredibly painful. But if we don't prepare our kids for real life, we have not done our job — the best job in the world.