Space exploration is back in the news. On August 22, SpaceX’s Falcon 9-R exploded moments after lift off. On October 31, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo also exploded moments after its release from its mother ship, killing the test pilot. On December 6, NASA successfully launched its Orion rocket, the next generation launch vehicle for manned space exploration. Launching rockets is an inherently dangerous endeavor. There have been 19 astronaut and cosmonaut fatalities in the history of spaceflight. The rockets are full of combustible fuel and small deviations in navigation can lead to disastrous trajectories. It represents a volatile mixture of power and potential.
So too is the launching of a child.
Whatever the risks, it is worth remembering that the purpose of a rocket is not to sit safely on the launch pad. As 19th century theologian John Shedd observed, “A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for.” The purpose of parenting is to launch one’s child into the tumult of adult life and the risks of the wider world. To over-protect, over-coddle, over-parent is not to be faithful to the task of parenting, but to distort it and to damage the potential of one’s child. The womb is a safe place, but it is not healthy for a child to stay there. The home is a safe place, but it is not psychologically healthy for a child to stay there either. The purpose of parenting is to launch one’s child successfully into the world. Cut the umbilical cord and let them go.
That established, the central question is how to do make this launching successful.
Let’s start with two observations. First, we’re not launching our children very well today. We either over coddle or simply neglect them. Disasters are common.
Second, there is a growing list of potential dangers facing children that were not as common before the advent of the Internet and cellphones. As a parent, the world seems scarier. I’m a grandparent now, and I worry about the world that my four grandchildren are entering—a world filled with selfies and sexting and the like.
The answer to this question of launching our children successfully is counter-intuitive, but follows naturally from the lessons of space exploration. We must increasingly give our children more and more independence, in effect test flights, in a safe environment. SpaceX does not put together a rocket and see if it works. Rather it tests every step repeatedly. Their mantra is fail fast, learn often.
We need our children to fail fast so as to learn quickly before the consequences of failing are at their highest. Launching them for the first time as freshmen in college is a little late for the lessons they should have learn in middle school and high school. And the price tags in college are often higher than a thwarted education.
It is for this reason that I am a passionate advocate for boarding school education. It is a test flight of adolescent independence in a safe place. Rather than being an abdication of one’s responsibilities as a parent, deciding to send one’s children to a board school is the fulfillment of them. Certainly, not every boarding school is a safe place (and choosing a good one is a worthy topic for another article), but the concept of letting our pre-adult children learn to live on their own, make their own decisions, manage their own time, live within the reality of a social place outside the home is exactly what too few children have the opportunity to experience. Their maturity is thwarted as a consequence of our over caution.
Of course, there will be tears and homesickness. And there are legions of examples of bad experiences. Nonetheless, the principle remains. There is no way to learn to be independent as a child without being given incremental independence. Ships are not made to stay in harbor. Rockets are not mean to stay on their launch pad. And children are not meant to stay at home. It is time to let them soar. Houston, we have lift off.
Originally published in December, 2014 issue of The Standard, the newsletter of St. Andrew’s Academy.