Teen on School Trip to China Falls Asleep on Tour Bus, Wakes Up in Dark at Depot, Alone

Think your kid needs a cell phone for emergencies? Read on!

This story comes to us from Phyllis L. Fagell, a school counselor and popular Washington Post contributor. She’s also author of “Middle School Matters: 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond–and How Parents Can Help.”

What an intrepid young man she has raised! (This story appears in the second edition of Free-Range Kids.)

When my son was 14, he went on a school trip to China. When they got there, they went to the Great Wall and went out to dinner. They were jet-lagged and they took the bus back to the hotel and everybody went to bed. Nobody realized that my child did not get off the bus because he had fallen asleep.

He woke up late at night, in the dark, on a locked bus, in Beijing, in a parking lot somewhere with no money, no phone and no Mandarin skills. (He was not actually taking Chinese – he just wanted to go on the trip.) So he did what any 14-year-old would do when you wake up in a locked bus in the middle of Beijing. He panicked for about 15 minutes and then he realized, ”I’ve got to get myself out of this mess.” There is no option here. And by the time I got a call at work, he had managed to crack open a window, flag down a Chinese stranger, summon the Beijing police, get himself to the precinct, figure out which of the thousand Hiltons his group was staying at and get returned to his group unharmed.

He managed to do it without a phone.

And not only did he live to tell the tale and have a great story for the rest of his life, he has since traveled alone to the Middle East. He is 19 now and feels like he can do anything.

The bus thing wasn’t fun. He probably would prefer it hadn’t happened. But that being said, kids are resourceful. If he could get out of that situation at 14, our kids can at least take the local bus in the USA alone.

Without a phone. — Phyllis Fagell

It is so hard to remember a time when kids were trusted to leave home without a cell phone “for emergencies.”

And yet that simple phrase has changed the way we think about the world. Now everyday life is an emergency waiting to happen.

But, as the Fagell story shows, kids can knock our socks off. Sometimes all they need is a chance to prove themselves because no one else can be easily summoned to advise or intervene. (For more ideas on inculcating independence, check out the free Let Grow Independence Kit.)

It is inconvenient, even unsettling, not to be able to get in touch with the kids — agreed. But if we want them to have stories some day, not just texts, sometimes they need to go out into that dark night un-phoned.