If you spend any amount of time with small children you hear that question all the time. And when it comes to parenting, I've asked that question a fair number of times myself. Whenever I encounter a commonly accepted practice that doesn't make sense to me, I question it. Sometimes the process leads me to reject the practice; other times it results in my adopting it. But whatever the conclusion, my parenting benefits from the exercise.
There is one practice that I've never understood, but I've never had the guts to question out loud. I'm talking about the high ropes courses commonly featured in camps and retreat centers across the country. A high ropes course is a system of utility poles, cables, and ropes strung together to create an obstacle course high above ground. Both of my kids have attended summer camps and various trips that have required participation in high ropes courses, and every time they've come home from one of these sessions I've listened to their stories with mixed feelings. But I have always refrained from voicing my concerns out of fear that doing so would make them reluctant or even unwilling to participate the next time it was required of them, and that reluctance or refusal might make them look chicken or cost them the chance to learn the valuable lessons these courses allegedly teach.
And boy, do these lessons sound valuable. Believers maintain high ropes courses develop courage and confidence by requiring participants to confront their fear and then overcome it. As far as I can tell, though, this is just a hunch, as I have not seen any research that backs up these claims.
But my refusal to speak up comes at the expense of another lesson I'd like my kids to learn: the importance of having the courage to question something that doesn't make sense or flat out seems wrong -- even when people in positions of authority tell you to do it, and even if everyone else is going along with the idea.
It's no secret that teens size up risk differently than adults and studies attribute this difference to brain development. The prefrontal cortex of the brain -- the part that controls impulses, gauges outcomes, and makes judgments -- doesn't fully develop until possibly as late as one's mid-twenties. This underdeveloped prefrontal cortex can lead teens to take actions that seem crazy by adults' standards. As a result, parents spend a lot of time and energy trying to convince their kids to think through their actions in advance -- and kids' safety largely depends on them getting the message.
High ropes courses seem to undercut parents' efforts in this regard, teaching kids to push past the common sense fear that tells them doing something dangerous like jumping off a telephone pole is not a smart decision, then lavishing them with praise when they do. This activity demands that kids provide a physical answer to the age-old question, "If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump, too?" only they're jumping off a telephone pole rather than a cliff, and the answer that the activity rewards is opposite from the common sense one we all hoped the age-old question would elicit. I want my kid to heed rather than override any common sense voice that tells her that an activity is dangerous; and I don't want her to cultivate a greater tolerance for needless risk than her underdeveloped prefrontal cortex already allows.
It may have taken me a couple of decades of parenting, but I've finally worked up the courage to ask out loud the question that every toddler asks without hesitating: Why? As in, why do we put kids through these exercises? If we want them to develop the courage to push past fear, can't we do that in a way that doesn't require them to override other instincts we need them to respect in order to keep them safe until their brains fully develop? If we can put a man on the moon, can't we construct an exhilarating exercise that doesn't involve putting kids on top of a telephone pole?
Perhaps we could help them build courage by developing a challenge similar to the "rejection therapy" that Jia Jiang explained in his TEDx Austin talk where every day for one hundred days in a row Jiang asked someone for something out of the ordinary -- a request that seemed unlikely to be granted, like a rush custom order of donuts shaped like the Olympic Rings or a free refill on his hamburger rather than his soda. This exercise helped Jiang to get comfortable for putting himself out there even when there was a significant chance he would get rejected, sometimes quite publicly.
Or better yet, we could design a confidence-building exercise that challenges kids to speak up when others try to pressure them into doing something that seems dangerous. In fact, there are existing training grounds all over the country that can be used for this activity. They feature fifty-foot tall telephone poles, cables, and ropes. All we have to do is change the definition of success: rather than congratulating kids when they succumb to the pressure to climb up the pole and jump off, the instructors could challenge the kids to think it through and follow their better instincts, then congratulate them when they have the guts to say no to such a crazy idea.
But my opinions are not set in stone. If you think teen participation in high ropes courses is a good idea I'm open to hearing your reasons. All you have to do is answer this simple question: Why?
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