By Anna Kay Vorsteg
As we make ready for the program season ahead, it feels important to name a societal trend that is changing the context of the communities through which our children move and the way we practice best self. A strong tendency to over protect has developed not only in parenting, but across education and camps as well. Social scientists are beginning to question the serious implications of insulating children from diversity, adversity, hardship and negative consequences. It seems adults have slipped into patterns that are aimed at smoothing and readying the path before the child, more than readying the child for whatever obstacles lie in the path before them.
The business of the American Youth Foundation has always been to prepare youth for their life’s journey, encouraging them not only to survive, but to thrive by using their capacities to better themselves and others in a variety of situations, including moments of tremendous challenge. Despite coming from a place of good intention and love, adults—parents, youth development professionals—sometimes slip into protective patterns that bear negative, unintended results for youth. Such behaviors ultimately work against the very goals our mission is trying to achieve. By design, AYF programs promise twists and turns, bumps and blisters, pushes and pulls.
As an institution that nurtures by challenge, we hope to provide what seems increasingly rare—experiences where youth are submerged into problem solving scenarios where they rely on themselves and their peers to accomplish a variety of feats in environments of real consequence. It seems we are reminded daily how counter culture the profession of positive youth development in an outdoor adventure setting may become.
As we plan our programs, we must acknowledge that it has been increasingly difficult to gauge where our participants and young staff are upon entry into our communities in terms of their self-reliance and resilience. It has been equally hard to gauge where our many parents are in terms of embracing our experiential methods.
Be it licensing standards or parental expectations, we risk becoming what our early founders said we were not—“soft.” Which problem is it our job to manage or remove, and which obstacles in the path are the very stuff of capacity building, the catalyst for best selves? Is it possible to determine exactly which challenges will enable, and which will disable? The answer may lie in the important difference between an obstacle and an obstruction, an educative versus mis-educative experience, a boulder versus a blockade.
We are called at this time to examine more closely how much to insulate, protect, or control the environments within which we are growing and inspiring youth to discover and develop their best selves. If a practice of any sort excludes, blocks, or threatens a child or staff member, keeping them from being their own self at their best, we need consider its removal. This could involve anything from food allergens, diseased trees, offensive language, or any behaviors that threaten one’s emotional or physical safety. But if a challenge strengthens, tests, and awakens a child to their capacities and ultimately to the best in themselves or the best in another, it likely builds self-reliance and readiness for life’s path and therefore it holds an important place in AYF programming.
As we move into this new season, we feel ready.
The hope now, is that the program paths we send our campers down are challenging enough to enable and inspire their best. May they each as a result, travel their future path prepared for varied terrain—armed with a strong sense of what they are capable of and possessing just enough confidence to act in the interest of not only themselves, but for the good of others like and unlike them. In the words of William H. Danforth, we dare them to face life courageously, striking straight at the heart of anything keeping them from their best.
Onward! Upward! No matter the path’s terrain!