I’ve heard a lot of generally negative things about teenagers lately. It seems that every other generation is quick to grumble that today’s youth are self-centered, unaware, obsessed with technology, or—the saddest statement I’ve heard—that they are unable to form connections with others off the computer or phone screen. I suspect that, like most negative stereotypes, these generalizations are caused by a lack of understanding between age groups so I want to contradict them by sharing some things about my summer spent paddling through Northern waters with five teenage girls. I was, and still am, in awe of their actions, words and insight and feel honored to know such incredible young people.
Teenagers these days are the furthest thing from lazy. They have more energy and motivation than I could believe. On thirty-mile days when I would be falling asleep in the boat, the participants would be not only still paddling with energy but singing and yelling at the top of their lungs. There were a few days on our 26-day expedition when it took us 8, 9, even 10 hours to complete tricky portages and they never even thought about quitting. If we had any down time, they would usually spend it cleaning our gear and reorganizing our food. After seeing these girls in action I can understand how high school students pull off their impossible schedules.
Teenagers these days are open-minded and appreciate each others’ differences – more so now than ever before. The girls on my trip could not have been more different from one another, but it worked well that way: not only did they find common ground, but I think they spent more time talking, listening, and discussing what made them different from each other. They asked thoughtful questions about each others’ interests, experiences and lives and I believe they learned quite a bit from taking the time to enjoy what made their trip mates unique.
Teenagers these days are smart and competent. No matter what challenges we faced on trail, the girls were up for it and had a solution. We portaged over a cliff one day, a feat possible only because of impeccable teamwork, innovation, and a really cool lift system made out of our rescue kit. Reindeer Lake has hundreds of small islands and only the combined brain power of those skilled young women enabled us to navigate through them to find our route. They talked articulately about school and their passion for learning, even those who struggled in a traditional school setting – they have active brains and want to use them.
Teenagers these days are activists and allies. They believe fiercely that humans deserve to be treated with respect and equality, and they aren’t afraid to talk about why they think so. Teenagers these days are compassionate. My participants took care of each other, even on the days when everyone was exhausted and frustrated. They comforted one another during tough and homesick times, they were patient when someone had a slow day, and they were concerned about everyone in the group.
Teenagers these days are truly connected and communicative. I can’t keep track of how many times I hear adults grumbling about how teenagers are so absorbed in technology that they can no longer make personal connections. At camp, this has never been my experience – my participants didn’t have a moment’s hesitation about tossing their cell phones into brown bags or handing them over to parents as soon as they arrived, and they were thrilled to have the time to sit down and have conversations with participants in other trip groups. I think one of the things they appreciate the most about camp and trail is the chance to be really connected with each other without the distractions of texting and Facebook.
And yes, I know what you’re all thinking – that it’s a special experience to lead this kind of trip, and only a unique group of participants would sign-up for a 26-day canoe expedition. That’s true, but the point is that we give them the chance to grow and they take it. It seems that if teens feel supported and listened to, if we take the time to ask them what they think and what they care about, we can always learn from them. I suspect that anyone who’s gotten the chance to spend quality time with this age group, whether at a camp or anywhere else, would have unique examples to illustrate the same idea.
So maybe if we create more opportunities and chances for our teenagers to connect with others without technology, they will take advantage of that and form the strong and supportive relationships they need to have with their peers. Maybe if we give them more chances to make decisions, they’ll grow into confident and thoughtful adults. Maybe if we ask them what they think more often, they’ll be more open and we’ll be able to learn more. Maybe if we as a society provide more opportunities like Camp—safe, with high expectations and challenges, but loving and nurturing with a healthy dose of goofy—we will see this age group rise to their full potential.
Suzanne Taylor has been a trip leader at Camp Manito-wish YMCA. If you are interested in writing for the Wetfoot, contact theWetfoot@gmail.com
Photo-credit: Suzanne Taylor. Used with permission.