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Between 12 and 20: Teen Challenges

by Erin Chianese

Our family’s summer vacation was a trip to Catalina Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California. Our teenage daughters each brought a friend and I must confess I worried about the friends for the first part of the trip. We were camping, snorkeling, and kayaking, which neither of the friends had done before. It turned out that I needn’t have worried; they loved it all. In fact, for the second half of the trip, we stayed in a hotel in the one tourist town on the island and that is where little tiffs and dissatisfactions arose. There were so many ventures for the girls while camping, that coming back to civilization, with all its blaring but commonplace tourist consumerism, wasn’t as fun or stimulating. It wasn’t challenging.

Facing a challenge means leaving one’s comfort zone. Loads of things are happening all at once. There is fear, self-doubt, perhaps pain or anger at the situation, but the cogs are rolling in the opposite direction as well: The challenge is exciting -- thrilling even -- in the seriousness and immensity of the impending hurdles. To meet a challenge a teenager must overcome all the emotional, physical, and mental obstacles involved. Sometimes a challenge is not satisfactorily or successfully wrestled, but still, a great deal has been gained by the process. Courage comes in many forms and it takes courage to approach a challenge. Challenges are in every goal. Academic, creative, spiritual, social, political, economic, moral, and athletic endeavors all pose challenges in personal goals set. Teenagers benefit and thrive as they tap their courage to rise to their challenges. It shows in their attitude, self-confidence, problem-solving skills, and the higher goals they subsequently set for themselves. One thing that really struck me on our island trip was the friends’ attitudes. One of the girls is a night owl. At home, she is content to stay awake all night, deep into her fine art and then sleeps until the afternoon. But every day on our trip she awoke by 8:00 a.m., sometimes even 7:00, so as not to miss anything. The other friend was anxious about camping on a dry, dusty terrain without showers and flush toilets. But she organized her time to walk the mile to the pay showers or she skipped it and acclimated to the ocean’s salt on her skin for that day, never complaining. She relaxed so much that she loved the simplicity of the free time we had. She got into building the fire, exploring the tide pools, and making up silly hand-shadow plays in the tent at night. In the hotel later, she commented that she missed camping the most.

Teens already feel vital in their bodies. They think they can do anything, that they are invincible. Facing challenges lets them know how true this is. They feel accomplished and proud. Many teens experience this through individual or team sports. Both my daughters challenge their bodies through dance. To encourage teenagers to exercise, the YMCA offers them a very inexpensive monthly fee for unlimited access to their gyms and classes. There are other organizations that offer group outings or trips especially for teens. These might be river rafting, backpacking, trail building, or house constructing expeditions. A public school in your neighborhood might have a Ropes Challenge Course. Homeschoolers can take a field trip to these courses after school lets out in the afternoon. For about four hours, the instructor shows kids how to climb rock walls and rope ladders, and how to walk across forty-foot-high beams or rope bridges. It is all done with rock-climbing harnesses and in teams, keeping people safe and supportive.

When one of my daughters wanted to take karate lessons, I was pleased that she would be learning self-defense. What I did not realize is that karate is so much more than learning how to use your own energy and how to use your opponent’s energy. It is actually about identifying and overcoming mental, as well as physical, obstacles that the student is challenged with at each colored belt level. The mind’s eye is far more difficult to control than the physical act of breaking a board with your fist. Martial arts are truly disciplines for the whole being. As the black belt master continually stressed, karate affects the students’ normal daily lives by influencing how they approach any situation. A quiet, unassuming person can become more assertive through strengthening confidence. An aggressive, boisterous person can learn to subdue emotions and physical power to act gently and calmly.

To create something out of nothing, outside of one’s self, and oftentimes outside of one’s expectations is certainly a challenge. A teenager must break out of the comfort zone of drawing stick figures in order to paint an abstract; get beyond writing dry, five-paragraph essays to write a funny dialogue, or parroting musical phrases in order to express feeling while playing an instrument. The basics are essential, but going beyond them is where creative teenagers are in their development. Learning PhotoshopTM is very tedious, but after the tools are understood I have seen many teenagers play around with it enough to create beautiful collages, interesting graphics, enhanced photos, and cool homework pages.

My kids used to beg me to give them spelling tests when they were young. This was a personal challenge to them, not a competition, or something they were judged by in order to indicate their smarts or to hear praise from the teacher. Most homeschoolers already know that schoolwork can be challenging if the student chooses the challenge, not if it is given as an assignment. Academic pursuits must be named by a teen for that teen’s own purposes: If not, it becomes drudgery. A teen’s goal may be to get into college, investigate deeper into a subject, or simply to quench curiosity. My older daughter is taking Egyptian Hieroglyphics at community college because she has always been fascinated by them. What greater value can the class have for her than that?

Socializing is a challenge no matter what age a person is. A teen, honing social skills, will strengthen his ability to deal with another’s aggression, power, passivity, or weakness. There are lots of opportunities for teens to sharpen their skills, since their lives are so very social. Third party advice (meaning we parents) can come in handy but only when asked; teens prefer to stumble along privately; this is their trial and error period of dealing with other people. My shy daughter wants to appear less quiet and to be able to speak up in a social setting. She is not sure how but she is bent on doing it. What I love about this is that her maturity level as a teenager allows her to self-reflect without contempt. She understands her disposition but wishes to make herself and others more comfortable in her presence. She has stated for herself this particular challenge and what her goals are. And she has enough confidence to begin to meet her challenge. I have noticed that she is putting herself in social situations that she would have declined a few months ago.

Heroes inspire us to challenge ourselves. Many figures are heroes because they have risen out of adversity to achieve goals. Just last year, the racing bicyclist, Lance Armstrong, won yet another Tour de France after beating cancer. Stephen Hawkings has furthered his scientific theories as a prestigious professor at the University of Cambridge, despite his disability. Franklin Roosevelt had polio, yet left his ideas and legacy to better the world. Christopher Reeve did not walk again, but inspired others with his own courage and the courage of his family. J.K. Rowling wrote her first best-selling Harry Potter book as an impoverished single mother. Other people are heroes because of the noble lives they lead and the choices they make. Instead of thinking solely of profit, Anita Roddick, owner of The Body Shop, fights for environmental and social change as a part of her business practices. The Dalai Lama advocates peaceful resolutions, has established a safe home in India, for fleeing Tibetans, and relentlessly challenges the world to give his country back to his people.

Of course, all parents want their children to succeed in their endeavors. It is good to remember that succeeding encompasses many tiers and it is the path or journey that is most important, that rising to a challenge that adds to a person’s character. Who is not in awe of Michelle Kwan who tries for that gold medal every four years in the Olympics? We admire her most for her tenacity, her focus, and her challenge to herself. As we were kayaking on Catalina Island, trying to make a cove that was 5 miles away, it did not matter if we actually got there. Through aching arms I had to smile: I could hear the girls in their own kayaks, making up songs as they endlessly paddled too, enjoying their own moments of aching arms and friendship. E.C. ■