Kaija Webster, the well-traveled director of the University of Minnesota-Duluth's climbing program, says, “If we never take risks, we'll never grow.” Adventurousness, she says, is being “willing to take risks.”
Those risks don't have to be foolhardy or flamboyant. Raising your child to be adventurous doesn't mean she will grow up to leap flaming cars on a motorcycle or hang-glide off the summit of Everest. Adventurous people seek out and cope with the new and unknown - but with a healthy dose of prudence born of experience and confidence.
How can you help your children learn that balance between discretion and derring-do? How do you give them the confidence to try new things but avoid unsafe behavior?
1. Redefine ‘adventure'
As outdoor educator Stephanie Love puts it, “Adventure is different for everyone.” Creative, social, mental, physical, and emotional risks can all be adventures.
Father, entrepreneur, motivational speaker, and international-level athlete Rod Raymond says “adventure is stepping outside your ‘life spotlight.' If you don't give your kid those adventurous experiences, if you don't get them out of their spotlight, you're doing them a huge disservice.” So if your hydrophobic daughter signs up for swimming lessons or your shy son volunteers to speak about child labor at a school assembly, celebrate!
One child's life spotlight - that is, her comfort zone - is another child's nightmare. What's routine for some kids - like 9-year-old Emma Williams of Duluth, who started rock climbing when she was 7 - may be a major, courage-taxing ordeal for others. So don't compare your child to a sibling, cousin, or friend. And if you hear your child comparing herself to another person, gently remind her that life isn't a contest.
2. Make room for adventure
“My parents strictly limited the amount of time I spent rotting my brain away in front of the TV,” says Max Frost, 24, an avid adventurer whose favorite pursuits include snowboarding, rock climbing, mountaineering, and whitewater paddling. “At the time, I was not happy when they told me to get off my butt and do something, but now I'm thankful they did. I think both my parents and the sports I was involved in at a young age gave me the motivation to do something big with my life, and adventure was my venue. I wouldn't go as far as to say my parents ‘encouraged' me to take risks but they did push me to live up to my potential and enjoy life in a big and exciting way.”
Webster, who has rock-climbed on four continents, says, “Lay the groundwork with your kids early, then back off as they get older. Build a strong relationship of fairness, trust, and open communication of your values and expectations from day one. By the time they're teens, you won't be able to bend them to your will by being strict and controlling. It's best to treat them with respect, step back a bit, and count on the fact that you've given them a good foundation.
“Once we were old enough,” she continues, talking about herself and her siblings, “our parents let us make painful mistakes, like falling down. They didn't try to shield us from consequences like that. So we learned to take better care of ourselves. They never acted worried when we did the most outlandish things - like climb up the walls of buildings and hang out on the roof. We ran barefoot through the city dump, climbed down cliffs, and spent days and nights alone and unsupervised. (Granted, we did live in the middle of nowhere and there were no other people or shopping malls to influence us. To some that may sound scary, but in many ways it was much safer.) Our parents acted impressed when we told them tales of self-sufficiency, personal strength, and good judgment.”
You probably shouldn't let your kids disappear for days at a time, but you can still stimulate their sense of adventure by loosening the leash of conventional behavior and expectations. Turn off the TV and recycle the coloring books. Hide the Playstation for a week. Climb into the bathtub with your clothes on. (My mother did that once when I was 8, and I will never, ever forget it.) Have slumber parties in the middle of the day. Once in awhile, eat dessert first. And, above all, make sure your kids have time to get bored.
3. Encourage their passions
When I was growing up, my mom would always tell me, “I don't care what you do when you get older - if you're a millionaire or if you work at McDonald's - as long as it makes you happy.” I tested her conviction when I turned 18: I deferred a college scholarship to travel alone to New Zealand and Southeast Asia.
Lots of people thought I was nuts for going alone and for putting off college. My parents were as anxious about my safety and educational future as anybody else. But they supported my decision and, more importantly, my right to decide for myself.
Give your child permission to pursue their passions. Not your passion, not a TV character's or best friend's or well-meaning-but-pushy uncle's passion. Their passion. And then nourish those passions. Cheer at their soccer games, tape their short stories to the fridge, give them a subscription to Tropical Fish Hobbyist. Introduce your child to people who are accomplished in their areas of interest.
But what if you don't know any pirates, zookeepers, or professional skydivers?
These days, it's easy enough to find them. Encourage your kids to look up contact information for an idol or potential role model, then have them write or dictate an e-mail. You might be surprised who responds.
With some encouragement from our parents, my 13-year-old brother Austin, an aspiring storm chaser, e-mailed some lightning pictures he had taken to meteorologist Paul Douglas. When he got a quick and positive reply, he was on cloud nine for a week.
4. Get outdoors
“Look at kids' hands,” says Raymond. “Are there calluses there? No. Are their hands strong? Yes, from pushing buttons. The millennium adventure is slaying the dragon on the video game. Climbing trees is a thing of the past.”
A physical connection with the world around us is one of the greatest gifts anyone can give a child. So take a walk. Rent a canoe. Look for crayfish or count squirrels. Climb a tree and invite your child to join you.
“Take them places!” exhorts Paul Danicic, director of YMCA Camp Menogyn, a wilderness adventure camp in Northern Minnesota that offers backpacking, canoeing, and rock-climbing trips for teenagers. “I meet all kinds of families with kids of different ages that do amazing things on their own, not on a guided tour. But it is difficult if the parent is not into camping or roughing it.”
If you aren't wilderness-inclined and your child is older, consider sending him or her to a place like Camp Menogyn. I was an enthusiastic Menogyn camper for several years and learned more from a week in the woods than I could have from a year in a classroom.
“The skills learned through outdoor adventures,” says Love, “aren't applicable just in the woods or at camp - they are life skills that allow us to successfully navigate through a world filled with temptations, the allure of instant gratification, and opportunities for unhealthy risk taking.”
Danicic agrees. “An adventure becomes a defining piece of the decision-making process that [affects] their choices in life. Many times I hear from adults how a wilderness trip taken when they were a teenager changed their life for the better.”
5. Get global
You don't have to uproot your family and move to Timbuktu. (Ask your kids to find that on the map. Hint: It's in Mali, West Africa.) But you should always strive to expand the horizons of your child's world.
“A whole world of opportunities and experiences exists for us beyond what we
are exposed to at home or at school,” Love points out. “And that doesn't mean that the way we grow up is bad or wrong, but that we have a lot of choices about how we can live our lives.”
One good way to make your child aware of all those choices is to learn about people who have made them. Read or watch videos about the greats - great explorers, artists, inventors, warriors, scientists, and/or philosophers. Make sure you find the women among them. Practically everyone has heard of Blackbeard, but what about Cheng I Sao, the Chinese woman who, in the early 1800s, commanded a pirate confederacy that included hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of men?
Find an international pen or e-mail pal. Go to an grocery store that sells food you've never tasted. Get involved with a national or global organization like Free the Children. Pin up a world map in the living room or your child's bedroom. Ask a globe-trotting coworker to send your child a postcard or small memento while traveling.
6. Set an example
“You don't have to be an adventurous person to give your kid an adventurous experience,” Raymond assured me.
Or - not adventurous in the usual sense. You don't have to climb Aconcagua, join a rugby team, or take up underwater photography to raise an adventurous child. What you have to do is demonstrate a willingness to stretch yourself, to push your own boundaries.
“I think our actions speak much louder than our words,” said Love, “and we need to seek out activities that challenge us in new ways, no matter what our interests, throughout our lives.”
So ask yourself, “How big is my spotlight?” Seek to extend the range of its light. Step beyond it, into the darkness. Because, as Danicic beautifully phrased it, “adventurousness is a sense of wonder in the world, in the environment and in others. Combine this with a growing confidence in yourself and you have a healthy attitude toward exploring new places, people, and cultures. We always say life is a collection of stories; have some good ones.”
Shelby Gonzalez is a Duluth-based student, writer, traveler, and rock-climbing instructor. When she was 6 years old, her life ambition was to be a busser at Old Country Buffet. Her next adventure? A 2,300-mile steamboat trip down the Amazon River.