I was in a conversation yesterday when someone asked me a tough question. If I could do one thing to get more teenagers into our outdoor based program, what would it be? That’s a very tough question because there isn’t one single silver bullet. Teenagers have a very good lie detector built in and want to get what you tell them they’re going to get. They want adventure. They crave risk. These are the things that have moved humans, as a species, forward. The risk part literally saved humanity during the ice age, when some teenagers said to their parents, see you later old guys, we’re getting on the ice floe to look for new adventures elsewhere. Those are all important things, but they weren’t what I settled on – I settled on trust and doing things with their friends.

Teenagers want to be trusted and they want to do things with their friends. More importantly, they can be trusted to do things with their friends. If we want to get more teenagers through the doors, we need to create opportunities for them to do these things.

The organization that I work for has a provision for older youth (11 – 14 year olds) to camp without adult supervision. I did that when I was that age. We set up duty rosters, we bought and cooked our own food and we learned from our mistakes (at age 14, I had a love of Cajun seasoning, my friends didn’t). Most importantly, we didn’t get in to trouble.

When I was 16, I joined the older program and, although all the camps we wanted to go to required an adult advisor to be present, we didn’t have one available most of the time. We would recruit an adult from one of the other groups to take responsibility for us and we would camp without adult supervision. We camped this way for thirty or fourth days out of each year, in all seasons. We never got in to trouble and most people thought that one of us was a young looking adult, but they could never quite figure out which one of us it was. We never got into trouble and our group grew from six the first year to thirty in the next.

These sort of opportunities seem to have disappeared in the 21st century. We think that our world is too dangerous (it isn’t) and that our teenagers can’t be trusted to do the right thing (they can) to allow this sort of thing to happen. We need to recreate opportunities that allow teenagers to learn how to do things without adult supervision, be trusted to do so for extended periods of time and know that they will do the right thing. Those sorts of experiences made me the man that I am today. People trusted me to do the right thing. We can trust today’s teenagers to do the same and, if we allow them to do so, we will build the next generation of community leaders and nature lovers.

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