“It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed. All daring and courage, all iron endurance of misfortune make for a finer, nobler type of manhood.”
Chances are your kids, like mine, have a pretty cushy life. And that’s great! Kids need stability and consistency and safety.
But researchers have found that there is a delicate balance between kids needing consistency, safety, AND challenge. We all know that parents these days tend to coddle their kids more, protect them from potential harm, and swoop in to fix their mistakes.
None of this is helpful in building resilient boys.
The word resilient comes from the Latin root resili, which means to spring back. Resilience is the power or ability to return to the original form. When a child falls, he climbs back on his feet and toddles another step. When he shoots a basketball and misses, he dribbles and shoots again.
While physical resilience is important (none of us would have learned to walk otherwise!) it’s emotional resilience that we want to strengthen in our sons, so they can spring back from the rollercoaster of emotions they’ll be sure to face in life, including pain, sorrow, loneliness, anger, and frustration.
The thing is, physical resilience and emotional resilience are very much linked. By overcoming physical challenges, kids learn what they are capable of. Not only do they build physical muscle, their emotional resilience grows as well. That’s why the military relies so heavily on physical challenges to build its leaders.
Earlier this year I interviewed a man named Ray Zahab for a news story I was writing. Zahab was a pack-a-day smoker in his late 20s when he realized one day that he was killing himself with his bad habits. He got off the couch and started running, first a 5K, then a 10K, then a marathon. Soon he was doing adventure races in extreme locations like the Saraha Desert. It was after his desert run that he realized two things: (1)People were capable of incredible things. (2)He wished he could have known at 16 or 17 what he knew now in his middle age.
With that in mind, he founded Impossible 2 Possible (i2P), where he enlists young people for his extreme education programs in places like Peru, India, and the deserts of Southern Utah. With each adventure, a team of carefully selected researchers/runners set off on an expedition where they run 26 miles per day while gathering educational data along the way.
After my interview with Zahab, I thought over and over about his epiphany, that he wished he had known at 16 what he was capable of. It made we wonder how I could introduce challenges into the lives of my kids, impossible adventures that would push them and as a result, build their emotional resilience while they are still young.
We started right away, linking our summer plans with our first impossible adventure: as part of a month-long road trip, we would attempt to summit Mt. Timpanogos, one of the most scenic and popular mountains in Utah. As lead-up, we would do a series of hikes and adventures in the national parks in Southern Utah and California.
We learned some good things along the way:
1. Think of something age-appropriate, but don't be afraid to push. When planning our adventures, we tried to think of our kids’ ages. For the big mountain climb, we didn’t take our six year old. However, he did hike Delicate Arch in Arches, the Narrows in Zion, and several hikes in the surrounding national parks.
Our other boys, ages 10, 11, and 13, were on the young side for such a grueling hike up Mt. Timpanogos, but I wanted to push them just a little (okay, so maybe a lot) beyond their comfort zone. After all, it was supposed to be an impossible adventure.
2. Plan, both mentally and physically. We told our kids months in advance about the big mountain climb. We live on the flat pancake of the Midwest, so my boys don’t have much experience hiking. But we had them jog on the paths around our home and go on long bike rides. As a family, we did pushups, situps, and planks. Every time we gave them a physical challenge, we told them: “This will get you ready for the mountain.”
I also tried to prep them mentally. I knew the mountain well, having climbed it several times in college. I told them that climbing Mt. Timpanogos would be the hardest thing they had ever done. I told them that hiking down was way worse than ascending, and that they would want to quit, but I knew they could do it.
3. Enlist a team. This was probably the smartest thing we did. For our smaller hikes, it was just our family. But fortunately the big mountain climb was part of our extended family reunion, which meant it wasn’t just us climbing, but my dad, brother, and two of my sisters. Our boys are at the age where they are beginning to seek outside mentors, so having a big group encouraging them along the way made all the difference. In fact, it made THE difference. I don't think my boys would have gone more than a few miles if the team hadn’t rallied to help them along.
So gather a group of family or friends willing to have an adventure.
4. Give them an out. Everyone wants to make it to the summit. However, a smart climber knows that it’s more important to trust his body, the weather, and other factors. I knew we were pushing our boys just to get them up the mountain. I told them to go as far as they could, and we would be with them every step of the way.
Be aware of how far you push your kids. You want to set them up for success, which is the whole point. Whatever they end up doing, make it feel like an accomplishment.
5. Give a reward. Accomplishment is its own reward, so don’t overshadow that with promises for tickets to Disneyland or a miniature horse. But hopes of a milkshake at the end of the trail, or a ten-minute footrub, or a favorite movie might just help propel your kids along. My boys requested bubble tea (of all things!), so rounds of bubble tea it was when we got home.
6. Build up to the big one. We didn’t plan this, but the way our trip was scheduled, each smaller hike prepped us for the great big one. We battled oppressive heat in Arches, Zion, and Yosemite, and hiking fatigue by the time we got to the Redwoods. But each hike helped increase our boys’ hiking stamina and their own inner confidence at going long distances.
Our goal, at least with the kids, was Emerald Lake, which sits in an alpine meadow at mile 6 of the Mt. Timpanogos trail, one mile below the summit. I honestly didn’t know if the boys would make it to that point. After all, they had never hiked six miles up a mountain! But to our surprise they pushed themselves to the lake. And a few would have kept going if we had let them.
As predicted, the hike down was long and brutal. We had to rally many times to get the boys to the car. All told, we hiked twelve miles in eleven hours. Even the 10-year-old.
The experience was more grueling than I had expected, which meant the reward of completion was better than I could have hoped for. My boys, with their wide ranges of personality and athleticism, amazed me with their stamina. While I taped up my own blisters for three days, none of them were even sore the next day. And they still talk about the experience all the time—it's something they're proud of.
So what kind of impossible adventures can you do? I read a recent article about parents who did a GoRuck challenge (extreme team building) and were inspired to provide similar challenges for their kids. In that vein, nighttime scavenger hunts, long bike rides, remote camping, winter camping, training for a race or triathlon (and not just the 1K), could all become resiliency experiences for the entire family.
That’s what our impossible adventure became: a shared experience that we will never, ever forget.
In that vein, we can’t wait for the next impossible adventure. We’ll keep you posted!