The Blog of the West Wind

The Blog of the West Wind

Does Kabeyun offer challenge enough?

Sunday, November 23, 2008/by Chuck Mills/Go Back

A thoughtful parent writes, "...It makes me wonder if Kabeyun kids are challenged enough. Yes, going away, being away from parents and discovering oneself is challenging, especially for young kids. Doing new activities in a safe, nurturing environment is challenging. And maybe I'm trying to rush things; there is plenty of time for Tom to be challenged as he grows, to take on the wilderness (or what remains of it). But am I wrong to want my kid to be challenged physically, rigorously, outside of the organized sports venues, ...at camp?"

It would be easy to dismiss such an inquiry as the worry of an over zealous parent, caught up in our culture's Lake Woebegone Effect wherein every parent believes his children gifted and talented, bound for the Ivy League and World Cup soccer from a very young age. As a classroom teacher I grew so weary, indeed worried about the way so many parents were claiming boredom for their children - not challenged enough, needing more rigor in the curriculum, mindful of the testing each child would be forced to undergo and all we are told it means for their future. There was and is so much emphasis placed on the herd, keeping up and getting ahead, so whither the individual? What about personal passion and identity separate from the group? It is not for nothing that above the oracle at Delphi the inscription reads: Know Thyself. It is a fundamental need for each of us. Shakespeare comes also to mind: This above all else, to thine own self be true. But how do we find that self? Where do we find that personal core of strength and reservoir of resources that will allow us to find our happiness and work through the very real challenges that growing up and life itself throw our way on a daily basis?

But the question provides me the opportunity to look at our work at Kabeyun and consider it from a different angle. What is the value of challenge? Of being asked to enter into the struggle to go beyond personal limits, to take on discomfort and learn how to work through to the other side? We know what the value is: challenge makes us stronger, more able, and in the end, more confident in our own abilities. What more do we want for our children - to know thyself, thy personal strengths and limits; to know when to push them and why?

In his question he provides much of the answer, such is the result of thoughtful reflection. But beyond the aspects of the Kabeyun experience he mentions, what about it? Do we provide enough challenge at Kabeyun for the boys we are helping to grow? We may be at fault for distracting from the answer by the way we tend to talk about Kabeyun, the aspects we emphasize: we want the boys to be safe, to feel they can be themselves; we want them to have a blast and to make friends; we want them to feel supported and loved. Pretty straight forward. They have access to hot showers and flush toilets; a fine selection of food and a staff of over 40 caring adults to serve their needs. It is a comfortable place to spend a month of life each year, no doubt about it.

Are the boys challenged? You bet they are, and the challenges break out of the usual context of the herd - challenge defined by group norms, the movement and expectations of society. Images come to mind: the seven-year-old afraid to put his face in the water, struggling in his attendance at the required swim lesson, living through hours of frustration, waiting, and angst - this boy finally put his face below the surface in the seventh of the eight weeks of his stay. The nine-year-old boy who begins to work through the skills required of the first rating in sailing, and in the course of more than one summer, achieves that rating. He takes his friends out on Sunfish, a captain of his vessel, commander of the crew... then continues and works through the next set of skills for the next rating. By the time he is twelve he is handling the biggest boats we have, trusted by the instructors to take out groups of novice sailors during activity periods. I watch boys go to the craft activities and pursue unlikely ideas for projects - a chess set completely out of leather; a robot made of wood with fully articulated limbs and a light-up face; a ceramic rattle for a baby brother.... Challenged? You bet they are challenged, but they are the challenges of the best kind, growing out of the individual mind so that each boy discovers his own potential on his own terms.

I think of the bushwhacking trip that set out to climb a remote mountain without trails, a group effort, yes, but when this group of boys returned with muddied legs and scratches head to toe from the spruce and fir branches, chewed on by swarms of backcountry bugs, they each had an aura of pride about them, feeling a little bit bigger, more capable, having suffered through two days of uncertainty and physical discomfort. The decision to accept the challenge was their own, not driven by someone else's expectations of what they should be doing, or how well. They accomplished their goal, suffered, and came out the other end. What about the boy who decides to try to ropes course for the first time and fails to climb the 30-foot pole because he is stymied by a challenging move barely three feet off the ground? Then goes back the next week to try again... and a few days later again because he still failed? I watched this last summer. When that boy finally broke through the point where before he had been stymied, anyone watching could see the increase in him. Was it someone's requirement to accomplish this? No. Was he ostracized because of his failures? No. Could he have quit? Absolutely. On his own, he returned, and on his own he found the path to that reservoir of inner whatever he needed to push through and to get beyond.

Do these kids have encouragement and support? Of course they do - that's the most important part of the counselor's job. Does it help? We certainly like to think so. Is it always necessary? One has only to spend a few days at camp to know that it is not, that each boy has the ability to find in himself that reservoir - of strength, courage, stamina, perseverance. Do all boys face the same challenges? Ridiculous! Part of the Kabeyun experience is to learn to celebrate the power of the individual. Boys seek, and accept challenges on their own terms in their own time, and move forward, always forward, at their own pace. As parents we must face the challenge of allowing it to happen. Our experience cannot be theirs; our path of progress and growth must needs be different from theirs. The boy who swims the Thunderbird Swim (our mile swim that demonstrates, finally, competence in swimming and completion of which means no more required swim lessons) every Sunday for fun - is he more competent, more able, better in some way than the boy who tries Sunday after Sunday to do it once?

One of the greatest strengths of the Kabeyun program is the way we can offer opportunities for challenge at all levels. Boys move through ratings by mastering sets of hard skills; they take on more complex projects in the arts, or begin to play music in a group where before they only played solo; they take on bouldering problems on rock climbing trips that most of us will only ever read about in the likes of Climbing magazine, even as their trip mates cheer them on and take on problems at different levels. Considering a boy's tenure as a camper typically ends at age fifteen, I can say with confidence that the possibilities for challenge are almost endless - a boy only has to mention his desire to go beyond and a counselor will help to make it happen.

The parent who asked the question pointed to other arenas of personal challenge - social, and emotional challenges inevitable any time one is asked to live closely with others in an environment away from the safety net provided by a caring parent. The levels of these challenges are different for each in the same way as high adventure challenges, and the feeling and strength gleaned from successes just as valuable to the growth of each of us.

I could go on and on. Does Kabeyun provide enough challenge? The wonderous thing is that the challenges are unscripted, unassigned. Instead, they are sought after and created by the individual himself and celebrated and cheered by all - the kid who succeeds in putting his face in the water for the first time receives no less applause that the boy who climbs a 5-10. Nurturing? Yes. Supportive? Yes. Safe? We hope so! But none of these attributes precludes real challenge available for every boy, every day.

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