Thirty-seven years ago, as a high school senior with three years of world history under my belt, I took an Advanced Placement test. History was my favorite subject, and back in my day only the top few kids in each subject would take the AP test. Last week, I dropped off my 14-year-old, 9th-grade daughter to take the same world history test. Her entire class, comprising mostly freshman, took the test. They have all studied very hard—even spent hours taking practice tests—and I think my daughter has done well. I still can’t comprehend how a freshman with a single year of history could be qualified to take this AP test, but that’s not my call to make. Parenting, however, is.
We as parents invest a lot of energy into helping our kids become smart and build résumés for their future. Childhood today has much more pressure and competition than when I was a kid. But what if, as a society, we chose to invest as many resources into building character: helping our kids be good and do good, as we are investing in helping our kids become “smart”?
In his recent bestseller, The Road to Character, pundit David Brooks articulates the theme of character. In his words, how does one build eulogy virtues vs. résumé virtues? In life, the skills we need for the job market, the attributes “essential” for our external and financial success, are often at odds with the virtues that we hope others would attribute to us at our funeral. These are the elements of our character, our virtues: the relationships we maintain, kindness, humility, gratitude, sacrifice, concern for others, morality, integrity, responsibility, and resilience.
As parents, we all feel the pressure to raise extraordinary kids. Summer has turned from a time of lazy days by the pool or playing in the woods to a two-month period packed with opportunities to set our kids up for success in the college admissions game: language courses, sports camps, SAT prep or “glamorous community service trips.” While these résumé building opportunities are abundant, “building character” isn’t usually scheduled on the calendar. In an age of constant and shallow electronic communication; fewer opportunities for meaningful contact with wise, often older role models; standardized testing rather than classroom discussion; and media that glorifies sound bytes and celebrity over substance; building character has also become more complicated.
Emphasizing character development in our kids demands that we be strategic. As parents, we typically seize teachable moments and examples and try to inspire our kids to learn humility from their successes or resilience from their mistakes. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have an outstanding teacher or coach that reinforces our values, but these days, we’re more likely to have role models who emphasize winning and skill development instead of empathy, caring or helping others.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get the same level of help with our kids’ character that we get with their résumé? We believe that character is not innate but malleable and building skills that contribute to character development is very doable. In essence it’s what we’ve been doing in our 22 years at Adventure Treks. I believe it’s the real reason so many of our students return each summer.
Sure, we love being outdoors, but truthfully, the outdoors is merely our medium. The community we create at Adventure Treks is a hospitable environment in which we nourish subtle opportunities for personal growth every single day. Because it’s in such different territory than home, the learning really sticks. Students volunteer to help others; push through challenges that aren’t always comfortable; work together toward a common goal against a backdrop of natural consequences; give and receive praise—all while emulating powerful, committed role models.
At Adventure Treks, no one is concerned about winning, or about looking good. We remove ourselves from pop culture and digital communication, and immerse ourselves instead in the simple and powerful beauty of nature. Here, kids gain perspective and a vision of the person they want to become. They get a glimpse of both their strengths and weaknesses, and through this, they build character. They can discover that they like themselves—not for what they have accomplished, but rather because of the people they are and the person they are becoming.
And though an Adventure Treks summer is ridiculously fun and filled with lots of laughs and great new friends, ultimately I send my kids to AT not because I run the program (I actually run the program so I can send my kids here!), but because I know that through a summer at Adventure Treks, I can provide my daughters a learning and growing experience that I can’t give them by myself. I know my values are being reinforced, but by people my kids think are cool, and sometimes that makes all the difference.