October 21, 2013

What did you do when you were 15?

I heard an interview with Malala Yousefzai on the radio the other day. After being shot in the head by the Taliban for going to school, the 15 year old has gone on to become a world-famous advocate for girls’ education. She spoke more confidently and articulately than I (with my Ivy League grad degree and more than 10 years on her) could ever do. I’ve known a lot of 15 year olds in my time working at camp and in schools and foster care agencies, and few have the drive and maturity of Malala. Most are most passionate about their clothes, their cell phones, and at best sports. This got me thinking: What conditions inspire young people to overcome odds and rise to success? Are some kids just born with that special something? Or does it have to do with the way they are raised and the opportunities they are exposed to?

People say “kids will cope with what’s put in front of them” and I’ve seen this play out numerous times. There was the 12 year-old girl who taught herself how to cook and clean and take care of her younger siblings while their father was at work after their mother died. There was the 16 year old getting through high school while caring for her 18-month-old twins. Every young person will face challenges. They probably won’t be as tragic or debilitating as being shot, or as life-changing as having babies, but kids do show incredible resilience.

But it wasn’t Malala being shot that made her into the incredible young woman she is. At 11 she wrote a blog for BBC telling the world about life under Taliban rule and her views on promoting education for girls. A year later she was featured in a New York Times documentary and nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize. Despite receiving multiple death threats, she continued to fight for her cause until being shot 3 years later on her way home from school. Malala credits her passion to her father, who was an educational activist himself and encouraged her to continue going to school and share her story with the world. Certainly parental role-modeling and encouragement plays a large part in shaping young people’s values. But I’ve also known a good number of young adults who come from upstanding, socially engaged families who do NOT end up following in their parents’ moral footsteps.

I think back to when I was 15 and what drove me, and what stands out is social feedback. When I was in situations where it was “cool” to be nice, sporty, and loud, I let that side of myself show. But when it wasn’t, I sometimes pretended to be someone I wasn’t. Sure, it was my parents who taught me that kindness, strength and assertiveness are desirable qualities, but I wouldn’t have adopted those as part of my public identity unless they had been valued elsewhere as well. And I’m sure Malala wouldn’t have persevered toward her goal as much as she did unless her friends had been there backing her up.

We all know that young teens are striving to develop identities that are independent from their parents, which is why we often see so much rebellion and conflict. As camp staff, we are in a unique position between parents and peers where we have more influence on our campers than either alone. We are both role models AND providers of social feedback. At camp we get to decide what values we want to promote, and make them “cool.” If you want your child to become a competitive sports star or math genius you don’t send them to Arowhon, because those are not the values we have chosen to promote. But if you want your child seek challenges, appreciate the natural environment, and learn tolerance and inclusion, we’re the place for you. So to answer my own question, I do believe it is nurture over nature that shapes young minds. But as kids grow older, the nurturers that have the most influence on them are increasingly outside the home and closer to their own age.


by Mara Kates

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