Teenagers and Risk: lessons from whitewater paddling

Bruce Lessels understands teenagers and whitewater. As a 15-year-old with “a lot of energy that was undirected” in Belmont, Mass., in the 1970s, Lessels started going on kayaking trips organized by AMC’s Boston Chapter. It was a different time then: “My mom would drop me off,” Lessels recalls, “and I’d head to some river with these adults.” The teenager learned quickly and kept upping the ante on challenge and adrenaline. Before one particularly serious trip, Lessels’ mother said to him, ‘‘I trust that you have a good enough survival instinct that you’ll make good decisions.’’ The combination of his mother’s trust and her concern for his survival worked powerfully on the teenager. “Right, I have a survival instinct,” Lessels remembers thinking. “I’d better use it.”

Lessels went on to become a member of the U.S. whitewater team. Twenty years ago, he co-founded an outdoor adventure company in western Massachusetts, Zoar Outdoor, with his wife, Karen Blom. They wrote the AMC guidebook Paddling with Kids, which discusses age-appropriate paddling instruction, programs, and competition opportunities for youth through age 18, and are now the parents of two teenagers themselves.

When teaching teen kayakers, Lessels draws on two seemingly contradictory insights about adolescents: One, teenagers are drawn to risky behavior, trying new things, and testing limits; and two, teenagers look to adults to help navigate the sometimes treacherous waters between childhood and adulthood. Lessels has applied these insights to teaching whitewater kayaking, but the lessons apply off the water, too.

1. Understand that teenagers learn and assess risk differently than adults. They’re more likely to be intrigued by risk, and drawn to it. At the same time, they’re less likely to have acquired the experience to avoid mistakes. Lessels recommends putting the “drive for adrenaline” to use, but channeling it and providing structure as teens develop skills and experience.
2. Lead by example. Teens learn extraordinarily quickly, especially if they can imitate a skilled, trusted adult. “They see adults making smart decisions on the river,” Lessels says of young paddlers. A one-on-one mentoring process helps them develop skills and assess and manage risk.
3. Use milestones. Good programs follow a progression of mastery — and clear safety guidelines. At Zoar Outdoor, instructors will hold eager paddlers back from making particular runs until the students have mastered the appropriate skills. But Lessels cautions parents to check their assumptions, too: “Sometimes we hold kids back from doing something because we can’t do it.”
4. Harness their desire to play off each other. “I hear a lot of constructive competition” among young paddlers, Lessels says. “They’ll say, ‘If you did it yesterday, I can do it tomorrow.’”
5. Get them before they learn to drive, when they still need you to get around.
Lessels never loses sight of the fact that whitewater paddling is an activity that involves real, and sometimes serious, risks. But he also sees risks in not allowing kids to practice taking risks. “The world isn’t risk-free,” he says. He would rather help them build confidence in their ability to handle many situations. “You want to encourage kids to take risks that are good risks,” he says. “And that means being prepared for them to come back sometimes with bruises.”

As his own children have entered their teenage years, Lessels has acquired new appreciation for what his mother did when she let him go on those long-ago AMC weekends: “It takes a lot of courage to have that much faith in your kids.”
“Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

  • Learn more about Zoar Outdoor and Team Z, a freestyle kayaking team that includes several teenagers. The site includes blogs and videos.
  • AMC chapters offer many opportunities for families to learn outdoor skills together. Search AMC's trip database by activity, date, or location.
  • AMC runs Teen Wilderness Adventure programs during the summer months that include a variety of paddling opportunities.

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