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Where the learning never ends ...

Listen to the Kid

Last year, I wrote a pair of articles for the classroom magazines Storyworks and Scholastic Scope about Jordan Romero, the wunderkind who has climbed the “Seven Summits”—the tallest mountain on each continent. The stories focused on his preparations for a 2010 attempt to summit Mt. Everest with his dad and his dad’s partner, the controversy about a 13-year-old taking the risk, and his ultimate success in becoming the youngest to ever stand at the summit.

As I did my research, I became increasingly puzzled by the disapproval and, in some instances, outright anger and disgust directed at Jordan and his family. Parenting blogs and their readers’ comments were often scathing. Other mountain climbers said Jordan didn’t have the judgment or experience to make the attempt. TV interviewers seemed barely able to stifle their tongue-clucking, sometimes insinuating that Jordan was some egotistical little poophead and trust-fund punk (he’s not), or that Jordan’s father—a paramedic—should be arrested for child endangerment. It was like some kind of morality play with Jordan playing the straw boy for grown-ups’ collective fears.

None of that jived with the young man I interviewed via phone after his successful ascent. Jordan struck me as a smart, funny, determined, tough, skilled, articulate, and thoughtful young man tackling life with a wind-burned grin on his cheeks. Before attempting Everest, he had already climbed five of the Seven Summits. He knew the risks, he knew people died climbing mountains, and near an Everest base camp that point was brought home when he witnessed an avalanche that killed another climber in a section he and his dad had just hiked. Jordan also knew that the Everest’s unpredictable weather might not offer a window for them to complete their quest. This wasn’t some standardized test where success or failure was measured in penciled-in circles, this was LIFE. And Jordan was living it in all its glory, ambivalence, pain, and grief.

What am I getting at? If we’re going to write for kids—whether its fiction or nonfiction—we need to open ourselves to finding out who they really are and what inspires them deep down. We need to hush our own preconceptions, fears, and judgments and give them the space to speak their truths, together with supported opportunities to practice and develop their strengths and beliefs.

Are there aspects of young people’s lives where issues of safety and wellbeing are factors? Sure. But unless we listen to our kids and young readers with respect and affection, we might miss the hints about the fears they carry and help they want. We may not hear the first whisper of that important hope or ambition they are nurturing. Worse, with a discouraging word or hostile opinion we may stunt or kill a dream that could uniquely inspire their lives and the lives of others.

In years, Jordan was 13. But he had already earned his foothold at the top of the world. His dad and other important adults in his life listened and heard his dream. His dad made no bones about telling Jordan the quest he was choosing to pursue would be the most difficult challenge he had ever faced, then supported him as Jordan developed the skills, built physical and emotional strength, and took the steps to make it real.

And I wonder if that is what has annoyed so many people so about Jordan Romero's accomplishments: he’s making his dreams happen while so many of us older and wiser folks continue to neglect ours. Perhaps because, at some point, we became convinced no one was listening, and we stopped listening to ourselves.
Now is always a good time to listen to the kid.
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