photo credit Jack Affleck

Whitewater Rafting is Like Parenting a Teen

My teen daughter and I recently went whitewater rafting on the Colorado River as part of a trip to Vail to check out what summer in the mountains is like. The stunning scenery at every turned wowed us both, as I expected. What I did not expect, however, was how closely our whitewater rafting would parallel the adventure that is raising a teen. Here are 5 ways that whitewater rafting is just like parenting teenagers.

Before you get started, there’s a lot of anticipation and fearing the worst.

Doing anything for the first time comes with a bit of trepidation, whether it involves offspring or vacation plans. It’s normal to be apprehensive.

The reaction from people you know can exacerbate these feelings. Often, people look at you with a mix of fear and pity when you tell them that you are the parent of a teen. (Teenagers need a PR campaign because they have a pretty bad rap.) Some folks also give you interesting looks or blatantly question your sanity when you say you’re going to voluntarily hurl yourself down a rushing river.

Then there are people who pause for a split second before exclaiming, “Fun!” when they hear about either the age of your kids or about your rafting plans. Those people are both a little crazy and a lot awesome. Stick with them.

There are awkward moments, especially in the beginning.

“Pick up the boat and let’s go!” our guide Jess commanded when we had arrived at our launching point. She yelled loudly enough to be heard over the passing train on the other edge of the Colorado River, and it was clear she wasn’t messing around. I grabbed a handle of our yellow raft and lifted. I was surprised by how heavy it was, but a mix of fear and pride kept me from dropping it as I stumbled onward. My forward progress, if we can even call it that, was awkward and uncomfortable. It was not an auspicious start.

Similarly, when you’re having all kinds of conversations with young teens about bodily fluids, illicit substances, and other tricky topics, it can feel awkward and uncomfortable.

Over time, you find a bit more of a rhythm. I’m not saying I’ve got either rafting or parenting figured out, but there’s less cringing on both fronts.

It isn’t easy, but there’s no turning back.

On our rafting trip, very soon after we hit the icy cold water, we were in some Class 3 rapids. There wasn’t much, if any, warm up. As the bracingly cold water washed over us and our raft, I wondered if I really wanted to do this. A quick glance back at where we entered the water, which was now far away, made it clear that there was no going back.

The same happened when my daughter became a teen. One day she was little, and then she wasn’t. I was startled by the issues that cropped up at ages 13 and 14, like kids bringing weapons to school and classmates self-harming.

The teen parenting waters can also be choppy right off the bat, and there’s also no going back. Your kid can’t unsee or unhear anything. You’re along for the ride, and getting off isn’t an option.

Paddling together is easier in theory than in practice.

Our guide Jess repeatedly stressed the importance of paddling together at the same time, on her call. Our raft was a group of strangers who had never met and while we tried hard, we were far from perfect. There were times when paddles were not synchronized and ended up touching, and when some people not paddling at all because they didn’t hear Jess’ instructions. We all had the best of intentions; it just didn’t always work out as perfectly as we would have hoped.

My husband is an amazing parent and while we typically work really well together, there are times when our parenting oars are not exactly in sync. Some days, we fail to anticipate what the other will do/say/think/feel with each parenting issue we face. While I may not always agree, I’m grateful that he keeps me balanced. If it was just me paddling, literally or metaphorically, the result would be just going around in circles.  We’re both trying our best. While there are wobbles, just as in rafting, our family boat keeps moving forward.

There can be some moments of calm.

Once we got through the Class 3 rapids, there was a stretch of calm water as the river stretched peacefully out before us. We just floated peacefully. There was time to gaze in awe at the mountains rising up all around us, and even to spot a herd of antelope among the pine trees. It was blissful. I am certain I appreciated those moments more than I would have if we hadn’t just been through a tumultuous stretch.

Unsurprisingly, when our guide asked whether we preferred the rapids or the calmer parts, my teen went with the rapids. She loved that spray of cold water in her face and the rush of adrenaline that came with the speed. I, however, voted for the calm. And the truth is, the trip wouldn’t have been nearly as good without them both. They provided balance. I’m going to try to remember that when things with my teen get choppy, as they inevitably do.

For the remaining years that I’m parenting a teen, I want to focus on the joy in those crazier moments. Those more frightening moments were when our raft made the most progress, and that’s true of parenting, too. I’ll work on appreciating the child rearing rapids more, secure in the knowledge that moments of calm are ahead. I know there is beauty in both.

It’s over pretty quickly and leaves you wishing for more time.

I was simultaneously marveling at how adult my teen looked perched on the other side of the raft and noting the beauty the gorgeous red rocks for which Colorado is named just beyond her when Jess announced that we had come to the end of our rafting trip. I was sad that the journey was over. Also, I felt surprise at how much joy there was along the way and how quickly it went.  I immediately began looking forward to the next adventure. I suspect it will be the same when I come to the end of my journey as the parent of a teen.

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