When I'm not writing about children and families, I'm covering brain science. Mix those two together and you can see why I'm fascinated with the question of whether teenagers' brains, which are still under construction, make them immature and unreliable, fit only to download Jonas Brothers MP3s. That seems to be the message we get from popular culture and from the legal system.
The new research on how the brain develops has led me to start looking for competent teenagers—not kids who get perfect SATs, but ones who are working on learning the skills they'll need to be responsible, compassionate adults. In that search, I just came across Alex and Brett Harris, 19-year-old twins from Gresham, Ore., whose new book, Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations, challenges teenagers to push beyond their comfort zone. The Harrises also hosted "Do Hard Things" conferences for teenagers in seven cities last spring and summer. I caught up with Alex and Brett as they were packing to head out for freshman year at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va. Here's an edited version of our conversation:
What brought you to become obsessed with teenagers doing hard things?
Alex: It all really started in the summer of 2005, when we were 16-year-olds. We were involved in competitive high school debate and speech, but we were bored. Our parents, along with us, decided it was time to move on to the real world. One day our father came in with a big stack of books, and put us on an intense reading program: The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene. It was really a horizon-expanding experience for us. Tom Friedman was talking about young people in China and India and how they were really applying themselves and coming up with amazing results. Contrast that with American kids, where we have an entitlement mentality and are complacent and apathetic. Our culture tells us this is the time to goof off and have fun.
In August 2005, we started a blog, writing about the myth of adolescence. It was really just a place for us to develop those ideas. Immediately we had young people on there. They were saying, "This is exactly what I'm experiencing at school." We realized we had tapped a nerve.
What the heck is a rebelution?
Alex: We called our blog the rebelution for rebelling against low expectations. We're trying to break the stereotype that if you're a teenager you're automatically immature, self-absorbed, and rebellious. Teens are able to accomplish some pretty incredible things. Really meaningful, significant, world-affecting things.
Brett: There are three pillars to the rebelution: character, competence, and collaboration. It's not just about having good intentions but actually having the competence to do something about it. Finally, collaboration is crucial; working alone can only accomplish so much. When we're talking about doing hard things, that's the way we achieve character. That's the way we exercise and increase competence. And that's the way we tackle big things that are too big to do alone. We attract like-minded individuals.
Give me an example of what you consider an incredible thing.
Alex: Zach Hunter, who is 16 now, discovered modern slavery when he was in middle school. He had been reading about the great leaders like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and then discovered that there are more people in slavery now than during the slave trade. He realized that there are kids out there being oppressed and that someone had to do something about it. In seventh grade, he founded Loose Change to Loosen Chains, a program that has just had incredible impacts. [The organization helps students start school groups to advocate against slavery and educate consumers about products made with slave labor.] And he was a shy kid who suffered from extreme anxiety attacks throughout middle school. He actually had to be taken out of school for a while because he couldn't cope. Another kid discovered the plight of AIDS orphans in Africa at age 9, and by age 14 had raised a half-million dollars to support their education.
You're Christians, and being Christian is a big part of your effort. Does that turn off people who aren't religious?
Alex: We've gotten a great response from people who say they're on the opposite side of the spectrum, politically and ideologically, because the core message they wholeheartedly agree with. We believe that doing hard things is a means of growth because that is how God has made us grow, but that's not something we have to agree on—anyone can agree on growth.
You're talking about more than just getting perfect SAT scores and getting into 16 colleges, right?
Brett: We're not talking about getting the perfect SAT score. We're not just talking about school. We're talking about all of your life, we're talking about how you grow and stretch yourself. One of the main points we make is that it's OK to fail at hard things.
At one of our conferences we had a push-up contest: I challenged all the guys to do 100 push-ups. Most of the guys didn't even try because they knew they would fail. A few did it because they knew they could. I hit 10 and I couldn't get off the ground. But I got a good workout. And I kept pushing myself. There are parents who push their children, but it's often all about reaching a standard the parents have set. If the goal is growth, then parents should let children know it's OK to fail, which is what our parents did for us. It's OK, if you've tried your hardest.
At our conferences, we poll the young people and get live feedback to this question: What statement best describes you? Don't care; just doing enough to get by; coasting; or exerting myself. Only 1 out of 4 young people say they're exerting themselves.
Alex: Our generation is ready for more. They do want to be challenged, and when they are, they are ready and willing to step up.
Are teenagers ready to tackle life-changing challenges? Or is their judgment and responsibility not yet up to the task? What do you think? And do you know a teenager who is doing hard things? If so, please comment below, or E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.