Give boys “impossible” challenges and watch them thrive

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There is something about boys and accepting challenges. With a little guidance and empowerment, they rise to the occasion.

“Go up a little higher on that next branch and have your brother hand the saw up to you,” I shouted up to my son. I was planted safely with two feet on the ground, having sent my two boys clambering up a pine tree in our yard as high as they could go. They were carefully pulling up behind them a wood saw and a thick rope. The tree needed to be cut down and, rather than pay an exorbitant price to a professional company, I convinced myself that I and my two boys, aged 11 and 13, could handle it.

So, there they were, perched on a branch about 25 feet in the air, taking turns sawing away at the trunk. Rather than gamble with toppling the whole tree over all at once right by several buildings, I showed the boys how to tie one section of the trunk to a lower section and then saw through the trunk in the space between. It’s an old trick I learned back when I would cut down trees as a landscaper during a high school summer job. That way, the tree can come down in a few sections that won’t fall too far or too randomly.

The job wasn’t easy. Not at all. I don’t own a chain saw so I sent the boys up with a wood saw to operate by hand. Their task was to take turns until the job was done. I gave them safety tips, helped them get started, and left them to it. After watching for a few minutes, it became clear they didn’t need my supervision or micromanagement. Even though the job is a hard one, they tackled it with persistence and enthusiasm. This was their chance to accomplish a difficult, meaningful, grown-up task.

Up to the challenge

The boys loved it. They stayed in the yard for hours working away at the task. I came out to assist when they got to the more dangerous part of letting the main trunk crack and fall. I pitched in with lowering the separated trunk safely to the ground. Then I showed them how to break down the tree by sawing off the smaller branches and hauling the piles to the dumpster. They set about the task industriously. Eventually, over the course of a few afternoons of work, they got the entire tree chopped up and cleared away.

We were left with a stump. If you’ve ever pulled a tree stump out of the ground, you know this is the worst part. I didn’t look forward to hacking through all those roots and the inevitable blisters on my hands from such hard work. I decided to have the boys do that, too. Out came the shovels, saws, axes. Again, a lecture and demonstration on safety. Again, they set to the task with enthusiasm.

Removing that stump took a few more afternoons of intermittent work. I did pitch in and do my part this time. After all, there is great joy for a father in doing hard labor with his sons. Finally, with a great shout of triumph, we dislodged the stump from the earth.

There’s something about boys and accepting challenges. They rise to them. They thrive on them.

Three boys sitting in a tree

Sabphoto | Shutterstock | Altered by Aleteia

No sneakers, no complaints

To take another example, I was talking to a friend the other day about our parish altar-serving program. When I first arrived at the parish, I was amazed at how many boys there were. (We’re an oratory dedicated to the Traditional Latin Mass and only have male altar servers.) We have about 60 boys who all know how to serve. They exhibit enthusiasm, dependability, and discipline — down to the way they kneel on the stone floor and fold their hands. There are no rebellious comments about our no-sneakers-while-serving rule or complaints about lining up to pray post-Mass prayers in the sacristy. In fact, the boys can’t seem to get enough of it.

I was marveling about this to a friend, who responded, “Do you know how the server program became the way it is?” I didn’t, so he filled me in on the early days of training the boys. Back when everyone was still learning, the boys didn’t yet have the habitual discipline to remain quiet and reverent in the sanctuary. A few of them were misbehaving near the altar, so the young man in charge of training them paused the entire training session, took all the boys outside, and had them do wall-sits to instill some discipline. The boys moaned but accepted their fate. After a few minutes, they actually began to challenge each other and brag about who could do it longer.

They had risen to the challenge and, even more, had begun to increase the difficulty. Today, the boys as a group are the best servers I’ve ever seen. The goal was set before them, the expectations were high, and they rose to the occasion.

Respect and empowerment

Boys, of course, are all unique individuals. When I talk about challenging them, I don’t mean to merely focus on physical challenges and group discipline. I also include a group, say, the group of orphan boys who hung out with St. John Bosco, and how the great saint respected and encouraged them to fulfill their potential in all sorts of ways. I have in mind a father who encourages his son to tackle a difficult science project and volunteers to work with him on it; or to rise to the challenge of trying out for the school play and running lines with him; or assists him in boldly thinking outside the box.

We aren’t trying to fit the boys into a pre-made system or make them anxious about overly lofty expectations. Rather, the idea is simply to let them know they’re capable of great things if they put their mind to it.

It seems that every time I challenge my boys and empower them to be able to follow through on the challenge, they exceed what they thought they could accomplish. They mature and grow. In this way, they’re learning to become men, how to set a goal and achieve it, how to thrive.

So, I say bring on the challenges. Give boys hard tasks to accomplish. Equip them and give them guidance, but then sit back and just watch how much more they can accomplish than anyone would’ve expected. It seems that nothing is impossible for these young men.

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