Four years ago, as I leaned against a John Deere tractor watching a skinny 12-year-old boy dig fence post holes, stretch wire and nail it in place, I was struck by his total absorption in these tasks. Josh, whose family had moved to the southwestern Kansas plains a few years earlier, pointed out to me what was at stake: If he stretched the wire too tightly, it might snap, and the herd of Hereford crossbreeds would wander onto the highway, perhaps into the path of an 18-wheeler.
It was only later, looking back on that late August afternoon, that I began to understand the true significance of what I was watching. Josh was demonstrating a level of confidence in himself and his ability to manage his surroundings that is sorely missing in many kids _ and adults _ today.
At the time I met Josh, I was working on a book about how children handle the challenges of adolescence, and I spent a year closely studying a dozen youngsters between the ages of 11 and 15. I repeatedly was struck by how often we judge and reward youngsters according to their performance _ by the number of A's they bring home or track meets they win. We fail to acknowledge what psychologists call competence _ what 14-year-old Edwin Speaker called "staying on top of what you do and what you want to do."
Josh was becoming competent. But that wasn't just because he was working on a farm. Some of the other kids I studied, in places like Los Angeles and the medium-sized city of Durham, N.C., achieved the same result in different ways. These preteens and teenagers hung drywall, decorated the community center for Christmas or held down jobs because they enjoyed the activities and became absorbed in them _ not because they were going to be rated. They evaluated their own work, decided what was worth knowing or doing and what was not.
That's not to say that they didn't glow when praised; they certainly did. But their self-esteem sprang from being useful, not simply smart or beautiful or entertaining. Something was at stake in what they did for someone besides themselves. As Josh pointed out to me, if he flunked an algebra test, he was the only one who really suffered. But if he erected a flimsy fence, his boss could be out $700 for a cow.
If there's one message I hope to convey to my own son as he begins his junior year in high school, it's that, while schoolwork matters, I value just as much his competence in other areas, small and large: installing a towel bar in the bathroom, designing a Web page for our church, conversing easily with adults he has just met at a party. I find myself pushing my concern with grades aside to applaud instead his growing sense of power and purpose _ and more than once I've found myself following his lead in trying something new.
I was struck by Josh Ray's pride in his work outside school from the moment I met him in Kansas. Like many kids his age, he was comparing himself to others in the classroom and deciding he came up short. He had been placed in a top pre-algebra class, for example, but keeping up was a struggle. He had gone out for football and watched from the bench as other, bigger seventh-graders took to the field. He was a country boy so thin that, as his favorite author Louis L'Amour wrote, he "would have to stand in the same place twice to cast a shadow." His mother, Gail Ray, told me that in school "he seems increasingly content to be mediocre."
But he felt differently about what he did around the home place. Would I like to see the barn, he asked on my first visit, where he and his brother once raised peacocks? How about the birdhouse he had just built?
"I had no help, not even a little," Josh told me. "I cut everything, drilled everything, screwed everything. It don't look too good, but I did it all myself."
Josh's parents told me they had moved from suburban Denver to Kansas specifically to give Josh and his younger brother Zach more such opportunities. Gail talked a local rancher, Jess Hammer, into hiring Josh, and it was on Hammer's 3,000-acre spread that Josh learned to put up fences as well as sort cattle and bale hay.
Josh also learned to rope steers competitively, as did his brother and his mother. Spook, his roping horse, had a tendency to balk at first, and Josh spent almost a year training him properly. Gail told me she never watched her boys lope into the arena without feeling fearful. A steer could go crazy and gore the rider or horse. A rider could get thrown and break a collarbone, or worse. So Gail did something only a parent could understand: She decided to learn to rope steers herself. The night she first nailed one, she dismounted and practically bounced over to the boys, who had been watching. "Now I understand why you love this so much," she said.
More important, by learning to rope alongside her sons Gail showed them that becoming competent involves taking the risk of looking foolish when you fail. And that when you do fail, you climb back in the saddle. Josh recalled for me something his dad, Pat, said one night while watching Gail: "If you boys would put half as much effort into roping as your mother does, I'd be happy." Said Josh, "My mom's not very good, but she tries hard."
I often wondered that year whether Josh's new cow-handling skills would affect his attitudes and achievement in school. Scientists tell us that kids' increasing competence in one area frequently spills into another, although it's hard to pinpoint cause and effect.
In Josh's case, at least, that happened. By the end of his seventh-grade year, he had earned a spot on his school's honor roll. Three months later, he won a blue ribbon for photography at the Grant County Fair. His performance was anything but mediocre, and I believe it was his competence outside the classroom that led him to excel.
A thousand miles and a cultural world away, I also met Edwin Speaker, who lives in a modest bungalow in South Central Los Angeles. He was 8 when he started helping his father sell remodeled cabinets on weekends. He was 11 when he and his mother set up a booth on Venice Beach to sell African-American art, and just 12 when he ran the booth by himself. His parents had divorced when he was 8, his brother had stolen a car and landed in prison and several of his friends ran with the well-known gangs, the Bloods and the Crips. But his jobs, coupled with a passion for playing the drums, made him feel that he was becoming the master of his life.
I was there when his father underwent surgery on infected glands and Edwin volunteered to change his bandages every day. When a family friend said to him, "I hear you've been a big help to your dad," Edwin grinned and replied, "Dad kinda needs me."
Liad Stockfish, 12, acquired her sense of competence in a different way. Coming from a Los Angeles family that had lived on three continents, she was encouraged to learn a very adult skill: modern travel. When I met her, she had just taken her younger brother to Israel to see relatives, flying alone with him and changing planes in New York. At the age of 13, she flew by herself to India to visit the place she was born.
I was as startled as most parents would be by this freedom. But I eventually realized it taught her the same kind of self-confidence that Josh learned roping steers. I found her to be a resourceful young girl proud of her independence who was able to put her levelheadedness to good use in social situations. When two of her friends got caught shoplifting the year I followed her, for example, she scolded them. "They wouldn't have done that if I had been with them," she said.
Kids this age like to be given jobs that encourage them to think and act like adults. Such jobs are not as easy to find as they were when we were young. But parents can step in, turn off the television or the computer game and ask their kid to contribute to the family by cooking meals, shopping for groceries, painting a house or balancing a checkbook.
Every child is talented at something. That is one of the things that makes young adolescents so much fun to observe: Their talents are starting to emerge in full force. As parents and teachers, we need to take the time to identify and encourage these special abilities _ be they technical, athletic, artistic, social or academic. We need to talk less about what children lack and more about their strengths. Especially their inner strength.
Laura Sessions Stepp is a Washington Post reporter and author of "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children Through Early Adolescence."