The American West seems like a dreamy place to be a kid, right? Horseback riding out your back door… sledding on the 4th of July from the top of a mountain…learning how to find your way out of the woods when you’re lost….
But for the kids having the hardest time, no one’s handing them a map and compass.
States in the American West have some of the highest teen suicide and juvenile incarceration rates in the nation. And for decades Wyoming has been among the worst on both fronts. And you’ve got to wonder: How can a place that seems so idyllic for kids also be such a harsh and unforgiving place to grow up?
This season of The Modern West offers Cowboy Up, a three-part look with reporter Tennessee Watson at how we raise children in the American West. Tennessee has covered education and child wellbeing for years and has thought a lot about what shapes Western attitudes towards struggling kids. She speaks to those who have experienced the carceral system themselves and hears how they might have been better supported as young people. She speaks to Wyoming educators, who know first-hand what their communities need. Watson’s journey ultimately reveals how a lack of resources and long-standing values around individualism and toughness have left some youth stranded.
The series starts way back in 1892 when Wyoming hosted its first execution of an infamous boy murderer named Kansas Charley. Charley endured a childhood of trauma before getting stuck on an orphan train headed west. His story became national news and everyone at the time debated: was he a monster or a child?
This season offers stories that echo Charley’s. The death of Kate’s mom and her struggle with a learning disability gets her and her grandparents in trouble. How Larissa ends up incarcerated for 16 months for a fight when the recommended sentence is only six months. And how teachers and parents fight hard to help them navigate a world that still can’t answer that age-old question: are they monsters or children?
Cowboy Up Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 are out now. The Modern West is available for download on all major podcasts apps and can be streamed at themodernwest.org. find the Modern West on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @ModernWestPod. Melodie Edwards is the senior producer of The Modern West, at email@example.com. The Modern West is a Wyoming Public Media production focusing on Wyoming and evolving culture of the American West.