Everyone likes to say that there’s no better place to grow up than in the Rocky Mountains. Building snow forts, riding your bike everywhere, learning how to find your way out of the woods when you’re lost. But for kids having a hard time, no one’s handing them a map and compass. In Wyoming, kids are incarcerated and dying of suicide at higher rates than anywhere else. Longtime education reporter Tennessee Watson started to wonder if all this had to do with the “cowboy up” attitude we take toward child-rearing in the American West.



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With a star filled night sky above him, a cowboy holds a lantern, staring into a cave. "Cowboy Up" a new season from The Modern West


Please take care when listening. And if you’re struggling, call the Suicide Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]

I grew up in a tiny town in northern Colorado. And I loved the sense of freedom I felt as a kid. I rode my bike all over town feeling confident, knowing that my neighbors would look out for me. So when it came time to raise my twin girls, I wanted them to have that experience, too. So we moved to Laramie, Wyoming. It’s bigger than my hometown but still has that small-town feel. Every summer, we take backpacking trips into the mountains. And every winter, we cross country ski into the backcountry. 

A dreamy place to be a kid, right? 

But the suicide rate is extremely high and the way they treat kids who don’t walk a straight line is extremely ridiculous. It just makes my heart sink just thinking about it. 

Despite seeming like the perfect place to grow up, states in the American West have some of the highest teen suicide and juvenile incarceration rates in the nation. And Wyoming, where we live, is 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 we bring you 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. 

Tennessee: I moved to Wyoming after a decade of teaching journalism to teens in big cities like New York and DC. And when I rolled into Laramie a blizzard had taken the power out. But everyone reassured me that I’d be fine in this vast rugged place because people here look out for each other. I mean you should keep a sleeping bag and snacks and water in your car in case you slide off the road and get stranded, but eventually, someone will come along and help you out.  

I went into my new job as an education reporter curious what it was like to grow up in these close-knit communities. Turns out kids in Wyoming aren’t always getting the support they need.

I’ll be more than happy to pull over and help you fix your flat tire. I’m more than happy to do that. But I really don’t want to fix your kid. That’s kind of the attitude.

In this season of The Modern West, we’ll take a look at Wyoming’s attitude towards struggling kids…going all the way back to Wyoming’s first state-sanctioned execution in 1892 of a boy named Kansas Charlie.

It’s all over the newspapers. It made national news. You know, it was, it was a big deal at the time. 

Wyoming doesn’t hang teenagers anymore, but kids and their advocates say we’re still more punitive than we need to be. 

Once you are painted as a bad kid, that brushstroke follows you.

While many states are reshaping juvenile justice policy in response to research showing that troubled kids respond better to support than punishment, Wyoming is lagging behind. 

I’ll talk on the phone to Donald who’s still incarcerated for a crime he committed as a kid.

When I say my self-esteem was low, it wasn’t low, it was non-existent.

And we’ll hear the story of Jess who found herself falling through the cracks 

I was so furious that I even considered dropping out of school because I was not being heard. 

And we’ll visit with grandparents who are working hard to pull their granddaughter Kate back from the brink.  

I don’t know, it’s just a scary walk through a dark forest.

Stories of Western kids lost in the juvenile justice system… and the grown-ups that, against all odds, help them survive.

Cowboy Up: a three-part series arriving in your feeds on January 5th. Download it wherever you get your podcasts. Be sure to follow The Modern West now so you can be sure not to miss it. And connect with the conversation on social media, by following us @modernwestpod.

Cowboy Up art by Eda Uzunlar

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