Wednesday, March 24, 2010

In Celebration of "Man Camping"

It's spring break week around these parts, and last night, my 14-year-old son invited a couple of friends over for what he called "man camping." That means the three of them took a tent to the creek bottoms that run through our field (less than a quarter-mile from the house) and spent the evening running around in the dark shooting at each other with soft-pellet air rifles.

My husband and I were betting these three boys wouldn't last the night in weather that hovered around 40 degrees, especially once the coyotes started yipping (they can sound like they are right on top of you, even if they are halfway across the field). We were wrong. After about 9:00 last night, we didn't see the boys again until 7:15 this morning when they came to the house for a "man breakfast" (cooked by a woman, of course - LOL). They were in high spirits. Apparently they had a great time. They even cooked their own supper over a campfire - hot dogs, hot chocolate mixed with instant coffee, and potatoes and onions fried in a cast-iron skillet. Supper was served about the time my husband went down to check on them for the last time, and he said the potato dish was hideous - the potatoes were barely cooked, and the whole dish was so heavy with pepper he couldn't taste anything else. But the guys were talking this morning about how great those potatoes and onions were. I guess independence is the best sauce.

I'm telling about the "man camping" because it came together in my mind with the book I just finished reading, Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson.  The protagonist of Anderson's book is 14-year-old Mattie Clark, who starts out with the self-centered, tunnel vision attitude of many a modern teen (maybe a little too close to modern teens, but more on that later).  Mattie lives in Philadelphia, which in 1793 was the capital of the new United States. The city is suffering through an unbearably hot, unbearably long summer.  But as summer drags on, a new threat emerges; people begin to fall ill with the dreaded yellow fever and to die, in staggering numbers.

I don't want to give spoilers here, so I'll just say Mattie's family -- and Mattie herself -- are touched by the fever.  Mattie faces some pretty tough circumstances, and at one point she is given a choice: she can go to the orphan home, where she may have to work hard but at least will have someone to take care of her, or she can go back home, where there are no guarantees of anything, including whether she will have another meal. (Ok, can't avoid a spoiler here - ARRGH) She chooses to go home, and the consequences of that choice force her to grow up. By the end of the book, Mattie is confident, competent, and comfortable in the role she's taken on.

What does this have to do with "man camping"? Stepping back. Sometimes we adults complain about how childish teenagers are, about how self-centered they are, about how they can't or won't do anything for themselves except recharge their iPods.  But maybe we are part of the problem.  How often do we step back and let our teens work things out on their own - even if they end up with inedible potatoes? Do we allow them the opportunities they need to find their own solutions, and to develop the confidence that comes with finding it?  Or do we hover over their shoulders, sharing our wisdom, until finally we see they are about to fail (by our standards) and step in to "save" the situation, leaving the teen feeling frustrated and like it's not worth trying?

I'm not advocating a completely laissez-faire approach to parenting teens - that would be dangerous in many ways! However, I think we have to recognize the opportunities that will give kids the chance to try their wings in an environment that is low-risk enough that they won't be hurt too much if things don't work out, but that they perceive as high-risk enough that they feel pretty good about getting through it.  For our family, "man camping" was a good opportunity. Hopefully, we can find other ways to help our kids make the transition Mattie made - without having to suffer through a dangerous plague!

A couple of notes: I said above that Mattie seemed awfully "modern" for the heroine of a historical novel. I'm not sure where I stand on that. I've not encountered other teen characters in historical novels who had the sort of disrespectful attitude and antagonism toward her mother that Mattie had at the beginning of the book, but....that doesn't mean teens in past ages didn't have those attitudes. Maybe it was the language, the way Anderson conveyed those attitudes, that seemed a little too modern.

Note #2: Blogger now offers the ability to include a link to Amazon to purchase the book. There's a possibility, I guess, that some reader of this blog might be so moved by my discussion of a book that they would be simply burning to buy the book, and I'll help make it easier for them.  You should know that I am not an Amazon Associate and will not receive any compensation if you do click on the link.

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