My 12-year-old son was invited to go rafting with our church youth group last weekend and I almost had a panic attack. Naturally, he wanted to go. All of his friends were going, and he appeared to be very, very, excited over the whole idea. Well, as excited as a pre-teen can get about anything. He smiled rather than rolling his eyes, which is huge.
Naturally, I asked a million questions: where are you rafting? Will there be rapids? How many? Is there an experienced guide? How many people will be on each boat, and how many people are allowed to be on each boat? Will he be provided a life jacket?
I could go on, but you get the idea. I basically grilled the poor youth leader, and even after he answered all my questions satisfactorily, I still woke up at 4 a.m. fearful for my son’s safety.
Now here’s the kicker, when I was his age, I didn’t exactly have rules. If I were invited to go rafting, I would have just gone and not told anyone, and no one would have asked any questions. By the time I was 12, my father had been gone for four years. My mother worked two jobs, one collecting payments for the power company during the day, and a second cleaning houses in the evenings. During Christmas time, she worked weekends at a music store. I really only had one rule and that was to be home before my mother finished cleaning houses, usually around 10 p.m.
Naturally, this was all a sad situation that I, as a pre-teen, took full advantage of, and during the summer, I basically lived in the Provo River, which was just down the street from my house. There was a secluded rope swing hooked to a half-dead tree that arched over a deep bend in the river. It was about 35 feet high, and half-striped of its bark from local kids climbing it. I can’t recall ever seeing an adult there, and to be frank, there was a particular brand of kid that hung out at the rope swing, and they weren’t the kids with over-protective parents. Plus it was the ’90s, and this sort of thing was socially permissible.
I can remember personally pulling children struggling to swim out of the river. I can recall almost drowning myself. I can remember climbing so high into that tree that the branches were snapping, and then jumping into water that couldn’t have been over my head. I can recall getting in a number of fist fights, and breaking up a few too. I can remember drugs and drinking and casual hookups. Older kids and younger kids, all of us doing whatever we pleased, all of us from broken homes.
I learned a lot hanging out at the river. I learned how to get into a bad situation and how to get out. I learned how to help someone out if they were drowning, and I learned how to take a punch.
But mostly, I learned exactly how dangerous it could be when wild pre-teens are left without parental supervision. I learned how easy it is to fall in with the wrong crowed. I learned how easily something could go wrong and a child might leave with a broken arm or a needing stitches or a concussion.
It’s the wildest thing… I assumed that my overly permissive childhood would cause me to be a little more laid-back with my own children, but in contrast, it’s made me incredibly paranoid about my own children because I’ve seen some things go bad. I’ve also lived long enough to see a lot of those kids I hung out with at the river make a bad turn, or two, or three, or a dozen, and realize that I watched them take those first steps onto the wrong road next to the Provo River. I’m 36, and a handful of those kids are dead from drug use or suicide. Another handful have spent time in and out of jail. Many of them became parents in their teens. Most of them dropped out of school at 16.
Now I know some of you are reading this and trying to understand how my son going rafting with our church group is going to make him fall in with the wrong crowd, and you know what, it probably won’t. But I can’t help but think of all the close calls from my free-spirited childhood. I can’t help but think of some of the accidents, and then wonder if my son might find himself in the same situation.
It’s almost like I’ve seen some things go bad, and although I made it out, I’m afraid my children might not. So I scrutinize what they do. I take a good look at their friends and try to lead them to spend time with good people. I want to know where they are, when they will be back, and I want them to trust me enough to tell me the truth about their activities.
And listen, I would never tell my children not to be friends with someone. But I suppose what having a lack of available guidance in my childhood has taught me is the value of advice and guidance from a loving parent. It’s caused me to fret more than I ever thought I would, and it’s caused me to give my children more advice than they probably need.
So once I got done getting all the answers about Tristan’s rafting trip, I went out and bought him a life jacket just to make sure he would be safe. I took him into the living room and talked with him about water safety and what to do if you fall out of a boat in white water. I even got on the floor and showed him how to keep his head above water with his legs out to protect him from hitting a rock and getting knocked out. I gave him all the advice I had, and the whole time he looked at me like I was this overly anxious father, which I was, but once it was all said and done, I felt a lot better about him going rafting. And I think he made the unfortunate realization that his whole childhood was probably going to look this way.
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