Bear With Me

In June of 1973, eight of my Troop 64 buddies and I hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail in Western North Carolina for a week. Although the exact locations and distances of this trek are lost to memory, it is no exaggeration to say that the last words we heard from an adult pointing at a map were, “We’ll pick you up next Monday at this point here."

The oldest of our group had just turned 18; some of our number were not yet high school graduates. Yet except for the danger or losing our breath from the altitude or the beautiful mountain vistas, there was nothing exceptionally treacherous about a week in the woods. Yes, the trail was muddy because of the summer rain. No, we did not always have dry socks. Yes, Ari Mecklenberg’s backpack was eaten by a bear, but, no, Ari wasn’t wearing his backpack at the time so it could have been worse.

Those of us whose backpacks had not been devoured by a bear gave Ari something to eat and something to wear. I have no subsequent information about whether or not the bear, in addition to eating Ari’s backpack, also ate Ari’s clothes or the state of the bear’s digestive system if he did so. I don’t remember Ari bathing much when hewasn’t 50 miles from the nearest shower, so maybe the bear got what he deserved if he got a tummy ache from ingesting too many of Ari’s sweaty tee-shirts.

In any case, I cannot help but compare teenagers finding their way across mountain trails a generation ago with teenagers today who are not allowed to walk the family dog around the block without a global positioning satellite device and air support. No wonder our kids want to try new things and end up making bad decisions. Our kids haven’t had the opportunity to make a bad decision (“Let’s go off the trail here and take this short cut which will turn out to add three hours to our hike so we can learn how to make camp in the dark!”) so how can they be expected to know how to make a good one? Their every hour and every action is prescribed: “Make a cross court passing shot,” “Read 30 pages of this book.” Time for reflection is unlikely, time for boredom unheard of.

Which is not to say that I am advocating for letting our adolescents trot off to the wilderness unsupervised to feed their backpacks to the nearest Ursa americanus. But letting children “find their own path” and “follow their own star” are more than just metaphors. Isn’t it our anxiety as parents that causes us to encourage our children to have their every hour spoken for? And aren’t we losing sight of what we truly want for our kids when we focus on their credentials rather than on their abilities, when we point to their grades on a piece of paper rather than to the knowledge in their heads?

"I have an A in Algebra II, Mr. Altshuler, so I can go to a good college, right?”

“I love math, Percy. Tell me what topic you’re enjoying the most.”

“Oh, we don’t actually learn math in math class. The math teacher is out on maternity leave and the substitute doesn’t know any math. So we watch movies with helicopter crashes. But the point is that I have an A in math, right?”

Children need some unstructured time to figure out who they are and what they want. It is more likely that they will assume the responsibility for their own learning and their own process if so.

Because at some point the issue isn’t what grades your child has on a piece of paper but the information, ability, and resilience she has in her own head. And wouldn't it be to her advantage if she could find her way from Point A to Point B using only a map and a compass; get along with some other sweaty adolescents; provide food and clothing for the unfortunate Ari Mecklenbergs of our world; and avoid being eaten by a bear?

10 thoughts on “Bear With Me

  1. ANGELA PEREZ

    I cannot tell you how much I enjoy your newsletter. Watching my sons raise my grandsons now say that I did a good job and they will as well.

    Reply
  2. Michael Kelly

    Perhaps David, we as teachers and parents can learn to reach more for the happy medium: switched off cellphones at the bottom of backpacks just in case. Oh, and probably in a bear proof container!

    Reply
  3. Kirk Kaplan

    Kudos for an especially good – and relevant – post. Kids NEED to get lost, work their way out of an uncooperative situation, learn a new skill that solves an unexpected problem. They need to be out from under the parent-copter at regular intervals to do this. Yes, they live in a more treacherous world than we did growing up, but coping with it when they become an adult requires some practice time battling unknowns and modest adversity during their formative years. The calculated independence we allowed my son enabled him to become a decisive, empowered, unafraid adult in a working world that is no cakewalk. The approach took guts (his and ours) but I’m very pleased with the outcome.

    Reply
  4. Robert Roddy

    Great story about growing up! Where did we go wrong in our society? Where are the risk takers? Who is willing in this litigious society to take responsibility and allow risk? if this continues what will we look like as a society in the coming generations?

    Reply
  5. A Alfonso

    I have someone who I love dearly who is finding her way through her trail, which has led her into drugs, alcohol, an abusive older boyfriend, and countless other “adventures”. I wish, with all my heart, I could get her on another trail. However, you are correct in stating that each of us must make our own choices. It is my earnest hope that she finds her way, at least relatively safely, through this treacherous journey in which she is engaged, to perhaps a safer and more satisfying part of her trail. I pray for her daily and watch, as calmly as I can, while she struggles to find her way.
    I enjoy your thoughts. Keep ’em comin’.

    Reply
  6. Ritchie Lucas

    Kudos on yet another outstanding post. Bear With Me clearly points out how we are raising a generation of “Tea-Cup Kids.” These are the kids that parents treat like fragile china dolls which in turn only make them hard and brittle. And yes, they easily break when not being handled with white gloves. Thanks again for infusing your amazing sense of these kids into some real world problems – Ritchie

    Reply
  7. Daniel Beauperthuy

    Thanks Dr.Altshuler! I appreciate your emails they are really good reads. This last one got to me it reminded me to stay on the right path, try your hardest everyday, and your dreams really can become possible!

    Reply
  8. Darren Prince

    David,
    I appreciate your comments here. I often think of the adventure activities and work that I did as a teenager and know that it molded me into an adult who can handle the rigors of life. I often think of a time as an adult when I had to drive my tractor in an Arizona Monsoon. As the driving rain was pelting my face I got a little emotional. It wasn’t from the rain, it was from thankfulness that my dad had prepared me for this. I had worked outside in horrible conditions many times as a youth and I knew that I was prepared to be albe to handle hard times. I hope my children can deal with driving rain as well:)
    Darren Prince

    Reply

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