Teenage boys and the pull of the wild

Teenage boys and the pull of the wild by Sarah James

We live next door to a rock pool with a cliff face that juts up out of it. Hot summer weekends sees the car park crowded and you can hardly see the green water for people splashing and swimming about. Even on those super crowded days you will still find people, mainly young men, scrambling up the cliff, teetering on the edge and then flinging themselves into the water below.

One stinking hot Sunday in the middle of the Christmas holidays me, and all of the kids, were sitting in the creek up stream from the rock pools when we heard the eerie sound of sirens meandering their way into the valley. As the sun sunk hours later behind the mountains, taking the heat of the day, we learnt that a teenage boy had jumped off the cliff face, smashed the back of his head on a submerged rock and then his body had got stuck, wedged underneath a ledge. It took an hour to find him, a fourteen-year-old boy pulling him to the surface.

I felt sick that night tucking my children into bed, kissing their warm cheeks. I swore silently to myself that none of my boys would be cliff jumpers. We would teach them about the dangers young, we would talk and talk and talk so that none of them had the urge to throw themselves off a cliff.

And they didn’t, for the longest of times. And I thought I was so clever. I thought I had it completely sorted, boys and risk, it was just a matter of talking to them for long enough and from a young enough age and then they would get it, they would understand that there was no point and behave in a safe way so that their mother could feel completely at ease as they ventured off into the big wide world.

But then Jack, our oldest, grew up. At sixteen he was going down to the rock pools by himself. I assumed he was being sensible; that all the talking we’d done about cliff jumping had sunk in, so much so that I didn’t even ask. Until one day, when we were all watching a movie that him and his mates had made, and there was Jack running off the cliff ledge, jumping out and doing a back flip towards the cliff, a ‘gaigner’ it’s called. The sort of flip where one slip could see brains smashed all over the rock ledge before your body landed awkwardly in the water.

We had another long talk about why this probably wasn’t a good idea. Pete, my husband, sat there with us but he was suspiciously silent. Jack agreed and I thought that was that, stupidly, naively I thought he wouldn’t do it again. A few months later the video evidence was put in front of us again.

‘Jack!’ I said, looking over at him.

He smiled and shrugged, ‘I know, I thought about not doing it, but I can’t help it.’

‘Pete?’ I looked at my husband wanting him to say something.

‘Looks like fun,’ and then he laughed. I wanted to throttle him. I wanted to throttle both of them but instead I burst into tears and left the room.

Pete followed me and sat with me until the tears stopped.

‘How can you do that?’ I asked him.

‘Do what?’

‘Make light of something so serious?’

‘Well it does look like fun,’ he smiled at me gently.

‘It looks like he’s going to kill himself.’

‘I don’t think so, maybe, but probably not. He’s skilled. It’s a risk but a calculated one. Teenage boys need risks and there’s no amount of talking that will change that.’

I wanted to scream and yell and protest, most of all though I wanted to put my teenage boys in a bubble and never let them out.

Pete sat there and explained patiently to me that two things would happen if I banned them from exploring risk. Firstly they wouldn’t tell us what they were doing. If they stopped talking then there could be no conversation about risk management, no conversation about when a risk out weighed the benefit of the thrill. Secondly, if they weren’t allowed to explore their limitations in nature, put themselves up against the forces of the wild, cliff jumping, surfing big waves, they would seek it in other much unhealthier ways, like racing cars on the highway or illicit drugs.

‘You have to let them go honey, as hard as it is, you have to trust them and as a man who has been there, you have to trust me. This is part of the process of becoming a healthy, courageous young man.’

As much as I wanted to hold on and cling tight I could see if I did the only person I would be looking out for was me. It was time to surrender my boys, well Jack at least, to the pull of the wild.


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