All the best children adventure stories have one critical thing in common. From the following sampling, see if you can guess what it is.
- The Chronicles of Narnia
- Harry Potter
- Sign of the Beaver
- Five Children and It
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
- From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
- The Percy Jackson series
- Where the Red Fern Grows
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Do you see it? All these and many more are wonderfully exciting stories have one thing in common: the absence of adults. The sad fact is adults will ruin a good adventure. They’ll insist on proper manners and balanced meals, and they’ll be sure to note that this is all far too dangerous and shouldn’t we all be going to bed? Buzzkills.
We want to keep our children safe, and this is right and proper. But we know — don’t we parents? — that we have to let our children have adventures. As much as I am aghast at how quickly my kids are growing up, I don’t really want them to stay babies forever. We want them to be strong and capable enough to take on the world. And part of that preparation to take on the world is to have their own private adventures (though perhaps not quite so exciting as those listed above.)
To prepare them for adventures, we have to equip them with the skills they’ll need to survive. If we want them to be capable in nature, we have to teach them how to tend a fire, how to build a fire (which involves the dreaded “playing with matches”), how to use tools like knives and ropes and camp stoves. If we want them to be independent, we have to teach them to cook and clean and, if not how to change the oil in their car, at least how to check it. That means they’ll have to use the stove and handle knives and be around heavy machinery. If we want them to be able to negotiate the vagaries of society, we have to let them find their way in their small social circles, to deal with friends who disappoint, people who lie, and bullies.
If we want our children to be strong men and women, we must let them try their strength now. I think about it whenever my kids have a well-child examination. Their doctor is excellent, a kind and capable physician, but she is timid. In addition to strongly urging all the “required” safety tips (helmets, backseats, booster seats, etc), and she has an aversion to “risky behavior” like tree climbing. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.
I also thought about it when I read this story of a school freaking out over a boy who brought a Swiss Army Knife to an overnight camping trip. My first reaction was that it’s just another in a long chain of over-reactions regarding “weapons.” And that certainly is true. But there is also this aspect of refusing to properly equip children for adventures, of denying them the opportunity to grow and be strong.
Another term for these adventure stories is “rite of passage” stories. They mark the passage from childhood into adulthood. But because of the overprotected, insulated world we’ve made for kids, that passage is getting later and later. I think not a little of that trend is due to the constant presence and intervening of adults — or older adults — in their lives.
In an effort to keep our children safe, we’ve made them weak. Because we deny them the adventures and risks of childhood, they’re increasingly incapable of facing the adventures and risks of life. That won’t do at all. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” Send your children out to be bold and adventurous, and go have some adventures of your own.