Last fall, our family acquired a new kid – a pimply, smart-mouthed, eyebrow-pierced, funny-as-heck foster child named Harlan.
Harlan, who is 15, had spent the last two years of his life in a city in a neighboring state, where he enjoyed precisely three activities: Hanging out on street corners with shady characters, walking around the mall and playing video games.
His move to our farm was abrupt. One day he was wandering the city unsupervised, surrounded by an infinite number of ways to get in trouble. The next day there really was nothing for him to do other than hang out with some goats.
It was culture shock, for all of us.
Fortunately, back before he moved away to the city, before puberty crept up and turned him into a video-head, Harlan had lived just down the road from us and used to spend quite a bit of time at our farm. So, at least Harlan had some early exposure to country life.
This year, Harlan came to live with us – my husband and I, our two preschoolers, and my 13-year-old stepson, Nik – full time.
Nik, too, has run up against that wall known as “puberty,” and in the past 12 months or so changed from a sweet, happy-go-lucky boy into the kind of teen who dyes his hair yellow and sneers with the least provocation.
So, this all leads us to a scary question: What are we going to do with two teenage boys this summer when they are not in school?
We don’t have television. We don’t have video games. I strictly control their computer use, mostly because our only household computer contains all my work-related and farm-related documents, and I fear a virus inadvertently downloaded with a pirated copy of a Korn album. Not to mention, we don’t have any pornography blocks (see aforementioned puberty problem).
The nearest mall is 65 miles away. It takes us 45 minutes and $10 in gas to get to the nearest movie theater.
Like most teenagers, the mere suggestion of going “outside to play” on a nice day seems, well, ridiculous to them.
But five years ago, Harlan and Nik used to spend hours outdoors lost in their imaginary games – dramas and battles based on, as near as I could figure, characters from Yu-Gi-Oh cards.
I’ll never forget the time they came rushing indoors, eyes wide in delight and fear, to tell me they had found a sipapu – which they described as a hole in the space-time continuum that leads to either a parallel universe or a spirit world.
They spent several months chasing creatures that had come through that sipapu. They had some elaborate theories about what caused the shimmery walls between the worlds to open up, mostly centered on thunderclaps and wind and certain very large boulders on the slope above our fields.
Gone are those happy days. Now, these boys are too cool for school, much less for sipapus and creatures from other worlds.
So, I’ve been worried about the month of June. We have work to do this summer, building a new house with our own hands, milking goats and selling vegetables at the farmers’ market. The last thing I want is two sulking teenagers hanging around making our lives miserable. I need something for them to do.
My first idea was bribery. I’d pay them to do various farm-related jobs. I’d have them milk goats, schlep bags of concrete and plant rows of beans. That plan ran into trouble, quickly. We immediately got into negotiations of hourly wages, required hours of work per week, vacation pay, etc. You’d think they had joined a union already.
“You should be glad I’m offering to pay you anything,” I suggested.
I am fairly certain we won’t run into this problem with our other two children, who are just barely past the toddler stage. They were born here, and by the time they are teenagers, they will have been expected to contribute to the farm life their entire lives. Being expected to work and entertain themselves without $500 worth of electronics won’t seem such strange concepts.
But Nik spends time with his biological mom in the big city. There, they have not only a PlayStation, but also an Xbox and 503 cable channels. More than anything else, Nik wants cash for more gadgets.
So I reworked the concept.
“I have an idea,” I said one day. “Do you guys want to make some real money this summer?”
“Heck yeah,” Nik said. “Then we could buy a PlayStation.”
Harlan: “Would we have to work?”
I explained my idea: They could grow a specialty crop for the farmers’ market, where we already sell many weekends during the summer. They would do all the work – the planning, the planting, the weeding, the watering, the harvesting – and they could keep all the money. And, they could pick their own crop. Squash? Cucumbers? (“Yes, Harlan, it does have to be legal,” I added.)
We settled on sunflowers. Big, tall, fat-faced sunflowers that sell for two bucks a stem.
If I work it right, and keep the enthusiasm going, I figure the project will take, oh, somewhere between 50 and 60 hours of their time this summer.
So that leaves us with another 2,000 teenage hours to fill.
In desperation, I turned to my friend Mary, who raised three daughters in much more isolated conditions – off the grid, way up in the mountains, eight miles from her nearest neighbor. They didn’t go out much, but instead waited for visitors (deer, bear, bird, human). Today, her daughters are thoughtful, beautiful, warm women. They are not addicted to television. They appear to have their heads screwed on straight.
“What did you do with them up there?” I inquired. “How did you keep them occupied?”
Mary kindly reminded me that her two older daughters bolted – went to live with their dad in a city two hours away – when they became teenagers and realized there were Gap stores and cute boys in the city.
But her third daughter didn’t have a City Dad to run off to – her dad was right there in the woods with them. She was stuck with the llamas, the ponderosa pines, the high Rocky Mountain peaks outside her window, her books, wooden ponies, dolls made of pine cones and felted wool.
“I remember many long, cozy days reading the Little House series of books, and various other series like The Black Stallion, and then every good kid book I could get my hands on,” Mary remembers. “Her dad made her a cool stick horse, and he had one, too, and they used to gallop around the land together. Otherwise, whatever I was doing, there she was right with me, doing it too.”
Which meant Aspen was planting potatoes and learning to work the solar pump to get water up to their cabin. Aspen made up stories to go with her dolls and wrote them down. As she grew older, she found her own interests: She learned to ride horses, and she got politically involved through the Internet.
If you can pull it off, raising your children in the country is one of the best things you can do for them – for both their physical and emotional health.
Recent studies show that children need what the experts call “unstructured” time – free hours without classes and lessons and projects lined up to keep their minds and bodies busy. Experts advise us: Let their brains run wild. If you take away the constant, frenzied feed of activity, trust that they aren’t going to just sit there forever. They’ll find something to do.
I’m often amazed at the objects that become toys around here – all I need is an old toothbrush and a spare sock, and my little ones are playing an elaborate game about taking babies (wrapped in socks) to the dentist in an airplane and hunting for lost beads to serve as teeth.
I remember once last summer, my 2-year-old spent more than an hour plucking the seed pods off the weedy ground cherries and carefully pushing them with his thumb into the loose dirt of a gopher mound. I couldn’t bear to stop him, even though I’d rather not have more weeds next year.
Here in New Mexico, what I thought was one of the most appropriate new taxes in history was recently introduced. Rep. Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat, proposed a 1 percent tax on video games and devices – all money would go to the schools for outdoor programs. Chasey’s bill relies on a study, detailed in the recent book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. (For an interview with the author, see “Saving Our Children from ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder,’” November-December 2006.)
Both of my teenage boys have lived in other homes, in cities, with cable TV and Mortal Kombat and shopping malls. They know all about South Park and Hot Topic clothing outlets (if your children don’t, be thankful).
But I don’t think either of them have any nature-deficit disorder. I believe some of those early years – like the summer they spent chasing spirits visiting from a parallel universe – ultimately have helped both of them. Although I often get sullen stares when I suggest such atrocities as a nice walk in the woods, forcing them to go, which I often do, usually has positive results: grudging but increasing merriment, races up hillsides, competitive rock throwing to prove physical prowess.
In the meantime, here’s how I’ve decided to fill the 2,000 hours for my two teenage boys this summer: They are going to help build our new house. For free. /G
Kristen Davenport raises garlic, goats, geese, chickens, vegetables, cut flowers and several human kids (not necessarily in that order) on a 32-acre farm in the mountains of Northern New Mexico.
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