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Ignorantly Dumb And Purposefully Stupid

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"Did I ever tell you I almost died in this pond, Mom?" my son asked as we were having a lovely walk in the woods near my home. It is fun to shock a parent who believes their kid is close to perfect. I have shocked my own mother of course about the things I did when I was young -- and just like her, it turns out I was sometimes clueless.

When my son was 13, he and his sister were permitted to take a walk in the woods one beautiful, cold winter day. He decided that it would be fun if they walked on the iced-over pond. He fell through the ice, managed to stay calm, talk his sister onto her belly, and they made it to land safely. He slipped into the house, shivering from the cold and wet, changed his clothes and did a load of laundry, washing away all incriminating evidence (think twice before you teach your teen to do his/her own laundry).

I could feel myself getting furious about the incident almost a decade after the fact, but managed to hold it in check. "Didn't you know the ice could break? Didn't we discuss that you should NEVER walk on a frozen pond?" I asked him.

"Of course I knew the ice could break. Of course I knew I shouldn't do it," he answered. "That's precisely what made it so attractive. Mom, you obviously don't understand the mindset of the teenage boy. I could spend all afternoon telling you about the stupid shit I did as a kid," he replied. And he did.

The idiocy of the teenage boy can be categorized in two sub-sets: the "Ignorantly Dumb" and the "Purposefully Stupid." You won't find these categories in any neurological textbook discussing disconnected prefrontal cortexes and undeveloped cerebellums, but my son and I agree -- they exist.

The "Ignorantly Dumb" encompasses behaviors that are simply the result of ignorance, misperception or lack of life experience. "Almost doesn't count," was an oft-quoted mantra that my husband and I repeated to ourselves after a close call. My son wandered off on safari in Kenya and almost got eaten by a crocodile. He forgot to let go from a tree swing in NH and almost broke his neck. He almost burned his face off with a candle that smelled like fresh linens -- that one was news to me.

"Just about all boys are little pyromaniacs," my son reminded me. "We had a water bottle filled to the brim with cold water, in case the flames got too high." Two high school boys alone in the house for an hour, with a big glass candle and a can of lighter fluid they found near the grill. What could go wrong?

"Just at the time when the fire was getting really big, over a foot high, we thought -- 'ok, that should do it' -- and we doused it with cold water. The next thing we knew- 'POW!' -- the glass shattered and exploded, shooting hot wax and glass everywhere, like exploding napalm!" He laughed, recalling just how exciting it was -- and how close they came to burning their faces off -- but by some grace of God, they did not. Ignorantly Dumb.

"Purposefully Stupid" encompasses activities that teenagers engage in, despite being aware of the risks: "I know I could die if I do this... but if I don't die, just think how awesome this will be." It is precisely because of the risk, and the resulting adrenaline rush, that the activity is exciting and attractive.

My son rattled off a dozen Purposefully Stupid things he did in high school. He and friends grabbed electric fences while hiking in Switzerland. They ran across camel pens in Israel. They played "first one to drop the lit match loses." He skied down closed trails, and enjoyed a game called "See how close you can come to hitting the other person in the face with a drum stick."

When I asked him what made him such a big risk taker, he looked at me like I had two heads. "I wasn't," he informed me. At least compared to almost all other boys he knew.

He rattled off a list of things that other teenage boys did, that he was too sensible to do. Games like, "How long you can keep your eyes shut on the highway;" "How long you can tolerate a magnifying glass beam on your hand;" "Dare me to jump off the cliff without knowing exactly how deep the water is." Fun games like those.

Go ahead and judge if you like, but I would have been Blissfully Ignorant too if I hadn't asked. I don't think my son is special, at least not in any way that you can rest easy about yours. He was the happiest teenager I have ever known, and now he is an awesome quite well-adjusted, responsible adult.

I offer no solutions for mothers of boys. Just pray for luck. And it wouldn't hurt to hide the lighter fluid.

Read more from Better After 50:
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