The Ways (and Whys) Little Boys Test Their Wings

For children, life is a great adventure: exploring new frontiers, sampling everything life has to offer, and never quite knowing what's around the corner. You are in essence a test pilot, and your parents are seated in the control tower doing the best they can to keep you safe and flying in the right direction.

Sometimes, though, even the best pilot disregards sound advice from the control tower. Why? Because there comes a time when you have to prove to yourself and your peers that you can fly solo.

In my case, I had an inner voice of caution that always made me scrutinize every possible eventuality. I think it's my Scottish heritage. Our family motto is "Non timeo sed caveo," which means, I do not fear but am cautious. If I saw my friends jumping off a cliff, I would follow them, but I would hesitate at the edge - making sure I didn't land on anyone when I jumped.

If my inner voice of caution was exceptionally loud, I would usually try to point out, as cheerfully and nonchalantly as possible, the many dangers that lay before us.

Usually 10 or 15 minutes of discussion between all the test pilots was enough to minimize the risks and come up with an acceptable plan. Take, for instance, the time we went skateboarding down a steep concrete ravine and into a tiny catch basin. Our plan was that we wouldn't stand but squat, so if we did fall we would be closer to the ground and would simply roll to a stop. Plus, we would wear gloves.

Skateboarding down the steep face of a 100-foot dam that ended in a small tunnel at the bottom was definitely an extreme adventure. When my parents found out (I had to account for my torn shirt and pants), they were at first shocked, then angry, and finally in disbelief: I could not possibly be their son, because their son would have more sense than to do this.

Today's skateboarders have kneepads, elbow pads, hip pads, and helmets. But in the early days, all we had was our inner voice of caution, which wasn't always enough to protect our clothes.

For young test pilots this is a constant problem. And the control tower just doesn't seem to understand.

When adults become parents, all they have is common sense (and in-laws) to guide them. They forget what it was like to fly by the seat of their pants. There are also parents who remember all too well what it was like and wish to spare their young from following those turbulent paths. Parents should know this is an uphill battle. Common sense would dictate that a steep dirt hill or bluff, strewn with protruding rocks and discarded construction materials, would not be an ideal playground. On the contrary, for young boys this is a flight to the moon.

Rolling down a steep hill inside a cardboard water-heater box with a friend is just about the most fun anyone could ever have. In fact, you were having so much fun you didn't notice the sunset, and the only reason you finally quit was that it got too dark to see. So when you get home and your parents ask why are you home so late and where have you been, you hesitate.

Somewhere in the back of your mind you remember something about not playing around that construction site. And you remember that your parents told you to always tell the truth. As long as you tell the truth, they promised not to get angry. But common sense tells you there's no way they're not going to be angry, especially after they told you not to play there. Still, your inner voice counsels to file a truthful flight plan. Nobody said being a young test pilot was going to be easy. Landing is sometimes the hardest part of the flight, especially after dark.

Being a parent now, I understand how important it is to maintain a loving but firm hand when disciplining a child. If there is to be punishment, it should be logical and measured. But sometimes, in the heat of the moment, what comes out of your mouth is neither logical nor measured.

I can remember one particular incident with my father that illustrates my point. After I'd had my wings clipped for some minor infraction and been told to stay around the house after school, my friends and I decided it might be fun to jump off our garage roof and into a pile of sand.

Now, for an adult or teenager, jumping off the roof of a garage might not be a big deal. Maybe eight or nine feet at the most, but to us it was exciting.

In my neighborhood, all the parents kept a watchful eye on one another's brood. And at the height of our exuberance, our neighbor across the street happened to be looking out a kitchen window.

My dad may have had a bad day at work, so when he was confronted with the fact that his son and his friends were jumping off the garage roof, logic and reason were in short supply. "I'll throw you over the garage if I ever catch you jumping off our roof or any other roof again. Do you understand me?"

My father was a kind and loving man, and I certainly didn't expect him to throw me over the garage, even if he could. After all, if he didn't want me jumping a mere nine feet, why would he throw me over the entire garage, which was at least a good 30 feet long? It was his tone and manner that caught my attention, not the threat, which was illogical even to a young kid.

And so it is that the young test pilot goes forward, learning from experience how to fly upward and beyond to meet the next challenge. With an occasional grounding by the control tower to review flight procedure.

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