How to Tame a Teenager

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I take teenagers camping in the Mojave Desert --- in summer. Overgrown children leave home; fledgling adults return. The desert transforms them.

We make few concrete plans. Kids panic. Where will we sleep? What are we going to do?

But soon they sniff freedom. School worries fade. At first, they perceive nothingness and heat, and their concerns are high. Do we have enough water? Food? Tools? The stakes feel thrilling.

Break the rules here --- disaster. Teenagers love this; rebels discovering a cause.

Ten hours on the road, we finally spot the first Joshua Trees, and scout out a campground.


A smelly latrine, flat ground. "This is it?" some kid asks. He does a 360. Stunned disbelief.
"We drove all this way to get here? There's nothing!"

It's 7 PM, still 110 degrees, with a cracking wind. No place to sit, no water: awful.

Sullenly, "My parents would hate this..." Jubilantly, " My parents would hate this!"

The first epiphany, and worth a lot.

We poke around. Little rocks underfoot, pink, mauve. Whip-fast lizards. They discover tiny yellow cactus flowers. A hawk sailing overhead. The sky turns coral and turquoise. A star winks on. Silence.

Surprise beauty grabs us.

Suddenly --- it's way past dinner time: 9 PM and no food yet.

The burgers are still frozen, the buns soggy. Someone kicks sand into the guacamole. But it's up to them to produce a meal. This, too, is secretly thrilling. It's important work, we are ravenous, no store anywhere. The challenge ignites them, a sight to behold.

Their first days are miserable, the learning curve steep. But kids abandon whining, learn to manage: cover up in the sun, sip liquids constantly. So the bread dried out, the Gatorade tastes bad. They are making things happen. By day three --- exhilaration.

Decisions have huge consequences here. But they are learning competence.

This is what it's like to begin to matter in the adult world.

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is an educator and writer living in Marin.