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Dangerous, foolhardy or just young?

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Anne Diamond | 15:13 UK time, Monday, 8 August 2011

polar bear

Bolted my cornflakes this morning when I got an early morning text message from one of my sons, who is out in the Belizian jungle at the moment, doing one of these "gap year" type expeditions. It was enough to make any loving mum choke - especially after the dreadful news coming out of Svalbard about the polar bear who savaged a Berkshire schoolboy to death, and injured many others.


Like those students, and thousands of others between school and university, my son has been determined to take on an exciting and challenging adventure. He chose the jungles of central America, helping to clear up after Hurricane Richard. They chose the icy wastes of the Norwegian archipelago, and their sojourn ended in an almost unbelievable nightmare. Many mums like me are today thinking: "There but for the grace of God..." Because no matter how much homework you do, no matter the costs involved and the planning you invest, you never quite know what dangers, unexpected happenings or just bad luck might befall your kids once they come face to face with life at the sharp end.

I get the occasional email or text whenever my son gets within a gnat's breath of an internet connection. I want to know if his mosquito net is working, whether he's got enough antihistamines, and what the other kids are like. Instead I get stuff like this, just a few hours ago:

"enjoying a bit of R&R after project 1, lots of hard work: with a 3 day hike up a mountain, clearing trails through the jungle, blistered and bitten all over, scorpions and bullet ants, jaguar tracks and even more jungle; painted a community centre and climbed up a waterfall. Sliced my hand open with my machete, but the doc stitched me up and all is well, next we'll be doing some more training and then a multi day trek before project 2, which is something to do with a bird sanctuary. Week 2 over, 6 to go!"

In last week's missive, he told me not to worry too much about malaria - cos what was REALLY bad were the "bot flies" which lay their larvae under your skin. Oh, and the spiders were the size of dinner plates.

It'll make a man of him, I've taught myself to think, whilst also praying he makes it to manhood.

I suppose that's what the parents of young Horatio Chapple thought, too, when they waved him off on his Polar adventure. Now, my heart goes out to them in what must be horrendous grief and cruel imaginings of what their son's last minutes must have been like. What on earth are they going to do when their two younger sons ask if they, too, can join a perilous expedition to God knows where, in a couple of years' time? I don't know how they'll ever sleep another night. And yet all of us parents know that you have to "let go" and that kids love to do dangerous and challenging things. It's in their DNA.

I remember one of those recent "Inside The Human Body" programmes on the BBC, where they actually argued that the teenage mind is hard wired to take risks which in later life they'd recognise as foolhardy. That's how humans are programmed to learn, and I suppose that Darwinian logic would always demand some fatalities.

There is something about that age, isn't there? The age between, say, 16 and 24, where youngsters (particularly male) actively seek danger, violence and trouble? Is that why, when the Twitter call goes out, young men with nothing else to do seem to join in a meaningless riot on the streets of London?

Perhaps young men have to get their kicks, need to pump adrenaline. And if they don't get it one way, they'll find another.

Makes a mum feel quite anxious - especially a Mum of boys. There's something in their psyche we need to better understand, though perhaps you cannot change human nature. Young men (and perhaps women, too, in growing numbers) need to challenge both themselves and society.

It's just a bit frightening to watch and witness, isn't it?

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