A very modern rite of passage: How one mother set her 13-year-old son 13 ticklish tasks to show how grown-up he was
07:02 GMT, 2 August 2012
The challenge started with a box set of the Seventies TV mini-series Roots we had picked up at a car-boot sale. I watched the first episode with my son and he seemed quite taken with the part where the young Kunta Kinte goes off into the forest with a dozen other adolescent boys for ‘manhood training’: specific tests of strength, bravery and hunting skills — culminating in an eye-watering circumcision with a two-pronged knife.
Why not set my son a 21st-century, Western (pain-free) equivalent, I thought. Fred was just a few weeks away from his 13th birthday, which seemed like an important turning point. He was eager for more freedom and independence, pushing to go to bed later, have more pocket money, not have a babysitter, cycle to random far-off places and go to football matches without an adult.
But did he have the maturity and worldliness to be granted these things Let’s put him to the test, I thought. Now seemed the perfect time to make sure he had the skills needed for a more grown-up life.
Challenge Fred: Mum Claire has set 13 tasks for her son to do in his 13th year
However, to get him fully on board, I knew I would have to invent a rite of passage that would appeal to a modern 13-year-old who already had his boxers permanently on show. After all, this was a boy who hated sustained effort and shied away from any kind of system or daily ritual: he spent no more than three minutes on any homework assignment, washed pans so quickly that the before and after effect was negligible and had still never read a book on his own.
I had even resorted to putting a picture of a mouthful of rotting teeth above the basin in the bathroom to persuade him to use his toothbrush.
On the plus side, he was cheerful, articulate, funny, interested in the world far beyond his own small universe, physically adventurous and naturally outdoorsy (a friend had recently texted to say she had just seen him floating down our local river on a hollowed-out log).
I wanted to set challenges that played to these strengths, but also targeted his weaknesses.
To engage and motivate him, I decided to put a sort of life-as-a-game spin on the whole thing. There would be 13 challenges covering 13 different areas of life, and each challenge would arbitrarily contain the number 13 in some way if possible.
I even bought 13 brightly coloured envelopes in which to present the tasks to him, one by one.
Challenge one: Get on a train on your own. Get off at the 13th stop. Go to a sit-down cafe or restaurant. Order the 13th item on the menu. Then buy yourself a whole outfit with 13.13.
Can he fix it Yes he can! Fred puts up some coat hooks
Fred is instantly upbeat about this one. ‘This could lead to me being a millionaire, Mum,’ he says. ‘Richard Branson’s mum drove him to the countryside and left him there to find his own way home.’
I am not, of course, randomly releasing him into the wild. I have secretly micro-managed the whole thing. We are going to put him on a train at a particular rural station and after two hours he will end up in Hereford – a city he has never visited.
I buy him a ticket and order him not to look at the destination. I am feeling quite uneasy, but as the train pulls away, I smile and think of Kunta Kinte’s mother’s words when her son is taken from the village: ‘A boy has just left, a man will return.’
Fred has been given a return ticket and is expecting to have to make his on way home. What he doesn’t know is that we are driving to Hereford to collect him. When we eventually meet up, he tells us he loved the solo train journey and the shopping, but was very uncomfortable with the lunch element at first: ‘It’s a bit weird, isn’t it A kid on his own sitting in a cafe’
I am less impressed with the outfit he has bought. It includes white canvas shoes (white, for goodness sake) and a T-shirt with the words ‘I was amazing last night. Ask your girlfriend’ on it.
'He has learned that effort leads to reward, that he can do whatever he puts his mind to'
Challenge two makes him groan: 13 household tasks, from ironing to paying a bill to defrosting the freezer. ‘Blimey, that’ll take me all day,’ he says, looking at the list.
Nevertheless, he starts off enthusiastically with the first job of mowing the lawn, claiming he is going to make football pitch stripes. Minutes later, he pops back into the house to say he has remembered that he needs to hang out the washing. ‘I’d better do it now ‘cause it looks like it might rain later’. Brilliant. Thinking like a housewife already.
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Master chef: Fred cooked a three course meal without any help
‘Di-nner!’ he calls from the kitchen and I get a little thrill of pleasure from the role-reversal.
He has gone all oriental: yakitori chicken for the starter (perfectly presented and completely delicious), pork chow mein for the main course (which — by his own judgment — is ‘a little bland’) and for dessert, a slightly-too-sloppy chocolate cheesecake.
‘Shall we do this once a week’ I ask. ‘No!’ he says sharply.
Challenge five is to choose and learn 13 useful phrases of Hungarian. (Fred’s been invited to go to Hungary in the summer holidays with his best friend’s family).
He sets about memorising sentences like ‘Where’s the toilet’ from the internet and when I take him to be tested by his friend’s Hungarian mother two weeks later, he has mastered it enough that she understands nine of the phrases immediately, and the other four eventually.
But he looks awkward and self-conscious. It is that humbling, table-turning experience of becoming the foreigner, of trying to make yourself understood in another language. A valuable lesson I think.
Fred is not happy about the next challenge: do a self-portrait to capture yourself at age 13. ‘I hate art and I’m rubbish at it,’ he reminds me. He actually spends quite a lot of time drawing very detailed, accurate pictures of football stadiums, so I tell him to approach it in the same way — a technical drawing of his face — and set him up in front of a mirror with a piece of posh paper and a freshly-sharpened pencil.
An hour later, he is still shading. The end result, we agree, is a bit Augustus Gloop, but has great hair and has definitely caught something of Fred around the eyes. Best of all, he seems to have enjoyed it.
The seventh challenge is to plan and do a 13-mile walk on his own. I know this distance won’t be that strenuous for him. What I really want is for him to experience how liberating and meditative it can be walking for an extended period of time with nothing but your own thoughts. I tell him he can’t take his iPod.
One in eight children is unhappy about being overprotected and not being allowed to make decisions or do things on their own
He works out a route to Oxford, exactly 13 miles away, along rivers, country roads and through woodland. When he calls 5 hours later (he deviated from his route to take in a helipad he’d remembered about), I am pleased to hear him simply say: ‘It was boring at first, but then it was quite nice.’
Challenge eight is to volunteer. I have a romantic vision of him dishing out soup in a centre for the homeless or spending time with old people. In reality, health and safety makes this impossible. He ends up in charge of the hook-a-duck stall at a local farm charity for a day.
Afterwards, he is dismissive about the concept of volunteering, but seems fired up by how easy it was to make money. ‘All I had a was a paddling pool and a few plastic ducks.’ Perhaps that in itself was a seed worth sowing.
With five challenges left, Fred is asking what his reward is going to be at the end of all this. When Kunta Kinte’s initiation ceremony is over, his father puts a tribal leather pouch around his neck as a token of his new status. They look into each other’s eyes for a brief moment, full of pride and emotion.
Similarly, I had hoped the sense of achievement Fred felt at completing the challenges would be enough. Silly me. This is a child of a generation used to getting sweets between every layer of pass-the-parcel and football trophies just for being in the team.
‘What I’d really like,’ he tells me, ‘is if you took me to Blackpool Pleasure Beach.’ Should I I’m not sure.