Small Wonders: Building character with panic and dread

If you get the opportunity, I highly recommend letting your young children climb rock walls to dangle high above the ground, precariously shimmy across tightropes, balance beams and rope bridges suspended 40 feet in the air, wailing for help in fear for their lives.

Panic and dread are great character builders. Or good laughs for sadistic parents. Either way, your little ones may surprise you.

I was never a great Boy Scout. Most of my awards were given to me out of pity, or were pilfered from my brother's retired uniform. Yet somehow I learned to pitch a tent, build a campfire and use a compass — skills that have served me well over the years. Except for the compass. There's an app for that now.

But I hold in high regard the many valuable life skills the Scouts teach our children. So it was with bated anticipation and sweet nostalgia that we set off last weekend for a Girl Scout campout in the wilds of Anaheim — two nights of roughing it at a bucolic RV park underneath the 91 Freeway, set amid the sprawling tract homes of Orange County, where the professional baseball team borrows the name of another city.

It's good to get away from it all.

After a two-hour Friday afternoon drive that should have taken 30 minutes, our first stop was a Mimi's Café in Chino to sup and let Inland Empire diners know how loud and obnoxious a gaggle of hopped up, frenetic and mildly psychotic San Fernando Valley girls can be. When our little ladies began chanting “kill, kill, kill!” as the overburdened waiter set corn dogs and spaghetti before them, I knew our time was short.

By the time we pulled into camp, it was dark and our Scouts needed to run wind sprints to release their car-restrained energy. Off they went in every direction, a pack of caffeinated hyenas, while we parents set up camp.

Pitching a tent at night can be a trial. But I've done it many times and didn't need the assistance of the dozen charming, badge-starved 12-year-old girls who kept asking if I needed help.

“Do I look like I need help?” I asked, receiving only chuckles in reply.

A bonfire and s'mores ensured that our troop would be howling late into the night. So we zipped up 10 girls safely within their own eight-man tent, set a perimeter of adult tents around them to prevent escapees, and prayed for daylight. When they finally passed out, not one realized how much more comfortable camping is with an air mattress.

Sunrise brought a day of carefully choreographed adventure, the highlight of which was the four-story rope course — an elaborate, panic-inducing, intimidating high-wire structure meant to promote teamwork, confidence and success by scaring the hell out of your kids.

It was awesome.

There is so much talk about the daredevilry and raucus energy of boys. But add the giggles, emotional drama and unique sensitivities of adolescent girls, and you've got a cocktail for world domination. Or Armageddon.

These girls were frenzied, fearless and focused. To watch them all bravely attack the course, getting higher and higher off the ground, was the stuff of parental pride and utter amazement. Few things are as rewarding as seeing your kids attempt a feat you had no idea they were capable of doing. And witnessing their joy in accomplishment.

And a 100-yard zip-line back to earth was icing on the cake.

I know it's been a thousand years since I was Scout-age, but when did “geo-caching” replace a good old-fashioned boondoggle? So civilized, these Girl Scouts.

When I was a Cub Scout, hairy-armed troop leaders in need of their nightly bourbon and a moment of peace sent us into the dark of night to forage through the forest and shrubs for the wily, vicious and illusive snipe. Flashlights in hand and bags ready to snare the fictitious creature, we waited, fearful and tense, while our guardians had a good laugh back at camp.

But today, we hand Scouts a GPS tracker and send teams on high-tech, glorified scavenger hunts. And what did they find? Earrings, iPod bedazzlers and subscriptions to Seventeen Magazine. What are we teaching the next generation?

Of the many troops in attendance, I'm proud to say ours was clearly the loudest and most uncivilized. You should have seen the looks on the other campers' faces when we snared and spit-roasted one of the Housewives of O.C.

Gamy and lean, in case you're wondering. Not really to my liking.

There are badges that don't get ironed onto vests. And those are the ones that make this father so very proud.

PATRICK CANEDAY adores his daughters. Reach him at patrickcaneday@gmail.com. Friend him on Facebook. Read more at www.patrickcaneday.com.

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