Q. "Our son does not do well in peer-group situations. I remember reading of farms where youngsters can spend some time as an alternative to camps. Where are they?"
A. Your letter certainly brought up a lot of memories.
It was 11 summers ago that we sent two young teen-agers to work on a farm in Ireland -- when life there was quieter and where they would be plenty of room, we were told, since two children were gone and only nine were left.
So off they went, all alone, from New York to Shannon to a little village in County Roscommon. They had $50 each which they had earned for the trip -- to spend any way they wanted -- and diaries they promised to keep.
They were 13 and 14 and almost as scared as their parents.
These young Yanks learned to bake bread, cut peat, stack hay and play soccer until midnight. They also learned that a 4-room house with outdoor plumbing was big enough and grand enough when there is a lot of love.
Their diaries were full of glorious moments: like watching an old uncle milk his cow, dipping his finger in the foam to make the sign of the cross on its flank to keep away "the little people." (It must have worked: No one ever stole the milk.)
Every day brought new contrasts, between countries and between themselves. They wrote of the June 23 Irish holiday (St. John's Eve) when everyone makes huge bonfires of tires and trash ("wonderful," said he; "awful," said she) and boys who got waited on at meals and girls who did the waiting (something only the daughter noticed).
Even the crucifixes were different over there. "Christ," she wrote, "is shorter in Ireland."
They also found out that the grass was indeed greener on that other side, but there was litter, too; that cousins could be bratty anywhere and that a brother and sister, when left on their own, forge a special bond that neither time nor distance can break.
They also learned that a child, as young as 13 and 14, is a very responsible person: stalwart and true and almost as capable as Nancy Drew and the Hardy boys had promised. And if they thought they were perhaps more daring and self-possessed than they actually were -- no matter. When a child believes he can depend on himself, he can. And so, of course, can she.
Should you send your child to a farm? You bet!
Xandra Hemmes, co-director of the Washington office of Tips for Trips, reports a fine farm in Pennsylvania and two in Vermont (all for about $200 a week), as well as one in New Hampshire that combine the teaching of basic skills with music, although your child needn't play an instrument to go there.
All have had "consistently wonderful reports," says Hemmes, whose recommendations are based on on-site reports every 1-2 years and follow-up calls to any children they place.
This national organization, which takes a commission from the place instead of charging the family, also arranges bike hikes and home stays in Europe, wilderness forays in this country and sessions at accredited camps that have met its own criteria. (For more information, call 241-2234.)
Even if the farm you choose is only 100 miles away, you may be scared the whole time your child is gone. (Any farm is foreign country to a city person, especially if it has tractors and big equipment.) To let your child get the most out of the experience, give him the freedom to do the same farm chores he'd do if he had grown up on the place. This should give him a great sense of self-sufficiency, which will make him like himself more.
That's just what he needs. A child gets along better with other children when he can get along well with himself.
And ask him to keep a diary, in hopes that he will share it. It will give you great reading some warm summer night.
Q. "I read your column about sex and would like to ask a question. "Is making love the same thing as making out? If you do make out, can you get pregnant? Please write back, but can you keep this letter confidential?"
A. Every letter this column gets is confidential because no one's name is ever used. Three books and that ultimate authority, a 17-year-old, all say that making out, or necking, is the same as it always was: much passionate kissing around the face and neck and a lot of hugging, none of which can get you pregnant.
Fooling around, or petting, is next, where the boy and girl touch and rub each other's body in all those places that are covered by clothes, and this can't get you pregnant either.
However, people seldom make love without making out and fooling around first, and that's the danger. It's mighty hard not to keep on keeping on. This is especially true if you haven't reached the mid-teens yet, when your conscience becomes much stronger than it has been. Until then, you shouldn't expect too much of yourself, which is why you need to avoid those situations where one thing leads to another: lovers' lanes; single dates; alcohol or pot; a boy in your room, or a boy in any room of the house if there is no adult at home.
You'll get some solid information on sex (and weight, cosmetics, feelings, health) from The Teen-Age Body Book by Kathy Moy and Dr. Charles Wibbelsman (Simon and Schuster, $7.95). It's one of the best because it recognizes that sex is fascinating, but still only one of the important questions an adolescent faces.