We all want our children to have all the skills they need to grow into a successful adult. When they are born, we stare at their sleeping bodies, plan their future adventures, ponder the skills we will teach them, and wonder about what the future has in store for them.
From the moment they enter this world, we are on a journey to teach them the values and beliefs that are important to us and the world we share. We teach them the sounds that cows make, and how to hold a fork properly. We teach them directly and subtly—and watch as they continue to grow
Eventually, their desire to be taught by us wanes even though we still have so much more wisdom to impart. We are the same parents who taught them how to ride a bike, master the monkey bars, and how to lick an ice cream cone from the bottom up. What is it that makes us so incapable of teaching all the sudden? Is it something we said? Or did? Did we push too hard? Did we suddenly start speaking another language?
Just last year, I decided that it was time for my daughters to learn how to swim. They loved the water, but didn’t see any reason to give up their floaties. Why take lessons from me when they had already determined that swimming would simply be something that came naturally over time. It was as if they’d wake up one morning and suddenly know how to swim. My eldest had already claimed this to be true of piano, violin, and golf.
“I know how to swim,” my youngest daughter proclaimed as we arrived at the pool for our first dad lesson.
“Oh yeah,” I responded. “When did you learn?”
“I was born that way.”
Over the course of the next 17 minutes, it was like pulling teeth and herding cats—while one fought the need for kicking, the other dove recklessly into the water. While I tried to have Nora float on her back, she accused me of attempting to drown her. Marley might have tried to bite me at one point, but perhaps this was a survival reflex.
They were unwilling participants and weren’t ready to be taught I told myself. This even though I had spent 28 years teaching children at Lanakila—hitting baseballs, building campfires, reading maps, or chopping wood. This was my profession—my wheelhouse; so why was this so difficult with my own daughters?
Three weeks later, I signed my girls up for swim lessons so I could watch someone else struggle with their resistance. I could already envision the bite marks on the teacher’s arm before Marley even met her. I should have brought popcorn.
What transpired next was eye opening. Quite simply, they jumped in the water and followed instructions perfectly for 30 consecutive minutes. When the teacher told them to hold onto the edge and kick, they did. When she told them to hold their heads under water for five seconds, they did.
I was stumped. The girls asked if I’d seen how great they’d done. For the entire ride home, it was, “I’m going to be swimming by next week,” or “can we go back for lessons tomorrow” and “why can’t you teach as well as Tracey?”
As I swallowed my pride, I quickly tried to shift my perspective. During my years working at Lanakila, I taught skills that their parents probably also struggled mightily to teach them. For every bed my campers would make, I’m sure there was another story from home about their refusal. My lesson on swinging a baseball bat was probably met equally with stories from home of frustration or tears.
I finally began to realize that there are things that I simply cannot teach my children. It says nothing about my ability as a parent. What it does say is that my girls need many strong role models in their lives, each with skills, personalities, strengths and weaknesses that are different than mine. My girls need opportunities to try something new away from me and without my help. They need to steep in the influence of older adults, younger adults, peers and novel situations in which they can attempt to overcome obstacles they might be too frustrated to tackle under my watching eyes. This is a hard reality to swallow as a parent, but is emblematic of why summer camp plays such a crucial role in their development.
As young people attempt to learn new skills, they are learning much more than how to hit a baseball or roll a kayak. They are learning the power of persistence; they are learning the type of person they want to be when faced with a challenging situation; they are learning how to handle failure; and most importantly, they are learning independence…from us. As difficult as it is to admit that there will come a day when our children will look to others for help with their day-to-day lives, it will happen. Initially, this thought brought me sadness. But then I remembered that the “village” of role models that helped me navigate childhood and become a successful adult was a village I found at summer camp, and I smile knowing that this will be the same for my children.