A while back I was in a conversation with a friend. Being here in the south, and knowing I am from here as well, she was a little surprised to hear that I had once taken my youngest daughter out in frozen woods in central Michigan in -12F temps at the age of 8 to work on important life lessons. She asked what could possibly make us want to be out in that. I at first, half-jokingly (but only half), said because we were tired of being stuck in the house. And then told her the rest of the reasons as in fact there were a few.
One was that I had some field work I needed to do in order to meet a deadline for one of my editors. Another was that the high temps had been that low for weeks, and my daughter had been complaining about being stuck in the house for so long, and asking why. So, I took a page out of my father's playbook and took her out into the weather we had been avoiding, for several hours under controlled conditions, in order to give her a context by which she could better understand the nature of circumstances. The exact same approach my father had used to answer so many of my “why?” questions when I was a kid. For a young mind it can be hard to fully appreciate the good fortunes we have. Of being able to stay inside where it is toasty warm during dangerously cold weather where the wildlife is dying in droves, until they can have some appreciation of what it means to be miserably cold for a while. And see some of the results of such extreme cold with their own eyes. After a couple of hours wondering around such cold wind chills, in snow up to her knees, the warmth of the fire was much more appreciated. Then she didn't complain so much the next few days about hanging out in the house and playing games after school, instead of going outside to play.
It was the same philosophy I used one day when she was five, and was asking why it was taking so long for dinner to be ready. Instead of trying to explain it to her at that age, I just got her involved. I sat her at the table beside me, put a relatively dull paring knife in her hand, and started teaching her how to make all of the cuts involved in making Beef Stroganoff my way. I held her hands in mine and taught her as much as I could about the complex nature of making all the cuts the right ways. Thus I began her knife skills training the same way my father had began mine. At a cutting board in the kitchen, making simple cuts that mattered. Then expanded from there over time.
Then there was a time we were camping when she was a little older, and she wanted to know when lunch would be ready. I told her about how long till I was ready to make it, but if she wanted to get the fire started, she could go ahead and cook her hot dogs if she was hungry. The goal being to help her become less dependent and more self reliant. When she said she wanted to do that, I talked her through the steps as she sat the fire lay up for ignition and went to work on starting the fire.
It was a bit of work for her to get the sparks to go where she wanted them to, in order to ignite the tinder. And at times she got a little frustrated. But soon she had the flames going, and added the fuel to build the fire up. I enjoyed seeing her work so hard to meet her goal, but I more enjoyed seeing the smile. The look of satisfaction and accomplishment on her face as she was cooking her brats for lunch by herself over a fire she had started herself.
At times during our teen's lives, my youngest daughter isn't my first child or my first daughter, we parents can start to feel like we and the things we do for our children are being taken for granted. The reality is, in a lot of cases anyway, that we aren't being taken for granted so much as we have given ourselves for granted to them. We tend to do just this in our attempts at making their young lives better than ours were. In doing so we often inadvertently rob them of any real sense of thankfulness for the things we do or the things they have. They lack the sort of appreciation for their quality of life that we developed through our hardships in our own lives over the years. The struggles we had to face that gave us a context by which we could truly appreciate the positive changes we've worked so hard to bring about in our lives.
Like most parents, I love my children very much. Which is exactly why we want them to have better lives than the ones we had. But I think we sometimes mistakenly equate better with easier, and thereby make their lives harder in the future. So I resist just handing everything I can to my daughters, or doing everything for them the easy way a part of me has always wanted to do just because it would be much easier on me. At times I intentionally make things harder on them in a controlled environment. Knowing I won't always be here, the goal is to give them tools that will help them defeat the struggles of life even after I'm gone. I do things like my father did when I was the child. Things that sometimes really annoyed me back then, but for which I am very thankful now. I take us out of our comfort zones on our off days, and cause her to have to address things in old fashioned ways using her hands and mind to solve the problem. Some times she gets the challenge of making her evening meal primitive-living style, over a fire in a grill at a local park.
It may look pretty simple, but sitting down to a bowl of hot vegetable soup you've just made yourself on a cool night has multiple benefits. Firstly, it helps build character and fortitude, and helps maintain good morale having accomplished a real world task. It also helps develop higher levels of self esteem through higher levels of self reliance. And when it comes to having a better quality of life in their later years, all the self confidence we can help them develop today will serve our children well later on. As they face the self doubts the world at large will try to cause them to have as adults when we aren't around to fix the issues for them.
Secondly, I think it helps them to have a much better understanding of the dynamic of our adult lives before they get there themselves. Helps them have a better grasp of how hard we must work in order to do what we do for them now. Help them understand how hard they will need to work to provide for themselves later, and for their own children. It's a good feeling when they start showing honest gratitude for the special things we do for them, like take them out for nice dinners. Rather than them just mistakenly assuming it's supposed to be that way and always will be just because it always has been, without them understanding why or how.
We humans can only ever effectively learn things for which we have a real context by which we can grasp their meanings. So I think it's important that we pay forward all the hard work our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents did. And teach our children, as early as is possible and feasible, that the only thing that will ever come easily in a life with a minimized efforts is nothing, absolutely nothing at all. I think perhaps the more people we can get to understand this dynamic, the better the world we'll all leave behind for the future generations when we're gone.
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