My dad built me plywood rowboat when I was six. I named it Galaxy, which was also Captain Video’s spaceship. To my surprise, I discovered that in order to go anywhere, I had to row facing backward. Eventually, I trained as a history teacher – also someone who tries to move forward while looking backward. Finally, I’ve spent the last 35 years at Sangamon, still doing much the same thing. I know that I’m “preaching to the choir”. As a returning parent, or as a new parent who has chosen us for your son, you have already agreed to step back from the constant communication, control, and supervision that is the basis for a lot of contemporary parenting. By choosing us, you have chosen to put faith in your son, allowing him to make decisions without you, and allowing him to make discoveries on his own. I would suggest that you’ve decided to row your boat by looking back over your shoulder to an earlier time.
Please indulge me for an “old guy” moment. When I was a kid, growing up in the 50’s, I walked to school and back twice a day – four trips, because there was no lunchroom and no buses. Everybody, from first grade on, walked, escorted by just the other kids in the neighborhood.
Back and forth and back and forth was inefficient, BUT in addition to daily recess, every kid in school walked at least 2 miles a day, and it made sitting at a desk a whole lot easier. The only vehicle parked at the curb at the end of the school day was the candy apple man, selling caramel and red cinnamon apples on a stick. We crossed the roads with the help of trained student crossing guards wearing white bandoliers. Like the postal mail, neither sun, nor rain, nor snow kept the crossing guards from their appointed corners. When weekends arrived, I hopped on my bike and rode out for the day to friend’s houses. I either had to be back by dinner or call to say where I
was. Often my pals and I went for hikes. We packed a lunch and took off for the woods. Our parents never once came along, and except for knowing where we’d entered, had no idea at all where we were off to. Sometimes we hiked for miles and miles.
That kind of freedom and personal responsibility for kids is long- gone, and not likely to come back anytime soon. Easy and constant electronic communication has pretty much smothered the freedom my generation had as kids. As a result, we’ve lost something important as a society, and the children have lost an important piece of growing up into resilient, capable, problem- solving adults. Kids no longer get to plan much of anything, and they almost never get to take responsibility for bringing a project to successful conclusion. On the fourth day of one of Sangamon’s week- long Lake Champlain sailing trips a few years back, I announced at breakfast that I was taking the day off as Captain. I was putting the four boys in charge, alternating Captain among them in 2 hour watches. They were in charge of it all – raising the anchor and sails, plotting and sailing a course, and getting us to an anchorage again – about 20 miles away - at the end of the day. My plan was to sit on the foredeck and read a book. I would say nothing “operational” about anything unless they were about to put us in mortal danger. Their excitement was palpable. And I was, frankly, amazed. After all, I was still on board, and sitting in plain sight, but they felt that I had given them a major responsibility. At noon, I observed to myself that they had misread a mark and were sailing off their course in a significant way. I let them sail on, and it took them several hours to figure it out. They knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what it was. When they finally discovered it, they were several miles and at least a couple of hours beyond where we wanted to be. Given that, and a dying breeze, they had to re- think our eventual anchorage. They came up with a new plan, and with a little judicious assist from the “Iron mizzen”, (the engine) for the final push, we were anchored and swimming at our new anchorage only an hour and a half late. The boys were TOTALLY excited by their day. ....So was I . (If you’re wondering why they didn’t just turn on their GPS navigation system, the answer is that I still teach navigation with paper charts and compass.)
Had I written a script for the day, it couldn’t have worked better. The crew had taken charge, and for the most part, functioned really well as a team. They had made some mistakes, but they figured out what had gone wrong, made adjustments, and recovered. They were intensely proud of themselves. They were also amazed that I’d left them to do it. They told me it was the most important day of their summer. We ALL learned a lot that day.
We don’t usually encourage our tripping staff to let kids wander miles out of their way to create this kind of learning. I’ve been at this work for 40 years, and I was the director at the time. But we do encourage staff to give kids a piece of the planning and functioning of our trips. Our best staff find ways to put the kids in charge, give them responsibilities, and most importantly, to make the kids’ decisions REAL. This kind of learning doesn’t happen much for boys anymore. They have to
march to other drummers than their own, and someone is overseeing them most of the time. For many boys, their cellphones have become a kind of umbilical cord, connecting them to their parents, and they have become less resilient and capable as a result. Boys are seldom off on their own, and they don’t know what to do if things go wrong – there is almost never a “plan B”, because they can call their parents who will come to their rescue. Sangamon and Betsey Cox do a good job of re- creating the old- time scenarios, where kids are actually in charge of important things in their lives. Children “unplug” and learn to function without parental supervision. Doing that, they develop new and exciting personal resources.
With some extra effort, parents can continue that kind of learning at home during the school year. The hardest part, as I learned sitting on deck and watching “my” boat sail miles and hours off our course, was Letting Go. I’m offering a few suggestions of how parents might create scenarios to put their sons in charge of something significant. My emphasis is on “child-centered” activities, created, planned and carried out by the boys.
Take over the kitchen - Research recipes for a week- end of cooking – do the shopping and cook meals for the family,. They could emphasize healthy food and real cooking. Michael Pollon’s little book Food Rules is a great source. “Don’t eat anything your grandmother (for boys, read: great grandmother!) wouldn’t recognize as food.” – If it works, maybe expand it for a week. Or let him throw a dinner party (!) for friends
Make a charitable contribution - Earn $100 from neighbors doing odd jobs: window- washing, car washing/detailing, garden turning, lawn raking flower planting, weeding, etc. I suggest doing it at minimum wage to help educate him on what that means. He should research his charity choice. Google Charity Navigator. If appropriate, he could ask extended family to help match his gift – write an explanatory letter asking for a matching contribution, and follow up with phone call, asking for support.
Research and plan a family excursion - maybe include a friend. Go to a Zoo, Museum, Art Gallery, historical place. Plan and shop for snacks and picnic. Find map directions and act as navigator for family driver. Research historical significance if any, and pass knowledge along to the family.
Set up a “reading out loud” event - for younger kids. Contact a school, Boys and Girls Club, town or school Library. Choose interesting reading and set an example of an excited, enthusiastic older reader.
Set up a Little Free Library – google Little Free Library.org. Collect children’s books from neighborhood to create a little free library somewhere... in the neighborhood, at a church, at a food shelf . Or collect books from the neighbors to donate to church or library book sales, or ask to help at your local library’s book sales. One of the grocery store in my town sells used books at $1 for the Humane Society. Maybe your store would sponsor something like that too.
Cookies for old(er) folks - Find recipes, do the shopping, gather friends to help bake - Contact a nursing home and arrange to bakecookies for old folks. Bring boxes to individual rooms. Or contact Meals on Wheels to bake cookies to include in meals. Or contact a local Senior Center to make cookies for them.
Support the hungry - Contact the town/neighborhood food shelf to get parameters, then organize friends to collect food for a food shelf contribution. Could be a monthly project. Some churches accept donations on a regular basis, and keep a box available.