Last week, after school got out but before my three kids scattered to camp and basketball tournaments, we kicked off summer at our new lake cabin in New England. Although none of us had ever driven a boat solo, we purchased an old 1986 13-foot Boston Whaler for the lake. The marine salesman gave us a 20-minute lesson. Then he pushed the boat away from the dock and we were off.
The first day went beautifully.
The second day, my 15-year-old son and his 10-year-old sister got stranded a mile out in the middle of the lake. The motor wouldn’t start (corroded spark plugs, we later discovered). As marine neophytes, we’d neglected to supply the boat with a paddle or rope for towing.
It took the kids two hours to get back to shore. I had no idea what had transpired until it was all over. Thank goodness. Because I had no chance to save them, to call the lake patrol, to swim out to rescue them!
Instead, they gritted it out.
And the next day, once new spark plugs had been installed, the 10-year-old took the boat out alone.
Which got me thinking: how do you teach kids resilience?
Funny paradox here. The only way parents can teach kids to be resilient is to do nothing. To back off and let go. There is no AP prep course or Mommy & Me session for teaching determination. The only solution is a little bit of neglect.
Which it’s so hard for parents today.
“This generation of parents,” explains psychologist Michael Thompson, author of Homesick and Happy: How Time Away From Parents Can Help a Kid Grow, “has invested an enormous amount of time in being emotionally close with their children and having very deep attachments. They’ve also invested an enormous amount in protecting their children from trauma. We have doubled the amount of time spent with children in the last 20 years. When you’re all in, it’s hard to step out – it’s just that simple.”
During the school year, my kids all work hard in school and on their various sports teams. They have teachers, tutors, coaches, two parents and four grandparents advising them, pushing them, cheering them and drilling them every step of the way. This is a top-down, dictatorial, linear path to achievement. Useful in life, certainly. But how and when will our kids ever find out what’s inside if we adults never leave them alone?
Perhaps not surprisingly, my children have all been eager to use their summers to get away from the rigors of school and adult oversight. To take the subway and bus alone. To walk to Five Guys by themselves. To spend weeks at sleepaway camp.
Perhaps my children know, better than I do, what they need to grow up and find their own ballast.
One daughter went away to camp at age nine – her choice, her insistence actually – even though I thought she was too young. Last Sunday I deposited her sister for three weeks alone with 300 girls and 70 horses in the wilds of West Virginia. She is only ten. Their brother will travel solo to tournaments in Philadelphia, Boston and Orlando now that he’s 15 and “legal” from the airlines point of view.
More from Michael Thompson:
“One of the things that troubles me about this generation is that we want our children endlessly challenged academically, but we don’t seem to want their resilience challenged in other ways. You can’t know you’re resilient until your resilience is challenged. And resilience or grit is key because it’s what gets you through the hard times in life.”
The summer parenting to do list is short and simple: do nothing.
Which is, of course, one of the toughest things for us to do.