“The measure of love is to love without measure.” –Saint Augustin
Through the Eyes of a Mentor
Teens as a group have always tended to be private when it comes to their parent’s questions. Why? They shun parental judgment, they are tired, they do not feel that you will resonate with what they find important. After school when asked, “What did you learn today?” the standard answer is, “Nothing.” Generally they are trying to articulate, “Nothing relevant to me.” or “I don’t know how to put it into words so you don’t judge me.”
At camp, we offer many activities that the parents feel is worth their money. But some times what the kid of any age needs most is not archery or animal tracking but to sit and make a dozen lanyards during the intire camp while listening to the stories of someone they look up to, or just connecting with new friends.
The first day of camp and each Monday of school, since 2002, has always been spent doing undirected free play and exploration. We see it as a day for the camper to transition from home and the pressures of stimulation from the world outside of camp; a means of mentally detoxing For 15 years we hiked to where a meadow, forest, and creek converged.
One introverted little girl spent her day looking at the stone fly larva crawling along a creek bed, watching the fingerling trout feed on these larvae, builds a maze of dams across the creek watching the fingerling zip and hide and navigate these obstacles, make boats of leaves that she floated down the creek, she caught newts. With her newt, Fred, in hand she asked me when she could eat lunch, when I told her when she was hungry she first looked befuddled then smiled. She laid on her back eating her lunch under the shade of a cotton wood looking up at the infinite colors of green as the light shines through some leaves as others reflect the light as they all dance in the breeze. She made “make-up” by rubbing different rocks together and the girls painted each other. She joined in a game of hide and seek climbing up a dead madrone and hiding in a large knot hole. This was her first time having six hours of play time that some adult did not guide her with the structure of rules, goals, and time frame. She ran without hearing, “Don’t run you will fall.” She pushed herself to navigate the creek jumping from rock to rock without hearing, “Don’t do that you will get your pants wet.” She saw others take off their shoes and socks and get their feet wet and laugh at the fingerlings nibbling at their toes and she did the same and giggle at their tickling. This is the first time she felt the cool grass under her feet and toes numbing cold of the water of a creek. At the end of the day she hiked the mile to the ranch barefoot arm in arm with some older girls, they taught her how to skip, laughing much of the way.
Back at the ranch she climbed on to the 1855 Studebaker wagon pulled with the tractor not a team of draft horses, head count was made, she was sitting next to a particular nurturing staff member, I went over the rules of riding in the wagon and at the end they all in unison shouted, “And don’t feed the HIPPO!!!” As I headed out of the ranch she was sitting singing silly camp songs. A little more than half way down the three mile dirt road she had fallen asleep, head in the staff members lap, her clothing was dirty, her face painted with mud, her shoes tied to her day pack and her pack in her lap; she was very content and I knew she got what she needed that day.
As we pulled into the town square most of the moms were there to receive hugs, hear stories of the day from kids, and catch up with me. Most of the moms I had known from years past.
One mom I did not know, got out for her car looking like she had just left the corporate boardroom. Her Little One went from laughing and skipping to her mom to sheepishly walking with her head down. Mom scolded her for not having her shoes on and being dirty. Mom flashed me an angry look as she was dusting her little one off before letting her on the white leather seats of her car. She was home before I made it back into the office and she had already left me a fuming message I will never forget, “I paid good money to send my daughter to your camp to learn archery and you and your staff did nothing today.” Little One did not take her shoes off the rest of the week, she spent most of the week wanting to sit with a kitten in her lap and love on the horses. Though archery was happening she wanted to be with the cat, the horses, or make crafts hanging with the one lady staff member she bonded with on the ride down on the first day. The next two nights I had messages from that mom complaining that her daughter was still not learning archery. On the next to the last day, I put her on my shoulders and we went to the archery range. I have some very nice handmade wooden laminate bows for the kids her size that cost nearly as much as our quality adult bows. I make arrows that are just the right length so the little kids are successful and have a great experience on their first shoots. She wanted to hang with the horses but she did shoot with me not because she truly wanted to but so she could tell her mom she did.
At the end of each week, we circled up and shared their three favorite things from camp. When it got to Little One she said, “The purr of the cat, the kiss of the horse, and the entire first day.” When we got down the hill she gave me a lanyard she had made, thanked me for teaching her archery, and gave me a hug. I never saw her again, she would be in college now and I always wondered if her mother ever understood what was important to her Little One. Little One most likely doesn’t remember my name, that is not important, but I know she remembers the tickling of the little fish between her toes, that is what is important.
If you truly love your kid instead of asking, “What did you learn today?” “What did you do today?” Ask, “Did you have fun today?” or “What made you happy today.”
Brian King Education Director Northwestern Outdoor Leader Institute