Presence, Not Praise
October 1, 2013 § 17 Comments
The boys and Penny returned from their four-day wilderness skills weekend with oodles of stories and small treasures. The boys had made some savvy trades at the trade blanket; their lodes of garlic, chaga mushrooms, and dried grasshoppers had proven popular, and they’d managed to wrangle a nice hand sewn leather belt pouch, along with a heavy bag of wild pears. Fin got his hands on a flint and steel, and showed me how he’d used it to start a fire. By gum, the darn thing actually works, which shouldn’t have surprised me. But then, I’m easily surprised by magic. Penny made a pair of buckskin moccasins and Fin advanced his flint napping, and I don’t even know what all Rye made. For my part, I did what I always do when they’re away: Knocked down a bunch of trees, sawed a bunch of lumber, did a bunch of chores, ate a bunch of bacon and steak, and listened to a bunch of immature music turned up a bunch too loud. Oh, and got a bunch lonely.
I could see in the boys’ faces how good an experience it had been. They are crazy for this stuff; they spend almost all their days in the throes of some wilderness craft or another (I really can’t bring myself to call them “primitive skills” anymore, having come to understand that what’s truly primitive is the frequent callousness with which modern first world society conducts its business). They know how to sew leather and cloth, how to hone a knife blade and haft a handle for it, how to make cordage from cedar bark, how to hew a long bow, how to hunt squirrel with a slingshot, how to flesh and dry and animal hides, how to make a watertight shelter of sticks and leaves, and so on.
I have little doubt that for this period of their lives at least, this is their calling. Their affection for these skills and practices is almost entirely lacking in externalized attention or merit – no one is grading them, and rarely do they receive praise for their efforts. Penny and I are not big on accolades or other “rewards”; we believe that what children need most is presence, not praise. As such, I am secure in the knowledge that their love of these things comes from some place deep inside of them, and not from a desire to fulfill anyone else’s expectations. It is not even as if they have seen these skills modeled by us; although Penny is quickly becoming proficient in many of them, it is a proficiency she’s earning in tandem with the boys. And me? I’m about as capable as a bowling ball when it comes to this stuff.
The challenge, of course, is that there simply aren’t many kids their age with similar interests around here. Or around anywhere, I’m guessing. This is mostly ok; the boys rarely, if ever, articulate any sense of wishing more of their friends shared their passions. They have one good friend who loves these things almost as fiercely as they do, but he lives nearly an hour away, and has 5 siblings and his parents have their hands full just trying to keep some semblance of order, much less arranging visits. Anyway, Fin and Rye seem keenly aware that their interests are somewhat unique in 21st century America; they also seem entirely comfortable with that knowledge.
Still, I could tell how good it had been for them to be immersed in a group where their passions weren’t considered “neat” or “cool,” but rather were simply part of everyday living. There weren’t a ton of kids at the gathering, but Fin and Rye are quite happy in the company of adults, particularly if said adults consider a bag of toasted bugs to be nourishment.
I have no witty repartee with which to end this little story. There is no lesson I’m hoping to impart. Oh, wait, yeah, there is: Presence, not praise. How’s that grab ya’?