I’m going to use pumpkin carving as a metaphor for how ridiculously high the bar is being set in our global and digitized world. In my youth, my parents would present me my annual pumpkin a few days before Halloween. I would take my knife, hack out a couple triangles for eyes and a nose, try to cut a couple of teeth into the mouth, throw in the candle, and there it was – my best effort! It was all my own work and done in half an hour, or perhaps an hour if I stretched out my carving glory. I had made my contribution to the neighborhood and all the neighborhood pumpkins were equally mediocre. That being said, they all seemed plenty good to us as we roamed the neighborhood in search of tricks and treats. Sound familiar?
Fast forward to 2012: The pumpkins of my youth would be ridiculed—I haven’t seen a triangle nose in years! Much of America is now too busy to even carve their own pumpkins and opt for the hand carved foam pumpkins available on EBay instead. Other parents fear that with thousands of stencils to download, their ten year old doesn’t stand a chance of carving a pumpkin that will meet the new normal. So they end up carving the pumpkin themselves. I hate to admit it, but I was just about to fall into that category. My five year old was obsessed with creating a dragon pumpkin. After dozens of Google searches and pages of complicated dragon pumpkin stencils (some of which cost $6.99 to download – Not going to happen!), I had to admit to Charlie – that while I was surely good at something – I was hardly the Picasso of pumpkin carving and we would have to go for something much less ambitious. Tears were shed!
Although we knew our best effort would pale in comparison to all that we had seen on the internet, we decided the only alternative was to create our own pumpkin. It was neither the fanciest, the scariest or the most unique, but it was our pumpkin. No stencils, no dragons, and yet it was certainly scary and worthy enough to adorn our front stoop. And Charlie even got to use a knife. We did it together and we had fun. The process was much more rewarding than the result. The neighbors may grimace at our low rent pumpkin, but we had fun because we lowered the bar and enjoyed the experience!
The bottom line is that the high bar for everything is stressing out our kids… and us parents. Our kids wonder if they are going to measure up. And they feel our stress as we wonder too. Sure the stakes in the global economy are so much higher than they used to be, but there are costs to raising our kids to be “exceptional” that aren’t always taken into account. As parents, we have certain images of success in our minds for our kids—sports championships, music recitals, high grades, attending an Ivy League school—and with our high expectations, some kids are becoming more afraid of failure than ever before. High expectations are a good thing. We want our kids to do well. Having unrealistic expectations isn’t healthy, nor is raising kids who feel that they aren’t allowed to fail.
And isn’t it possible that we may be setting the wrong goals for our kids? What if we reframed it?
What if we focused less on specific goals and more on one simple question: How as parents do we help our children shine? Put differently, we should worry less about creating goals for our children and more about finding environments where they will experience successes and acceptance.
“A great environment” has three important components. First, it should be a good match to a child’s talents and interests—a place that they show skill and feel a desire to improve their skills.
Second, the “great environment” should provide challenges and opportunities to grow by overcoming these challenges: “confidence comes from competence”. And resilience comes because of hard work and even more through picking oneself up after failure. That “great environment” is a place where the culture says it’s OK to fail, and provides plenty of support when you do.
The final component of a “great environment” is community and acceptance. This component is often neglected when parents consider activities for their children. But as I look at my daughters’ soccer team at the end of the season, far more important than the skills they gained and the games won or lost, was the incredible rapport the girls developed and the friendships that extend beyond the field. To me soccer is merely the vehicle for healthy friendships, healthy bodies and a respect for all that comes as a result of hard work. Some of their coaches see it differently, but we are used to that!
Which brings me to Adventure Treks. Ultimately our goal is to create that “great environment” for your child. We typically hear from parents that their son or daughter had a great time at Adventure Treks, made great friends and loved their instructors. They say it was one of the healthiest and happiest times of their lives. They say that their kids loved being in a place that didn’t judge them and loved them for who they were, not who they were “supposed to be.” Then we hear: “We can’t do A.T. next summer because of summer select lacrosse, or a community service requirement, or the chance to get some college credits or learn a new language… and these opportunities for enrichment just can’t be missed!”
And we respond: While the benefits of a summer outdoors cannot be quantified, isn’t the opportunity to celebrate more simple things like friends, the wonders of nature and the chance to live in a supportive community ultimately going to yield more long term success and happiness? Isn’t developing resilience, character and communication skills important too? Is fulfilling a checklist of accomplishments that are often pursued—not for love of the activity, but to measure up to someone’s perceived expectations worth missing out on the magic of A.T.?
Sometimes the simplest pumpkin is the most satisfying. Charlie and I are both glad we chose not to carve that dragon. It was just too much for us and by carving our own “design,” we were ultimately happier.