My daughter yanked open the drawer and reached for my tools. Beaming toddler pride, she wrapped her tiny fingers around the hammer handle and struggled to lift it. This was the latest drawer that she found her growing body able to open. Each drawer was a new mystery possessing an assortment of interesting objects that she had only seen her mother and father use and wanted to try out herself. When I attempted to distract her from the drawer of dangerous tools, she launched a ferocious fit. As she screamed in protest, it occurred to me how intensely important and pleasurable that discovery is to children.
Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson stated that toddlers formulate the concept of “autonomy versus shame” in their stage of human development. More clearly, parents can either foster a spirit of healthy independence in their children as they explore their world, or they can micro-manage and overprotect into a state of shame which subverts their ability to explore their world, develop a healthy self-concept, and assert themselves. As I watched my daughter explore everything she could get her hands, tongue, and toes on, I began to think of ways to foster a healthy and sensible spirit of adventure in my children. With all the challenges that America is facing today and in the generation to come, I figured my daughter would need it.
Revisiting my own childhood, I remembered how powerful the imagination was after watching movies like “ET,” “Star Wars,” and “Goonies.” I remember wishing that I could find some interesting mystical object in the attic or locate a treasure map and seek out the treasure. That’s when I realized that I could make that a reality for my children.
For those who are interested in doing a similar activity with your own children, I’ll tell you my plans and you can alter them to what is best for your family.
I went to a second-hand store and purchased an old chest along with all kinds of “treasure.” Gold (plastic) coins, candlesticks, strings of beads, plastic jewelry, crowns and tiaras. I put them all in a waterproof bag and dropped the bag into the chest. I then found a plot of dirt where I wouldn’t electrocute myself by digging or break any city ordinances. I plopped the treasure chest into the ground and covered it with dirt. Once I got back home, ate dinner, and put the little one to bed, my wife and I began to construct the treasure map. We used some old paper we found in a desk, crinkled it up, and spilled things on it to add an aged look before. When it was dry, we drew out the treasure map and crammed it into the very back of a long dark closet where it would be strategically “discovered” Saturday morning during house cleaning. When our daughter discovered the map, we would “test” it for accuracy then embark upon a Saturday odyssey that would culminate in locating the buried treasure. Below are some of the thought processes and reasoning that my wife and I came up with as we planned this adventure.
Inspire a Sense of Wonder
Whenever the Hubble Space Telescope sends back another bundle of images, I click through them in awe. When a chemistry teacher mixed chemicals, I was intrigued by the results. Liquids changed color or burst into sizzling smoke. Balloons exploded, wilted, ascended, or sank near the Bunsen burner. When the seasons morph from one to the next, I can’t help but wonder about all the unknown intricacies of nature, the universe, and the potential that surrounds us. For my daughter to find a treasure map inside of a closet that she has walked by a thousand times, I hope that she will be indelibly imprinted by the experience and not take the familiar for granted.
My wife and I cleaned and readied all kinds of equipment for the adventure. Canteens to stay hydrated during our adventure, a microscope and some gutted electronics to simulate “carbon-dating” of the map, pace counts for number familiarization, GPS, a kid-friendly shovel. All these items were opportunities to teach and discuss scientific process, mathematics, history, engineering concepts, and most important of all, their use during an adventure.
Our goal was to prepare our daughter for the real world. Dragons, magic, fairies, and princes were kept at a minimum. We wanted to inspire wonder and give her an understanding of people, nature, and adversity. We wanted her to know that hard work and organization reach the reward. We did’t want to create a fantasy land where she escaped from her problems. After all, if I promised her a fairy tale, she might be very disappointed with the real world.
Share the Experience
Very little is more interesting to me than my daughter’s view of things. Communicating at her level is a challenge. Guarding against overwhelming her with information helps her mind engulf a concept. Watching her apply this new understanding is an endearing joy. Listening to your child’s viewpoint and questions makes my wife and I marvel, then improvise. After all, parenthood itself is an adventure.
Give Them a Responsibility
Discipline is easy to instill if a clear and enticing goal is in view. Discipline is not easy to instill if there is no worthwhile goal. Give your child the task of reading off the GPS numbers or carrying the map. Explain how important this duty is, then affirm them their diligence to the task. If they’re losing concentration, remind them of how essential their task is to the goal. Once they reach the reward, you can remind them that you would’ve never gotten to the goal without their disciplined efforts in maintaining the map, counting the paces, or reading the GPS numbers. When their heart is pounding and they are neck deep in “treasure,” those lessons will have a powerful resonance.
Make it a Physical Challenge
Help thrash the television-based idea that adventure is free of physical challenge. Involving a physical activity like a hike, bike ride, cross-country skis, or a canoe trip can cause increased coordination and a healthy concept of exercise. Make sure you hydrate together and take necessary breaks. Eat healthy snacks along the way and talk about how junk food wouldn’t help your body along the journey. Establishing exercise as a regular part of life is a foundation that can prevent childhood obesity and debilitating injuries.
Have the Goal Benefit the Whole, Not Just the Self
Once your child has arrived at the goal and receives the reward, incorporate helping the less fortunate. Hopefully your child is proud of what they have done at this point. Take some of the toys or whatever reward you chose and give some of the bounty to a local pediatric hospital or to some children who are less fortunate. In addition to inspiring a work ethic, you can also inspire a thankfulness that transcends simple materialism. You can orient your child to a good which is even greater than acquisition of wealth, that is, a generous spirit.
Enjoy the Finished Product
Hopefully this Saturday activity introduces some valuable life lessons. Ideally, exercises like this will contribute to creating a child engaged by their world, inspired by adventure, willing to work hard to reach the goal, willing to endure adversity in pursuit of the goal, that is physically fit, able to make healthy relationships along the way, socially aware and responsible. Although these goals are lofty, I would rather affirm my children toward these concepts and watch them overcome barriers that they once thought were impossible than give them easily attainable goals and surrender them to boredom, complaint, and lack of vision.
In establishing these values in our children, I realized that we, as parents, receive a reciprocation of discovery by watching our own children forge their way into the uncharted waters of the future. They bear the family name into the brilliant rising sun with courage and determination, not resignation or a sense of futility. Instead of a crippling parental anxiety that asphyxiates our children, our parental anxieties are quieted by their proven and tested abilities to face and overcome adversity. We can guide with the tender hands of our experience instead of abandoning them to a cruel and violent world where the tutelage is less than accommodating. If we do this, we may have peace, knowing that we have served our precious ones, and not abandoned our own flesh and blood. As our time on earth wanes, may they tuck us in with thankfulness and reverence, spawned from an enlightened satisfaction and a youthful, strong flourishing. May their memories of us be as kind as our intentions toward them when they were in the cradle. May we love our children with a love that is not mere emotion, but an encompassing of all of life, an incarceration of fear and shame, and an awe that shreds delusion and futile striving.
Today, the American public faces countless trials. The economy appears grim. We are fighting an expensive global war. Energy sources are in flux or controlled by those not necessarily friendly to American interests. Social security funds are evaporating. Congress has passed a 700 billion dollar bail-out and can’t keep track of where that money is going. The state of the American family is in shambles. None of these are a good enough reason to give up. None. Now, more than ever, leaders with an innovative, adventurous spirit are essential. Just as the American military responds to terrorist attacks relentlessly, the American family must respond to the civil challenges of America relentlessly. That starts with our children. That starts with our families. There is very little that is more important on this earth than our role as fathers.