Forty-something years ago, my girlfriend and I are in Biscayne Bay on a rented 13’ 9” Sunfish, maybe a mile from shore. We are chatting, having a lovely afternoon, clear skies--even though there isn't room on the small sailboat for more than eight or nine sandwiches and a six pack of lemonade. We decide to take turns swimming. I go first.
Except she can't find me. There is a slight chop. She can't see me over the waves even though I'm not 20 feet from our small craft. She doesn't know to make expanding concentric circles--more of a spiral really--as the best search and rescue pattern. This is bad. So, I start swimming to shore. Again, it's "only" a mile; I can see land and know the direction. I’m nervous, sure, but I don't feel like my life is about to end. I’m no great swimmer but at 24 years old I can breast-stroke a darn five thousand something feet if I have to. Sharks are rare in the bay, far from the open ocean. Admittedly, if a shark comes along, I'm done. But I like my chances of surviving if I can keep my head. I develop a little rhythm: "Breathe, stroke, try not to panic; breathe, stroke, try not to panic."
I swim slowly, careful to conserve energy. Half an hour later, I'm only a few hundred yards from shore. I see a huge sailboat, maybe a 40-footer. It’s going to pass directly in front of me. I am pleased—overjoyed—that I am about to be rescued, the less time in the water the better. The sharks—if there are any—can find something else to munch on. I’m going to reassure my girlfriend that I’m okay and we’re going to get back to our picnic lunch. Things are working out. I'm not going to drown.
So I shout politely, "Hi! Can I have a ride?"
Keep in mind that there is an understanding, maybe even a maritime law, that insists you have to pick up people who are alone and in obvious distress in the middle of the ocean. (Okay, so by now I'm only a ten-minute swim to shore, but still. It’s clear that I am in a bit of a pickle.) One of the people on the big sailboat says, "no."
They are not going to give me a ride to safety. They are going to leave me to my own devices. Rather than scream, "I could die out here! Are you kidding me? Throw me a line!" I just keep swimming. Don't want to inconvenience anybody. Don't want to ask any favors. Heck, I might drip water on their fancy sailboat, right?
Long time readers will suspect that I am going to write about how to help our kids grow up to be the kind of people who say, “how can we help?” and “here’s a rope!” rather than leaving a distressed swimmer alone in the open ocean. I’m also going consider how important it is to ask for help, how to allow our kids to make a contribution, to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves.
It’s hard to ask for help. Especially when we are trained as parents to be self-sufficient, to be the care givers, to convey, “I got this.” And allowing kids to “help” invariably takes longer than not. I can clean up the kitchen after making brownies with my seven-year-old in under five minutes. If my second grader “helps,” the process of wiping the flour off the counter could take the better part of the afternoon. One step forward, two steps back is all about the assistance of little ones whose distractions have distractions and are thinking about, asking about, everything other than a clean counter.
But letting our children help sets an appropriate precedent. Pitching in gives them skin in the game, helps them understand they are part of something, avoids the ubiquitous, “buy me, get me, I want it now!” zeitgeist prevalent in our consumeristic culture. (My running buddy, Bruce Turkel, wrote an insightful piece on how even decluttering and using less is now an example of spending more. Bruce notes that you can BUY a subscription to Netflix to watch a show called, “Minimalism.”)
It may seem like a gift to allow your kids to watch TV while dad does the dinner dishes. It's not.
One of the most successful dads I know insists that his daughters write a thank you note every week. Mike started the program when his girls were little and the tradition continues now that they are adults. Mike has enough resources to provide housekeepers for his housekeepers if he chose. Instead, he and his kids do chores together in the house and in the yard. The communication—I could be in the office making another million dollars but instead I am here with you up to my knees in dirt—isn’t lost on his kids who are industrious, studious, and on their way to being successful. The thank you notes which seem like a gift to the recipients have instead turned out to be a gift to the children.
Consider two high school seniors.
Kid One: My dad lets me do anything. I don’t have chores or responsibilities. I can come home whenever I want. I get a huge allowance.
Kid Two: My dad always knows where I am, who I’m with. My dad and I take turns mowing the lawn, cooking, and cleaning. I get money from my after school job.
Kid One: I wasn’t bragging.
Kid Two: I was.
It’s hard to accept help; but in the long run, it’s harder not to. Let your kids make a contribution. It’s good for everybody and they are less likely to grow up to be the kind of people to leave distressed swimmers out in the bay.