“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.”
Don Williams, Jr. (American Novelist and Poet, b.1968)
There is no stranger smelling air than the pool air. Panels of humid chlorine you bump into every step of the way, some whiff of soap and shampoo drifting from the showers, shards of mixed voices hitting the water surface like skipping rocks and exploding in wet syllables only to smoke towards the ceiling incessantly, it’s a funny mix, I’m telling you. Every day now I am taking the boys to swimming classes so I gladly subject myself to pool air immersion because equipping my boys with life skills such as this is the noblest of purposes.
Yet today something strikes me as wrong. It’s not the first time I see this although it’s a first here, making me wonder if I was too absent to notice until now. I am sitting by the edge of the pool reading my book and occasionally peeling my eyes off the pages that tug at me with this fascinating, beautfully crafted story of a meek writer turned outlaw. I lift my eyes to check on the boys. They splash away.
I see a group of kids with their instructor, older kids, maybe nine years old or so. They get ready to practice their jumping in the water. Crouched like frogs on the side of the pool with their arms stretched in front of their foreheads, they jump in one by one. This one guy makes a perfect entry, as sharp as a knife sliding in its sheath. And he is told “good job!” by the instructor. The next two plop in like snow plops off the tree in mid-winter, they clearly have some work ahead. And they’re told “that was good” by the instructor. Hmmm, OK, let me get this straight. If everyone gets high fives then who’s doing it right and who’s not? How do they know? Because I surely feel as confused as can be.
Don’t get me wrong. I like good patting on the back and the occasional encouragements. When they’re for real that is. Otherwise I feel a bit insulted. If I’m told “good job” every step of the way, sure my confidence will be as inflated as a hot-air balloon floating over big old Kansas, but at the end of the day that’s all there’s in it: some hot air! Same goes for my boys. I’d opt for people telling my boys “not bad, but you’re not there yet. Gotta put some work in it and if you want it and work hard enough you’ll get there.” Telling all kids they succeed at everything with the littlest effort is akin to robbing them of one too many chances of building confidence and resilience, both good to have along the way.
I won’t deny the intention is good. We want them to be confident , to feel like winners, all of them, and for most part they do. It’s when they grow up and the cuteness factor fades away and the soft padded parental appreciative words fall away like petals that they find themselves at the mercy of the real world that built around them while they were gently rocked in the arms of fake self-confidence.
I say let’s stick to telling them the truth as we see it. Encourage them when they need it, giving themsome whooping high fives and then telling them there’s still work ahead. Their legs will be steadier to stand on for that reason and they’ll learn about what they’re really capable of. What’s worth working towards and what should be ditched. Life is not perfect, the sky is not always blue and we’re not all winners. Not that kind, anyway. There’s joy in being the best you can be and by now I know some things are out of reach, some because I lack skills and some because I am not interested enough to pursue them. As for the ones I’m keen on, you can bet I’ll keep working on getting better at. I’d love for my boys to learn that too. And all kids for that matter. It makes for better adjusted people, and real too, and that’s a good thing, wouldn’t you say?