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Did you unplug the toaster? The ONE thing you can’t forget to do this summer.

June 19, 2014

This story begins as I watch a father and his exuberant 4 year old kid head down a rocky trail towards their campsite at a local state park. The kid skips, hops and wobbles down the slight, but tricky, incline. I’m following about 20 feet behind. I hear the dad saying “Caleb, don’t do that,” but not very emphatically. The boy “doesn’t hear” and proceeds down the path until it intersects a broader, smooth, gravel trail. When dad hits that intersection, he calls the boy “Caleb, come back here.” The kid sheepishly returns and the dad directs his attention back up the trail he just came down and says “See how rocky that is? You CAN”T do that,” ignoring the fact that his kid just did that. The kid sagely mutters some version of an insincere “ok” (a habit that will serve him well in life) and takes off down the trail.

Parents (teachers, camp counselors, neighbors, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc) in some ways, it’s easier than you think, and that’s because really, a lot of your job, is just to follow along: Hunting the ferocious crayfishLearn to notice and encourage your child’s natural attention patterns.

Same park, next day: A little troop of 7-8 year olds swims out to the island in the middle of the lake, attended by two young counselors. Eliot is in this group. We know his name right away because the counselors are saying it about twice a minute. Eliot is what you’d call a high-energy kid. He’s also very smart, verbal, curious and adventuresome. And because of this, Eliot is constantly on the wrong side of the law. There’s a really long, thick rope that goes from a tree on the island all the way back to the beach, holding swim buoys, maybe 70 yards or so. It’s very strong. It’s also just really cool and alluring. Eliot grabs it and starts to slam it down on the water, calling out “Look! I’m making waves!” The kids run over to see the awesome, and the counselors run over to yell at him to knock it off. But he’s not hurting anything. He’s not doing anything dangerous. There’s not even life guards to yell at him. He’s creating a situation that could invite learning and adventure. But a lot of the energy of the group goes into the dynamic of repressing Eliot and his waves.This is a scene played out millions of times a day across the country.

Later a friend and I build some cairns, about 30 feet upstream from a foot bridge on the way to the beach. We step back to admire our work and as families go by, basically every kid that crosses the bridge notices the stocks of rock right away, and ZERO parents do. DSC05202 About half of the kids demonstrate an intense desire to want to come down to the stream and start making their own piles of rocks, because making piles of rocks is epic. The typical parent response is at best; “Oh, yeah” and a brief glance up from their phone, and then proceeding to their intended destination. Not one grown up – keep in mind these are families on vacation, in a beautiful park, on a beautiful summer day- really affirms their kids’ awareness or curiosity, much less allows them to act upon it.

Do you know that feeling when you’ve been gunning down the highway for 3 or 4 hours at 75mph, and then you exit onto a smaller road, and all of sudden, there are flashing blue lights in your rearview mirror because you’re doing 75 in a 45?mirror lights That’s inertia: “the resistance of any physical object to any change in its state of motion, including changes to its speed and direction.”  (Wikipedia)

The pace of modern life creates a kind of literal physical inertia, which keeps our bodies in motion at a constant speed. We go on vacation but can’t slow down and forget to look up and around. This physical inertia is attended analogously, and more insidiously, by a mental and psychological inertia, whereby the scattered, fractured, insistent, goal-oriented attention patterns of our adult lives become internalized, and so that even when we enter in a new, relaxed environment, we can’t quite get there. This is toxic to some of life’s most beautiful things: play, curiosity, wonder, appreciation, gratitude, and even reverence.

Okay, one more: Last summer, sitting in a little alcove in my small Appalachian town, watching a strong late afternoon thunderstorm drench the streets and sidewalks with sheets of cascading rain, the smell of petrophenolic steam coming off the hot asphalt in little curled geists, enjoying the rapids forming in gutters, the road turned to river. A colleague, an important man, walks by, I almost don’t realize it’s him, until his son comes into view and dashes into the road, between the parked cars, to frolic in the rain and temporary cataracts. I’m so proud of my colleague, and maybe a little proud of myself, thinking I had gotten through, even to him, after all these years. I jump up and poke my head out to celebrate this moment of playful engagement with him, the kid, the rain, the road…and look up the side walk to see him 50 feet away, eyes cast down, walking in the rapid, distracted gait of one who lives in his head. The boy is joyfully splashing in the road in front of me. Finally, the man turns. He looks back and sees the boy. “Get out of the road. Come on!”

This summer, please don’t forget to Be There.

(PS: For another take on this most perennial of topics, see my TEDx talk: Forget What You Know.)

(PPS: If you liked this article and think someone else would, please scroll down and click one of the “Share” buttons. Thank you!”

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