My oldest children are grown and scattered through the country parenting their own children. As I reminisce about how I parented when I was younger and didn’t fear the scale, or gravity, or politicians, I remember a pivotal decision my husband and I made together that impacted our family for decades. It was a good one. Perhaps it is a rare thing for a parent to look back and reflect on a decision well made. No guilt, just good memories and a self-pat on the back.
It was the late 1990s and I realized that our “family time” was spent on the sidelines of some athletic event, cheering on a child. Typically, this meant a quick meal served out the door, into the car and eaten in transit. It meant arriving early, and leaving late – making bedtime another rushed activity. Often, we had more than one child’s games to watch in the same evening or Saturday, which meant we divided and conquered. Weekends didn’t belong to us, they belonged to whatever teams our children were a part of. What memories would our family have years from now with all of us truly together? Not just sitting on the sidelines cheering, but actively engaged with one another, giving us a sense of family being a team.
We wanted an activity that held an element of risk, added adventure, allowed for work, and brought joy. I remembered when I was growing up in California, my aunt and uncle took my family to Lake Shasta to learn how to waterski. The boat was ancient, the water was deep, and the life jacket I wore wouldn’t make code by today’s standards. But, I remember the thrill of trying again and again to get up on those old wooden skis, learning to balance, and then triumphantly rising above the water. I also recall conquering my fear of bobbing alone in the water, while trusting in my uncle as he turned the boat around to get me once I fell. There is so much symbolism in falling and getting up again. Lessons to be taught right there. Yes, boating would be our family’s go to activity.
We did what financial managers warn people never to do. We dipped into our tiny almost non-existent 401(k) and took out enough money to purchase a worn out ski boat. We searched for used water skis, and inner tubes. We didn’t scrimp on the life vests, or the food we packed for our outings. Each year, we sacrificed any leftover money and put it into a savings account saved for Shasta. Weekends and even weekdays were spent at Lake Merwin, Wash, as we searched for glass and good times.
The beauty of boating is this: no cell service, only one another’s company, working together (you have to watch the skier, you man the ropes, you bring a towel, you hold up the flag when the skier falls, etc.). We had only each other, and that was the point of it all. There is always an element of risk and striving, and that first summer our family became teammates in every sense of the word. We had each other’s backs. Each child knew that Dad would steer that boat back to pick them up once they fell. And skiing involves a lot of falling and getting back up. We were no longer cheering on the sides lines, we were in the game together. Oh, the memories we made since then! We’ve skied during hail storms, we’ve gotten the rope snagged in the blades, we’ve run out of gasoline, we’ve hit sandbars, and we’ve purchased more sunblock than most families I know.
Years have gone by since those first boating adventures. We purchased another boat made of fiberglass that could go much faster, and hold more people. My husband of 28 years passed away, but every child that spoke at his funeral mentioned boating as a tender memory maker. He was the captain of the boat, and a captain on our team. We still continued to boat even though it was difficult and we missed him. We knew he would want us to keep making memories together. And because I had learned on Lake Shasta to always strive to get up again, I remarried …. a sailor. We quickly turned him into a boater too. And yes, we return to Shasta each summer. Now I have grandchildren in my arms, as I tell tales of their father or mother first learning to ski. Counting my aunt and uncle who taught me, we are on generation four and going strong. We are a team you see. We play, work, risk, and make memories over and over again.
Make time to choose activities your family can do that will make you a team. It doesn’t have to be boating, it can be hiking, camping, swimming, cooking, etc. Remember that risk fosters determination and confidence, so having an element of risk is key. Not all cakes rise, not all boats float, not all campouts are without rain. Make sure your family activity includes full participation for each person (no bystanders). Be sure to include food. Trust me, when you have teenagers, food has the power to make or break team spirit. Know that something is bound to go wrong – and how you react to disappointment will be a teaching moment to your children.
Life has all kinds of surprises, and falls ahead for children, and adults. May each child know they can get up, rise above, balance and triumph. May your family have the opportunity to foster this in the activities you choose that promote a sense of belonging, of being needed, and trusting one another.
Keri Krout is the Child Development program manager at Western Washington University.