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Raising Kids is Like Paddling a Canoe

I have been watching the homeschool community from the gravel bar through several generations now and I have noticed that the “successful” parents stand out- not by their reactions but by their almost imperceptible movements...

We live in canoe country. Local summer past times include hanging out on a gravel bar under dramatic cliffs watching as tourists attempt to perfect the art before the eddies claim them. At the end of summer kids in snorkels turned treasure hunters compare their finds from below the most infamous “dump spots”. One year they even found an entire submerged canoe!

For first timers- the idea of paddling a canoe is captivating. Perhaps they think it will be like a rowing machine. Whatever the case- they go at it with a will. Many vigorous strokes on one side followed by several more on the other, and then back again. As they zigzag down the river bouncing from shore to shore, they are at the mercy of whatever happens to be in their path. Their gusto makes their trip less than pleasurable. A missing bit of information newbies should be informed of is that the person in the back of the canoe- is actually the person in charge. You steer from the back. Given this piece of knowledge, how many relationships could be less strained at the pickup point?

When, from the bank, we see an experienced pair we know it. Their movements are almost imperceptible. From the front a seemingly lazy dip here and there and from the back a steady drag, now on this side, now the other; or is it? Is that person in the back doing anything at all? They glide down the center of the river ready to hit the V of the white water head on. Their calculated movements allow them calm awareness enabling them to see what is ahead and be prepared for it, be it a sunken log, a snag from overhead or a shoal. Their canoe stays upright, and they enjoy their float.

Raising kids is a bit like paddling a canoe. I see some parents who are dramatic paddlers! Exaggerated voices and gestures; laying down the law, as it were, with boisterous enthusiasm. Infractions are dealt with in the same dramatic way. Head wagging and finger waving may or may not be part of the routine – but would definitely fit the mood. Whatever rumor is in the air about the current “corrupting influence” is discussed loudly and emphatically. Like the submerged log in the river- THIS is something that must be avoided at all costs. But do their vigorous strokes, in the end, compromise their canoe?

I have been watching the homeschool community from the gravel bar through several generations now and I have noticed that the “successful” parents stand out- not by their reactions but by their almost imperceptible movements. (Are they doing anything at all?) I have tried to copy their technique as I have guided our canoe down the river of life. With two kids stepping out at the pickup point I want to share what I have seen work.

Calm confidence as you set out is crucial.

“We are going to make it.”

“We won’t anticipate the worst and be tense and thus overreact.”

“We will have a different outcome than some of the others, because we are willing to be different than some of the others.”

Not overreacting doesn’t mean being unaware. It doesn’t mean not having rules and definite standards. It doesn’t even mean not presenting them to your children. To the contrary- your standards should be such a definite part of who you are that they permeate your family’s atmosphere in a natural way. The relationship you cultivate with your children serves to draw rather than repel. Your value of them as persons-equals before God, coupled with respect for yourself and your role, cultivates a bond that becomes part of your shared family culture. Rules and standards are not external bars installed around life- but are rather life itself, and more than that- a good life.

When my kids were little there were many things I saw out on the horizon that I knew could dump us or at the very least begin a zigzag pattern if given the opportunity. Rather than focus on them and rant and preach and make ultimatums I tried to quietly drag my paddle at the back of our canoe. (Was I doing anything at all?)

Light pruning that went unnoticed at the time dramatically influenced the shape of our family. Where one thing (habit, past-time, style) wasn’t allowed to take root- something else had space to develop. Rather than letting chance have her way and being forced to lop off well grown limbs to the pain of everyone involved, we grew with an eye to the future. “In saying yes to one thing- you are saying no to another” was our motto. We wanted to give precedence to our yeses by joyfully giving them whenever possible. We tried to keep our nos to a minimum and made sure they were discreet yet firm. We wanted to prioritize the finite space in our lives for the truly beneficial and excellent.

Here is what I have learned from those successful paddlers who went before me.

* Set out ready to steer for long term goals. * Don’t get tunnel vision in the present.

* Don’t be pressured by society and what everyone else is doing.

* For different results be willing to live differently.

* For the sake of your kids be willing to be inconvenienced in your options.

* Move slowly and deliberately. But not so slowly as to frustrate them; anticipate what might be around the corner and be prepared to face it or divert it.

* Keep in mind that once something is given- it is hard to take back without resentment.

* Once a door is open and things rush in to fill the spaces of life it is hard to close.

* Be purposeful. Be calm. Steer without drama. Steer without notice when possible.

On final hint: In steering- don’t be a taker. Train yourself to recognize the difference. I love it when, in the Screwtape Letters, Screwtape describes God as, “a hedonist at heart”. He laments that,

“(God) has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least…”.

God is not a withholder. Neither should we be. Be careful not to draw your family’s attention to every log and snag and so let your family’s view be full of only the avoidance of it. The purpose of wise steering should be the higher goal of enjoying the trip, making it to the pickup point with everyone and everything intact! Keep their view full of the endless opportunities and pleasures that are available and they won’t miss the ones that aren’t.

S.Timothy 2021

P.S. These things are on my heart as I move into phase two (or is it three?) of parenting. The first two are off and running and the second two are coming into their own. Looking back- what were the things that had impact? What worked? What shaped our family in the early days and how can I continue that atmosphere for the next batch of teenagers. In looking back I see that it was the little things. Was I doing anything at all? I can see now that I was.


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