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E. Q. for Boys: The Swim Test

Beach Brothers

Beach Brothers ©Joshua Koepp

“Thank God for your son,” the brown-haired mother said as she walked to stand next to me on the beach.

“Oh? What did he do?” I asked, trying to act oblivious. The truth was, I knew what I had told him to do. I was curious to hear from someone else what he had actually done.

It was the last day of our week at YMCA Camp du Nord, a family camp north of Ely, Minnesota near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In a matter of minutes, one of the highlights for the kids was about to start: the counselor hunt. On the last day, all of the counselors hide around camp and the children and youth who were their “age group” during the week run around and find them. The whole adventure converges on the beach where campers and counselors attempt to wrestle each other into the water and dump each other.

You can imagine the chaos. It is very fun but also very rough and very wet. With all the pandemonium, some safety measures are prudent. All the young campers are required to take a swim test and receive a wrist-band which designates how far out into the water they can be during the melee. A wise safety measure to be sure, but one that is ready-made to trigger a crisis of status and identity for many young boys in the 7-9 year old range.

According to my son’s logic, nobody really gives a rip if you can’t swim by yourself when you’re six. Some kids can swim when they are seven, but you only feel a little embarrassed if you can’t. Once you’re eight, many of your friends have learned to swim, so it’s kind of a big deal. You’ll be thinking about the swim test and anxious about saving face if you fail. You may even come up with excuses ahead of time:

  • The waves were big.
  • It was windy.
  • I was tired.
  • Someone pushed me.
  • I don’t like swimming in lakes.
  • I’m more used to the pool where I work out with “my competitive swim team.
  • It wasn’t a fair test, etc.

If you’re nine and you can’t swim you’re likely to pick a fight with the troll under Angel Bridge in hopes that he will take a big bite out of your foot, thus making it impossible to go into the lake because of the open wound. Since most boys have done it, it’s easy to recognize a faked or manufactured injury or malady (AKA the losers limp). However, desperate times call for desperate measures, and most of the time the other guys don’t call your bluff.

To make matters even more risky for young and fragile male egos, after the swim test you are tagged with a colored wrist band that identifies you as a non-swimmer, restricted access swimmer who has to stay in the shallow “kiddie” area, or a unrestricted water-competent resident of Atlantis who has spent some time in Aquaman’s private guard.

Most adults have forgotten what it felt like to be a kid and about half of adults have never been boys. To them, it is confusing why a little guy would suddenly lash out, avoid eye contact, be rude to loved ones, retreat into their own little world, and have a complete meltdown if someone tries to pry. They don’t understand the existential crisis that will be caused when he is strapped with a wrist-band below the rank of his peers.

That’s what happened to the brown-haired mother’s little guy. For whatever reason, he didn’t pass the test. He was crushed. He was crying. There was nothing mom could do. He ran down the beach to get away, too embarrassed to even stick around.

I had seen this before. Several times, actually, only a month earlier. That was when my eight-year-old son publicly failed the swim test at Cub Scouts camp, over and over again, in front of his friend (who passed on the first try) and about 50 other scouts and dads who were swimming in the pool. Truthfully, I’m not the kind of parent who tries to rescue my kids from these situations. Failing repeatedly teaches you to keep trying and that it’s not the end of the world if you screw up and embarrass yourself. You’ll survive. Most of the time nobody cares, and if they do, that’s their problem, not yours.

Today, however, my son’s experience had been different. This time he had passed on the first try and gotten a white wrist-band. When we saw the other boy take off, I quickly said to him, “Hey, you know how that feels. Go talk to him. Tell him you failed a swim test too.” Then I left to find my younger son.

I returned a while later to the brown haired lady thanking me. “He was just an angel. He came and told Rider that he had bombed a swim test once too. Then he talked him in to trying again and even went and got the counselor to give them a retest. They took the test together and they both passed. He saved the day.”

When it comes to emotional intelligence, it’s very important for boys to learn to handle their own emotions. However, the next and equally important step is to learn how to respond to the emotions of OTHERS. Sometimes it’s appropriate to simply respect someone’s process and protect their dignity while they feel. Other times we can come alongside and be a brother in time of need. Getting outside ourselves and caring about our fellows is what psychological health is all about. I’m glad my son got a chance to see how facing his challenge gave him the tools to help someone else in the long run.

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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Camp Akela R & T

IMG_1030There was a lot of rough-and-tumble play at Camp Akela last weekend. Camp Akela is the summer Cub Scout camp for the Northwest District of the Boy Scouts of America. It was my son’s first year, and we plan to make it a tradition.

Cub Scout camp is packed with many wonderful planned activities that fit in the rough-and-tumble/big body category. I’ve provided some pictures of the obstacle course and a game called “finger fencing.” **

Of course, besides the planned activities, there was down time as well, much of which was filled with all manner of boys wresting, chasing, tackling, rolling down steep hills, running down hills until they fell and sometimes just laying in a pile together.

IMG_1024It was very cool to see the boys practicing the unwritten rules of rough-and-tumble play. They naturally stopped when it got too rough or someone wasn’t having fun. They pushed harder and tested each other’s strength in a friendly way. They assessed the risk of an activity and pulled back when it was too much.

Most of all it was wonderful to see relationships develop between boys who didn’t know each other as they joined with others in rough-and-tumble play. In this kind of play, you become friends by showing that you respect the other person enough to play empathically, up to the level of physicality that the other person is comfortable with.

At no time during the weekend did I see any boys angry or crying because other boys hurt them. There were times when it got too rough, and they boys backed off, still friends.

IMG_1043There was one exception to this. My son came up to me after leaving a large game of ultimate soccer. In this game, there are many balls, all the boys play together, and dads were playing with the boys. My son didn’t seem too upset, but I could tell he was intentionally leaving the game. When I asked him what happened he said that another dad made him fall down hard by sweeping his feet out from under him.

Intentional or not, this dad wasn’t following the rules of rough-and-tumble play. He was too big to be playing that hard. However, even situations like this highlight a benefit of rough-and-tumble play. My son got the chance to assess his feeling of personal safety, self-regulate his involvement and choose a different activity.

Thanks to all of the staff at Camp Akela this summer. Looking forward to seeing you again next year.

IMG_1052** In finger fencing, two players grasp hands with index fingers pointing out. The goal is to use your finger to touch your opponent without being touched. It doesn’t count to touch the arm that is grasping your opponent’s hand.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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How ’bout a pre-school in a nursing home?

This trailer for the Present Perfect Film is too good not to watch. My boys’ childcare program from one-year until the start of elementary school was affiliated with a nursing home, to which they took regular walking field trips. The trailer for this video shows how powerful and important inter-generational relationships can be. I think I’ll contact one of the many nursing homes around our neighborhood to see about adding some visits into our summer activity list. You can go to Kickstarter if you want to support this film.

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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Online Boys Course Starts Next Week April 7

Wave Riders: Nurturing Boys Emotional Health offered online April 7-May 1. There are still a few spots left. For parents, childcare providers, teachers, or anyone who cares about children and youth. Accredited for 16 workshop hours if you need them. Call me for details or visit the Eager to Learn Webpage and tell them I’m OK with a late registration.

 Angry Boy embarrassed confused Happy Sad

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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Be a Better Mirror

Red Head Sad squareRed Head Happy Background 2 squareWhat’s the difference between these two boys? Yes, this is a shameless trick question. On the surface, they have a different mouth and background. One looks happy, the other a little sad. The REAL reason I asked this question is because there’s another less obvious but more significant difference: Me.

I made these drawings when my wife was recently out of town for a week…in Hawaii. The boys and I were not in Hawaii. We were at home…in Minnesota. In January. Minnesota and Hawaii have the ability to create different moods in people, especially in January. Add in a very busy week full of long hours, solo parenting, and science fairs my stress level went up a few points.

By the end of the week, I realized that the look on my boy’s faces had changed too. Sure, they missed their mom, but I knew that wasn’t the most significant factor. I had let my stress, low energy and winter blues get the best of me. My boys were mirroring the expression they were seeing from me. No only that, they were taking on my mood as well.

When children and youth see a steady stream of adult expressions that are moody, depressed, frustrated, stressed and in general less than happy, it sends a non-verbal message. Non-verbal messages are powerful for boys, especially when they come from men. They can easily internalize the belief that it’s “manly” to be frustrated, over-concerned, controlled by circumstances and in general less than happy.

The good news is that we don’t need to leave it that way. We can be a better mirror. We can model self-awareness. We can choose our response to our circumstances. We can show with our actions that, even though life isn’t always easy, our mood is our choice. We can make a joke. Crack a smile (if it feels unnatural, you need to practice it more). Be playful. If you’ve forgotten how, just lay down on the floor in the middle of the living room. If you’ve got little boys around they’ll remind you.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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The Mask You Live In

Here’s the video from my workshop yesterday at the MnSACA-MnAEYC conference. The film is premiering at Sundance right now, from what I understand. Looking forward to connecting with all of you again. If you like my facebook page (upper right), you can get regular updates as I post more information.

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting

 

When words get in the way

Words get in the way1

© Joshua Koepp

It has happened to all of us. Words have left our mouths that we regret. Or maybe we have done something that affected others in a way we did not intend. There are reasons why boys can be especially prone to this. If we understand why, we can give them tools to avoid and handle mistakes.

I remember once in my early teens when I was at a formal gathering. It was an anniversary celebration for our church. I felt pretty special to be included with all the adults walking around dressed in their fancy clothes.

There was a guy present who had been our music director but had moved a year or two previous. I was excited to see him since I looked up to him and he seemed to like me, which is important for 14-year-olds. I gradually got closer to where he was standing and he greeted me warmly, “Hi Joshua. Wow! You sure have grown.”

“Hi,” I said back, and not wanting to seem like a stupid kid I tried to think of something else to say. I decided to return the compliment. I blurted out, “So have you!”

He paused and forced a laugh with a look on his face that seemed to say, “You little ____.” I guess he wasn’t happy about the extra 50 pounds he had put on.

While that situation was harmless, many boys get far more sever consequences when they say stupid things, especially if they do or say something that can be understood as threatening violence or sexually suggestive. Zero tolerance policies at many schools are often ruthlessly enforced and very destructive for boys.

Here are a few of the reasons boys sometimes say stupid things:

1)     Language and emotional processing happen in different parts of the brain and those parts aren’t as efficiently linked as in girls. This makes for slower processing and more difficulty getting the words out right.

2)     Stressful situations derail the connection between the emotional processing part of the brain (limbic system) and the critical thinking part of the brain (frontal cortex). That means in a situation where stress and threat are present (social situations, conflict, being called a name), they’re not thinking as much as they are reacting from their gut or practiced responses.

3)     Testosterone encourages impulsive reactions and linear thinking. Testosterone’s effects are complex, but it does make a difference and boys do have more of it. Impulsive means blurting and having NO filter (even if they know better than to insult food at a guest’s house). Linear thinking means they may only be able to think of one thing to say instead of all the various responses available.

4)     When teenage hormones are involved, studies show that boys frequently mis-read emotional cues and respond very differently than they would have otherwise. They often feel very ashamed and regret what they have said and done. Of course, this is magnified when parents and the opposite sex are involved.

Here are a few things we can do to help:

1)     Allow for “do-overs.” When something comes off wrong or a conversations spirals out of control in the wrong direction, it’s okay to press the rewind button. I often say to my son, “Let’s stop here. I’ll give you some time. You decide if you want to revise anything you just said.”

2)      Practice different responses. In any given situation, there are many different things we can say or NOT say. It can be very helpful for boys if we help them think through what might have gone differently if something else had been said. It can also help them hone their personal style to think about what different responses look like to others.

3)     Role play situations and scenarios. While it may sound corny, boys learn through doing, and there’s a much better chance they will succeed in real life if they have a chance to run through a situation within the safety of the family.

When we’re young, the feeling of embarrassment is magnified and frightening. It can make you want to run and hide. It sometimes causes tears, which is incredibly embarrassing for boys. Remember to provide a safe shelter and support for them when they have those “I can’t believe I said that” moments.

 
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Posted by on December 31, 2014 in Contemplative Parenting

 

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