“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.