For children, independence requires risks

Last modified: Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Jasper built a boat. It was part of his culminating eighth-grade project at the Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School in Haydenville, which asks students to pursue a topic of interest and present it in a cross- curricular format demonstrating mastery in all areas of study.

Jasper’s topic was the statistical chances of catching a striped bass. The boat fulfilled his hands-on, artistic demonstration of skill.

What astounds me, though, is how independently he brought this project to fruition: selecting mentors, one who knew about fishing and the other a carpenter who knew about boat building. He enlisted these men and beginning in January, kept the assignment on a tight timeline that would have his project ready to present in June, his boat ready to launch in August. And then he did it. What are the statistical chances of that?

After he built and presented it — a humble skiff with oar locks and nicely painted paddles — he mowed lawns and did odd jobs to save money to buy a motor and a battery to power it.

In the basement of our house he rigged it all up, taking us down in late July to watch how the motor spun when he attached it and showing us how he would set it up in the boat. Then he set out to lash it to the roof of our van as we prepared for our summer vacation. After a test drive on the highway, where it made spooky noises and jiggled a bit, he reorganized the cargo in the van to fit the boat inside. We were off on vacation with a boat as a passenger.

When we got to Martha’s Vineyard the next morning, he had already procured a spot to dock it, using his island connections. He got out of the van in Menemsha on that rainy Saturday morning and went off to find the Harbor Master, using channels unknown to me.

“How do you find the Menemsha Harbor master?” I asked him when he returned. He shrugged, his eyes raking along the boats already on the dock, and answered, “You ask around.”

How did my 14-year-old come to be so independent? He manifested a big dream of his — to have a boat on Martha’s Vineyard — entirely without the help of his family. He had a lot of other people helping and supporting him along the way, but that, too, he managed independently.

My friend Chaia Wolff of Amherst had a similar experience of being surprised by her son Tavi. Tavi and Jasper are four days apart in age and have grown up together, so Jasper took it in stride when Tavi pursued an interest in a marine biology program this summer. The program would have him away from home for three weeks, one of which would be spent at sea.

For Chaia this was a unexpected idea, given that he hadn’t yet been away from home for more than a couple nights. She said this brought to mind an early swim experience at the YMCA when the boys were small: how tentative Tavi was at first until the day he told her to let go and then swam away.

“Tavi felt so ready for the Whales (summer) program when he signed up and was so confident when we dropped him off. I guess he is that kind of guy. Watch, observe, wait for it and when you’re ready, go with gusto!”

Going with gusto is surely a component of growing independence.

On Martha’s Vineyard, Jasper had his skiff out from the slip the next day and was motoring around, seeking the ultimate fishing spot. Later when he came in and we were walking back from the dock he asked casually, “Do you go on the right side in a boat like you do in a car?”

I felt the shock register on my face as I turned to look at him. “You don’t know?” This after an afternoon out in the harbor with other boats.

“No worries, I’ll ask Flip later,” he said, referring to his fisherman friend. The whole walk home I wondered if my benign neglect had gone a bit too far, never asking if he knew the rules of the water before he took to the sea.

In talking with my friend Margaret Babbott about this later, she says about independence, “I’ve learned it’s some formula between form and freedom; an alchemical process including risk, mastery and neurons afire.”

She has a daughter Jasper’s age and a son just going off to college, and therefore she is also in the thick of all these questions. How much freedom is too much? How do you know when to intervene and when to let something run its course?

There is the piece about risk and its place in the formula, that helps me understand that Jasper’s willingness to risk. Not-knowing in the tiny Menemsha harbor was likely a fairly safe risk and one that lead him quickly to mastery as he navigated around yielding to larger vessels.

When I’m ruminating on something I often turn to Walt Whitman. His phrase, “The beauty of independence, departure, actions that rely on themselves,” comes to mind because there is beauty in this, the way families grow and change with greater and greater levels of independence.

And there was beauty in watching my son motor his skiff along in the sparkling August water, baseball hat on backward, revealing the face of concentration, his fishing pole tilting out the back, with all the hope of catching the big one.

Elizabeth Slade of Northampton is a local author and columnist. She can be reached at egslade@newview.com.co.