will follow you anywhere, even into danger. Take notes, pop.
Of the thousand
things we pass on to our children, its hard to imagine anything
likely to serve them longer or more perfectly than a taste for sport.
Any sport. At its best, its a legacy that flows naturally from
one generation to another: the conviction that the body was meant
to jump, spring, bump, jog, wrestle, fall, sail, dive, swim, ride
and climb, and that when it does, the mind follows like a good dog.
If you do it right, there isnt that much work to it, either.
When theyre young, kids want most is simply to be with you;
so your fun is probably the very first definition of fun for them.
As James Baldwin said, "Children have never been very good at
listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them."
Not that theyll necessarily take to your sport finally. More
likely theyll find their own. Because the crux of what you ought
to be teaching them isnt any particular set of skills. Its
an attitude; a faith that the bumbling, the pain, and sometimes the
fear of learning a new trick are always worth it. And its a
metaphor that someday may urge them to success in things more complex
than any sport: the idea that perhaps the most useful set of muscles
you can ever develop are the invisible ones that allow you to be a
spirited and brave beginner at all things, a hardy fool who can push
through embarrassment and failure and finally chin your sweating self
into places that looked entirely out of reach.
Its often true that children teach themselves if you let them.
They seem to prefer it. If you arrange a safe, encouraging atmosphere,
then show them where to start and what it looks like when its
right, you can more or less stand back and swatch. Theyll set
their own pace, face the scary moments in their own way, and with
a little luck, theyll surprise you. Better yet, theyll
When I taught my children to ride bikes and to swim, I saw how much
prouder kids are when you allow them to stumble onto things for themselves,
when you dont coach them to death. In fact, the only two sports-skill
shortcuts I know come out of those experiences and prove the principle.
First: Dont worry that your kids will grow out of their first
bike too early. Get them the smallest two-wheeler you can find so
that they can save most of their falls by just putting their feet
down, and they theyll ride off, more or less without your help,
in a matter of hours. Second: Get them a p[air of swim fins as soon
as their feet are big enough to fit them. When they find that they
can keep their heads above water just by kicking, theyll paddles
themselves into the kind of confidence in the water that will remind
you of fish. Then one day when their friends make a dash for the water,
and strapping the flippers on
takes too long, theyll forget why they ever needed them.
Ultimately, of course, no matter how much you have taught them, they
teach you. Those are the highest moments and the most vivid of them
for me came when my son was about ll. He was a fairly accomplished
little athlete at everything he did by then, which included riding
a very good mountain bike. I was living in Marin County, riding my
own bike in the hills everyday, and that summer when he visited we
took a lot of short fire-trail jaunts together. Just before he left
we decided to try the big adventure, a ride all the way to the top
of Mount Tamalpais, the highest and most beautiful of these coastal
hills. We left early on a hot Saturday and pumped our way up the dusty
roads, past the pretty drinking-water lakes, then onto the east ridge
trail It was steep and rocky, and we rested often more for me than
for him. Just past halfway up we stopped for lunch along the trail,
and as we sat there eating our oranges and apples the huge shadow
of a turkey vulture swept over us. He was low enough that both of
us ducked, then laughed. "Dont worry, Pete," I said.
"Those birds only eat the dead, so if you can see their shadow
Altogether it took us almost five hours to reach the summit, and while
we rested we named the bridges you can see from up there; we watched
the afternoon fog shrink off the avenues of San Francisco; and just
generally congratulated ourselves on the tough hump wed made.
And we talked about the payoff: the long, wild ride down that was
ahead of us.
Pete led off, skidding and popping his way down the uppers switchbacks;
then, on a short fast straight he hit a half-buried patch of granite
that literally vibrated his hands off the bars, and he went down hard.
I knew he was hurt before I got to him, and I was right. Hed
torn the heel of his hand pretty badly, and he was holding his wrist,
biting his lip. A few minutes later he got back on the bike and tried
to roll slowly down the trail, but the wrist hurt too much, and I
knew it was broken. I made a splint out of a camera strap and a small
twisted oak branch, then we started walking, me with both bikes, him
in front of me. We had more than an hours descent ahead of us,
and after about 30 minutes I was saying hard nasty things to myself:
You bring this kid on a serious outing, no first-aid, not even a jacket,
not even enough water to drink. Nice job, stupid. He sensed me drawing
down into my dark mood, and when I asked him at one point, "How
you doing, Pete?" he turned around and said, "Dont
worry, Dad. I can still see the vultures shadow."
And I thought to myself, "Relax, old fool. The spirit has been
Vetter, who lives in Chicago, has written extensively for magazines
such as Playboy, Rolling Stone and Outside (where this article first
in DADMAG.com is meant to be distributed freely to interested parties.
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