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Kids will follow you anywhere, even into danger. Take notes, pop.

By Craig Vetter

Of the thousand things we pass on to our children, it’s hard to imagine anything likely to serve them longer or more perfectly than a taste for sport. Any sport. At its best, it’s 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 isn’t that much work to it, either. When they’re 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 they’ll necessarily take to your sport finally. More likely they’ll find their own. Because the crux of what you ought to be teaching them isn’t any particular set of skills. It’s an attitude; a faith that the bumbling, the pain, and sometimes the fear of learning a new trick are always worth it. And it’s 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.

It’s 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 it’s right, you can more or less stand back and swatch. They’ll set their own pace, face the scary moments in their own way, and with a little luck, they’ll surprise you. Better yet, they’ll surprise themselves.

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 don’t coach them to death. In fact, the only two sports-skill shortcuts I know come out of those experiences and prove the principle. First: Don’t 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 they’ll 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, they’ll 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, they’ll 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. "Don’t worry, Pete," I said. "Those birds only eat the dead, so if you can see their shadow you’re okay."

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 we’d 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. He’d 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 hour’s 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, "Don’t worry, Dad. I can still see the vulture’s shadow."

And I thought to myself, "Relax, old fool. The spirit has been passed."

Craig Vetter, who lives in Chicago, has written extensively for magazines such as Playboy, Rolling Stone and Outside (where this article first appeared).

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