I never thought that skiing would test my commitment to the Sudbury Model. But, it did.
Every winter, the school offers two ski programs. Students who are eight or older can sign up to go to Wachusett Mountain once a week for six weeks. Every Tuesday, two busloads of kids trek out to the slopes for a day of skiing, cider, and snowball fights. Once you’ve mastered "The Summit” at Wachusett, you’re eligible to go on the school’s one-week Sunday River trip.
The year my son turned eight, I waited patiently for the ski sign-up forms and permission slips to come home. His friends’ parents emailed me asking if he was going.
"So, are you?” I asked him. “Not this year,” he replied.
“Why?” I asked, feigning nonchalance. Turns out his best friend, who is a year younger, couldn’t go, so he didn't want to. Much to my horror, my normally laissez-faire, 100%-committed-to-child-led-everything self was overcome with disappointment and annoyance.
Meanwhile, my daughter was crying herself to sleep every night because it would be another two years before she could go and all of her friends were going to be gone for six entire Tuesdays!
Fast-forward a year. Ski time rolls around. No forms appear.
“So, you’re doing Wachusett this year, right?
“Nah. Maybe next year.”
“But isn’t Laughbox going?”
“Yeah. I just don’t feel like it. Maybe next year I will.”
The following morning, I was dropping some forms off at school and happened to bump into Mikel. Mikel helps arrange the ski excursions and goes along as a chaperone. I told him, half jokingly, that I was so desperate to get Caleb to try skiing that I was considering bribing him by offering to buy him a video game.
Mikel laughed and told me that, in his opinion, bribing Caleb was the worst thing I could do. Pushing him to ski before he really wanted to would only ensure that he would have a terrible time and then never want to ski again in his entire life. What was the rush? I should back off and let him get to it when he was ready.
It wasn’t easy to take Mikel’s advice. I knew Caleb would love skiing if he would just try it. I felt judged by friends and family who said things like, “Sometimes you just have to put your foot down.” I wrestled with my own feelings of disappointment, and the guilt that followed. Because, when it came down to it, I was exerting the same kind of insidious, low-level coercion that I found so reprehensible when it was applied to things like learning long division or memorizing state capitals.
This realization is what finally pushed me to drop the issue. And wouldn’t you know, the next year, when his sister was finally old enough to go, he decided he would try it, too. Which isn’t to say there weren't any anxious moments -- after the deposits were made and there was no hope of a refund. But, he did go.
Did he love it? Yes! Even though his friends were all far more advanced and he had to ski with his younger sister most of the time. Even though he had to sit through an hour or two of “Pizza! French-fries!” every week. Even though he wasn’t blowing down the Summit by the second week. I was amazed by his willingness to tolerate discomfort, embarrassment, and physical pain.
I’m even more amazed after skiing for the first time myself this past March. Despite my hopeful fantasy that I would turn out to be some kind of alpine sports savant, I felt awkward, clumsy and hyper-aware that there were countless toddlers doing better than I was. And worst of all, I fell off the Magic Carpet and had to be hoisted onto my feet by a teenager.
In other words, learning to ski comes with a certain amount of unpleasantness. As an eight-year old, Caleb’s tolerance level for that was approximately zero. As an 11-year old, he was completely motivated to learn, no matter what it took. Once he decided that he wanted to ski the Summit this year so he could go to Sunday River next year, he was unstoppable.
So, the next time I get the urge to hurry my kids in one direction or another, I will try to remember Mikel’s words of wisdom and just let them be.