Monday, December 28, 2015

Parent as Outdoor Icon - Understanding and Managing Kids' Expectations

A tough evening fishing in South Florida
My son has become a rabid young angler.   At six, he's been catching fish for two years and understands more than most American adults about how fish behave and where they live.  That being said, his knots are horrible, his lure selection is questionable (though surprisingly "lucky" at times), and he has the patience of a six year old.  Because he is a six year old.

He fails more than he needs to because he insists on doing everything himself.  But the boy catches fish.  Twice in 2015, he caught fish on days when I caught none.

At some point, his laser focus will move away from fishing, and towards another conquest, hopefully also in the outdoors.  And I'm fine with that.  I love the memories and skills we're building together right now.  But in those memories and special moments, there is a pressure inside of him that I don't understand and that I hope I didn't create.  My child thinks I am a fishing icon, you see.  You may want to cheer, but please don't.  Let me explain why.

My fishing skills are squarely "adequate," something that's been amply documented on this site over the past nine years.  My fishing guide skills are abysmal, but I try really hard, and as a habitat ecologist, I do know a lot of random stuff about critters, so that helps sometimes.   My effectiveness as a teacher?  That's one of those "not enough data points to establish a relationship" kind of things.

What I struggle with is that my boy presses on, as if he has some standard to achieve, which he believes is me.  He believes I am the embodyment of Jose Wejebe, Ernest Hemingway, Bill Dance and Lefty Kreh all in one, and that he needs to achieve that every time we fish.   Of course, I am none of those men, and my son has nothing to aspire to beyond what he's creating for himself.

RIP Crappie Maxx Jr. Reel, 2014-2015.  Cause of death: thrown in sand.
Today we fished a South Florida canal where I have been unsuccessfully targeting trophy-size largemouth bass since 2010.  Hank was trying out his first full size reel (good old Zebco 33) and really struggling with it - his hands are too small.  I was bouncing some new lures, including a Koppers Live Target Bluegill, off of bridge pilings to see if somehow this time I could entice a big fish to bite.   We were both struggling, and Hank reminded me, "It doesn't matter if we catch fish."  I mean, how great is this kid?

But that's when it all went wrong.   I zinged that $12 lure off of a piling and into some lily pads and a small explosion occurred, and the game was on.  After three aerials and about a four minute fight on my light tackle setup, my easily eight pound monster Florida bass broke my 8lb mono line at my feet, escaping with my $12 lure back into the deep black water.  

My emotions went through the usual cycle, though I kept my language in check.  I almost threw my rod in the canal, which would have been expensive, so I'm glad I didn't.   Hank patiently observed my emotional trip around the world, and hung his head and said, "You caught a ginormous fish and I didn't catch anything."  The seemingly important detail that I didn't actually catch the fish didn't phase him.  Despite my massive failure in retrieval style and gear selection, or my failure to ever (EVER) pack a landing net,  my status as Daddy Fishing God clouded the events, displaying that I "basically almost caught a big fish."  It also was lost on Hank that I had been trying to catch such a fish, at that spot, several times a year, for five years, with no luck.   I was the day's winner, making him (inexplicably) the day's loser.   The emotional meltdown that followed was heartbreaking.

I don't know enough about children's minds to know how this reasoning plays out, but it's very tough when I work very hard to make sure that kids who fish with me have the best and most opportunities to hook and land fish.  But when they don't (and especially when my son doesn't) succeed, it's hard to convince them that their adult guide, mentor, or icon doesn't have plenty of those same frustrating days.   I'll be devoting some thought in the next four months to some techniques that might help break this damaging iconography in my son's mind.  


Steve Kline said...

He'll be okay, man. Sons are supposed to think that their dads exist in some preternatural ether, and when they don't measure up in however their six year old brain defines measuring up, they are bound to grapple with that tough emotion of letting themselves down. Be glad that Hank wants to be with you and succeed at the same things you do, I suspect many of us dads would love to have such a problem. He will grow up and help you through the emotional pain inherent when you realize that he is a better fishermen and hunter than you.

77777 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kirk Mantay said...

He will inevitably be a better hunter and angler than I am. He is well on his way. I take pride in it, but it is confounding some days when he is the Fish Whisperer and I can't get one in the same zip code as my lure.

No Video Content For You

Over 12 years ago, I started this blog. There were very few conservation or outdoor blogs at the time, few websites with fast-breaking con...