Control and Confidence

Early January we tried to take our five year old son skiing.  It was a disaster.  He refused to grab on to the toe rope grips, meaning I had to accompany him.  That sounds fine, but it turned into a real back ache as he went limp, I had to bend down, and the pulling on my arms made them very sore.  At the top he refused to try anything and after two runs on the bunny hill, we’d had enough.  Dana, our just turned three year old was doing better than Ryan!

I was a bit worried because Ryan was to start Alpine Snow Kids (ASK), a program which teaches Kindergarten to third grade students how to ski.  It is run through the university’s soon to be cut ski industries program.  I was afraid they’d say Ryan was uncooperative and they couldn’t help him.   Well, he’s now had three lessons with ASK, and Sunday I had the pleasure of riding up to the top of Mt. Titcomb with Ryan who skied down the entire hill — a bit too fast, I thought, but in good control.  The turn around in his ability is amazing, I was in awe of his ease and comfort on the skis.

From this I draw two conclusions.  First, ASK is a remarkably effective program for local children, extremely well designed with excellent, well trained coaches.  The University’s plan is to replace ski industries with a new outdoor recreational program that would attempt to serve the regional ski industry as well as develop summer rec programs.  That decision has been made.  However, I don’t know if it will be possible for them to continue ASK in the new framework, the loss of which would harm both the community and Mt. Titcomb, a small, local ski area perfect for families:  a local treasure.   I do know I’ll support any effort to try to find a way to keep it going.  There’s nothing like seeing first hand the transformation of ones’ own child to appreciate quality teaching, and a quality program design.

The second lesson is a bit more subtle.  Watching a child suddenly develop that kind of capacity gets me to think about the barriers we put on ourselves as we age, especially in fearing change.   We get comfortable with a certain way of doing things and resist change.  Sometimes it’s cute — the elderly couple who still rents a rotary phone from the phone company because they were nervous about buying their own push button phone, the reaction of grandparents to the weird world of their grandkids’ Ipods, or the stodgy professor who discovers the whacko Facebook scene.   Humans are, after all, consistency seekers.

That’s true with children too.  Try to get a five year old to try a delicious lamb and spinach Indian dish, and you may as well be trying to get him to meet mud and grass for all intents and purposes.   And, while the coaches with ASK could help bring about a metamorphosis in Ryan’s approach to skiing, he originally was intimidated by the whole thing.

I was puzzling over that, and it clicked.  Control.   When I took Ryan to the slope and told him to grab the rope, it was a daunting task.  What if he fell?  What if he did it wrong?  Easier to lean on dad.   I noticed the coaches at the ski lessons went step by step.  Walk around with the ski boots to get used to them.  Put on one ski.  Move with that.  Ski short distances.  Learn the stance. Ski on small inclines…play games to build control.  Then go to the toe rope, only by the third two hour lesson.  But that groundwork created something real: confidence.  Ryan felt in control.  He was comfortable with his skis.  He could grab the toe rope and if he started to slip, he could adapt.  He was in control, he was confident, he was having fun.

All of us like to feel we are in control of what happens each day.  When things change at work, people feel off centered, and can be prone to imagine all sorts of possible negative ramifications of changes taking place.    Even when some say change will be positive, the lack of control promised by suddenly being in a different world or context creates uncertainty and fear.   Even us forty-somethings feel like the kid in skis in front of the intimidating toe rope.  No, please, let’s not change!

To be sure, we show it in different ways.   In terms of my classes and work, I’m very experimental and change-acceptant.   The Administration wants to try a restructuring?  Hmm, could be fun to see how that turns out, why not?  Want to team teach a course on children and war — cool, let’s try.   But in all the trips to Italy, I’m the only faculty member who has resisted trying tripe or squid ink pasta.  Even with a colleague like Steve Pane modeling the idea that exploration of cuisine is an integral part of personal growth and learning a culture, I’m more comfortable with my eggplant parmesan or spaghetti carabonara.

The fact is I know I can take changes in work and how I teach and stay in control.  It’s not a threat to me.   It’s like a skier who sees new runs and is excited because it’s something new, not doubting that he or she can master them.  But I don’t want to be at a restaurant suddenly hating a meal in front of me, knowing its not an option to act like a young child and say “yew, I’m not eating that.”   As I look at the myriad of areas where I resist change, it ends up being about control, easier to stick with what I know I can master.

In ten days we head to Italy.   Will I order tripe in Florence?    Maybe not, but this time I’ll at least try someone else’s and build towards it.  That’s what I learn from Alpine Snow Kids.   We’re all five year olds at heart, daunted by change, liking what we’ve mastered, fearing loss of control.  The key is to move slowly, step by step, and develop confidence.  The moment confidence overcomes fear, one can go from not wanting to change to actually mastering the mountain — at least with a little practice.   That’s a life lesson, and one that, thanks to Alpine Snow Kids, Ryan is internalizing.

I hope that the program is there for Dana when he reaches Kindergarten.  The University of Southern Maine, for example, is cutting its lifeline fitness program, which has been a great service to area employers.  Universities seem to cut first those things which benefit the community; these often operate at a loss, and are not necessary for the school.  Yet such things give students training, provide a service to the community, and enhance the connection of mind and body.  Skiing and teaching skiing are not just physical activities, but represent learning how to live, how to develop new skills, and how to cope with change.  It would be a real shame if children in the region lose this tremendous program.

I know, compared to all the job loses, program cuts, and economic crises around the globe, it seems pretty tiny.  Yet when a parent sees what it does for a child’s growth and development, it suddenly feels damn important!

  1. #1 by Katie Boucher on February 3, 2009 - 14:56


    Long time former student lurker on your blog, but I cant help but finally comment on your ASK article. As you know ASK has long been dear to my heart – that Honors thesis and all – and reading your entry today brought a smile to my face (during an Administrative Law class – not an easy thing to do!). Fighting to keep ASK alive (and Ski Industries for that matter) is going to be a long hard fight, and your support (even if its in the background) is greatly appreciated.

  2. #2 by Mike Lovell on February 3, 2009 - 15:20

    I have one point of contention with this article. I get the limitations we put on age and all, but the point you make about it being easier for your kid to “lean on dad” got me thinking. From my military background, and a childhood filled with memories of a sometimes impatient father leading to some well (mostly) deserved discipline, I think a kid is intimidated not only by a daunting task, but oftentimes by his father as well. Then again it may very well be that my dad nurtured that sense of impatience into me somehow. I tried in vain to teach my oldest son the correct way to do certain exercises. Something as simple to me as a jumping jack (or side-straddle hop, if you prefer) seemed to escape the boy’s comprehension of functionality. To be honest when we first started, he looked more like an epileptic patient having a violent seizure (no offense intended towards epileptics, my mother in law suffers from a form of it, as well, I just cant better describe it). However, his gym teacher at school seemed to have no problem instilling proper form into the boy. I have seen my son perform certain tasks when he doesnt think I’m watching, but when I ask him to do it, he suddenly falls all over himself and gets easily frustrated. Is it a need to please “DAD” with one’s physical prowess that can cause nervousness and frustration leading to failure (and leading one to master it before performing in front of me), or was it maybe my more drill sergeant-esque style of getting vocally upset over the initial failure to do what I deem an overly simple task, like the jumping jack?

  3. #3 by henitsirk on February 4, 2009 - 04:09

    I’ve had the same experience as yours and Mike Lovell’s: my kids consistently act completely differently with other adults when I’m not present. I think the reasons are varied and complex: could be that it’s easier to lean on dad, could be that it’s nervousness about pleasing dad, or could be simply not being emotionally tied to a new authority figure (ski or gym teachers, day care providers, etc.).

    I also think the child’s temperament has a huge effect. My kids would gobble up a new Indian food dish with no qualms — they were never picky eaters and we model that behavior as well. But my daughter is much more physically “brave” than my son — very confident whereas he is a bit more reticent. But then my daughter displays other “control issues”: she has to have her napkin just so at the dinner table, and will endlessly organize all her treasures next to her bed.

    I would say order the squid ink pasta rather than the tripe — at least it’s still pasta and therefore perhaps still somewhat within a comfort zone! (Though I have had tripe and it’s not bad, in my opinion.) Or pick something new that’s not quite so odd. Baby steps.

    ISU has a wonderful outdoor program — tons of equipment to rent, classes, ski-in yurts in the winter, etc. I hope their budget problems don’t compromise that.

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on February 4, 2009 - 04:55

    Katie: thanks for lurking and commenting. I am so impressed with ASK — it would be a tragedy to lose it. I think ski industries could be a big recruiting major for UMF, but obviously the powers that be disagree. Oh well, if we can find a way to save ASK that would be great.

    Mike and Henitsirk, yeah a lot has to do with being with “daddy.” Kids sometimes need someone else to be teaching. I’ll blog from Italy what I end up trying.

  5. #5 by renaissanceguy on February 5, 2009 - 04:08

    I have tried to give my kids music lessons. It doesn’t work. We can sing and play together, but they don’t want any instruction from me. Too much emotional baggage, I think. As Mike said, they don’t want to “fail” in front of me. They also don’t want every activity we take part in to be a “task,” much less a lesson.

    Scott, have you looked at the university’s budget to see what they AREN’T cutting? I always find it interesting. In primary secondary education, the administration budget is pretty much never cut, in fact there always seems to be enough money to hire one or new people and to build or renovate one more administration building (or some offices in one of the buildings). There is also usually enough money to give administrators, but not teachers, significant pay raises.

    I liked your essay overall. The writing was excellent.

  6. #6 by Lee on February 5, 2009 - 17:50

    This was interesting because I am both a parent and a homeschooler. While my kids don’t seem to act differently around other adults than they do around me, I wonder if the fact that I am homeschooling leads me to look to their learning styles more closely than I would if I was sending them to public school. I haven’t skiid in years but we do snowshoe and I would *love* to learn how to snow board. That seemed sort of laughable as I am not typical boarder age but then I read that some place in NH does family lessons as more older folks are enjoying snow boards now. We’ll see when my youngest is 4 or 5.

    Can’t wait to hear about the trip to Italy. Our family tradition is to pick a different country each year when we plan our New Years Eve celebration. The kids learn about the country, culture, some trivia with guessing games etc and the food is from the country they chose. This past New Years Eve they chose Italy. We had fun learning about the fact that lentils were a New Years Eve tradition in many parts of Italy. We usually eat a lot of lentils but didn’t totally love the Italian lentil soup recipe we tried!
    Most of the other food was kid friendly Italian and not all that adventurous. Hope you have a great trip!

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