(Part 1 of 5)
Until I was four years old my family lived in the “old house.” It was a wooden, four-room cabin overlooking a mountain stream. My grandfather built the cabin in the 1940s. When we wanted a drink of water we walked to our spring, filled a bucket and toted it home. If grandma needed hot water she had to start a fire first.
While my sister and I played outside in the dirt, grandma cleaned clothes on a washboard in the creek and wrung them dry. She let us “help” when she churned butter or shucked corn, then taught us to start a fire for the wood stove while she killed a chicken for dinner. After dinner we “got to” feed the pigs, harvest the garden and stack the jars of food on the shelf that grandma canned. For fun, I would sit on the porch and practice knife skills by whittling away on a piece of hickory.
As it turns out, my childhood was the original “prep school”—the one that prepared me for life.
By contrast, most of today’s parents (and even their parents) didn’t grow up learning those skills. Instead, they were born into a life of dependence on modern conveniences. As a result, today’s children are only taught modern survival skills—such as flipping a switch that turns on lights and turning on a faucet to get drinking water.
Today’s children can navigate with technology, but not with a paper road map. They can find Wi-Fi in any city, but ask them to purify water from any source and they can’t. They can use a microwave, but they can’t build a fire.
But, what skills do today’s children have to prepare them to face the all-too-common threats of violence and disasters we see on the news? For that matter, what skills and resources do their parents have?
Beyond the basic survival skills that today’s society is failing to pass down to our children, our world has many more violent threats than it did a few generations ago. In addition to common natural disasters, our society is becoming increasingly and indiscriminately violent. Unspeakable tragedies include abductions, sexual assaults, and deadly shootings at schools, from kindergartens to universities.
We’re shocked when we see headlines of violence where any one of us, or our children, may have been present. Headlines such as:
- Bombing at the Boston Marathon.
- Sniper Massacre: 59 Killed at Las Vegas Concert.
- Gunman kills 26, Including 20 Schoolchildren in Connecticut.
- Thirteen Dead, 29 Injured at Fort Hood Shooting.
- 21 Die in Stampede of 1,500 at Chicago Nightclub.
- Gunman shoots 70, Kills 12 at Batman Movie.
- Virginia Tech School Shooting Leaves 33 Dead.
- Nine Killed at Church in Charleston, SC.
We keep glued to the news reports and cringe when we contemplate the truly horrific nature of the tragedy. But do we change our behavior or do anything to prepare ourselves for such an event? Do we take our children aside and teach them skills that could save their lives?
For most people, the answer is no. We turn our heads and remain inactive. The unfortunate truth is that so many deadly life-altering tragedies surround us that we seem, ironically, unaware of them.
These events somehow seem less real when absorbed through television and news reports—more like something from a movie than real, human suffering. Soon, the horrific images fade, normalcy bias takes over and we get on with our own lives.
But the fact is that small and large-scale disasters and acts of violence happen all the time, every day, and it can happen to you. It can happen to your children. This article is about helping you to empower your children with the crucial skills they need to survive and thrive.
I believe the best way to teach preparation is to model it, which is what our family tries to do every day for our daughter. How? We often use playful games to teach her situational awareness because, unlike most adults, children stay in a constant state of learning just by being kids. By nature, skill-building is in their bones. We teach them with everything we do—even if we think we are doing nothing.
But, what do our children learn from us when we disregard the news story about a child abduction two states away? Perhaps we’re inadvertently teaching them that it isn’t anything to worry about—that it can’t happen to them. Or maybe they learn that no one will care if they are abducted (since we show no apparent concern to the news event), allowing fear and dread to penetrate their psyche rather than situational awareness and survival skills.
However, if we use these teaching moments to model for our children, they can grasp a more valuable lesson—one that could save their lives. So why don’t most parents do that?
One reason is because we don’t want to scare them. But, as you’ll learn in this five-part series, you can teach preparedness and survival skills in a playful way. When you do, it removes the fear factor and allows you to assess their progress as they “play.” After all, play is nature’s way of assuring that young mammals, including young humans, will practice and become good at the skills they need to survive and thrive in their environments. In his excellent book, Free to Learn, author and developmental psychologist Peter Gray says that:
“Play is activity for its own sake, not activity aimed at some serious goal such as food, money, gold stars or praise. When we offer such rewards to children who are playing, we turn their play into something that is no longer play. Because play is activity done for its own sake rather than for some conscious end, people often see play as frivolous, or trivial. But here is the deliciously paradoxical point: Play’s educational power lies in its triviality.”
In other words, play is something that all children want to do. Play is nature’s way of teaching them. As parents, we have an opportunity to make choices that guide our children’s playtime in a manner that ensures they learn critical skills necessary to be prepared for life. It’s our responsibility to orchestrate the balancing act of allowing children to play while ensuring the skills they practice are the survival skills we want them to become proficient in.
There’s an appropriate message for children regardless of their age, and an appropriate way to deliver the message. You’re the parent—you know best, but by improving your own survival mindset you will model and teach them theirs just as surely as you taught them how to look both ways before crossing a street. But preparedness play should be fun, never scary.
For example, you could teach a preschooler the skills to plan a survival bag simply by making up a game. Tell them to pretend they can’t take the bus (or car) home from school (or playgroup) and you get to walk. Let them help pack the backpack. Many young children will no doubt add life-sustaining plastic dinosaurs and goldfish crackers, but this gives you an opportunity to show them a map, discuss sun, shade, and rain, as well as food and water.
On your pretend journey, which could be from the pretend school in your garden shed back to the child’s bedroom, let them decide if the sun is blazing hot or if you’re trapped in a sudden downpour. They make the rules of play; you simply play with them and practice an important skill, such as taking shelter, making a play tent and so on.
As your children age, you can transition this to a real-life example by helping them pack important survival gear into their school backpacks, such as a poncho, survival whistle, extra water or food, and a list of important contact data. The message gets modified as your children mature until you have developed a teenager who independently is prepared when she leaves the house.
And it all starts with play.
There are countless games you can play with young and older children, and later in this series, I’ll share a dozen games to get you going. As they develop their survival skills and broaden their thinking, you can share with your children why you bought the extra cans of tuna and why you’re showing them how to filter water. Rather than being afraid, the light will go off and your kids will “get it,” just as I did when grandma showed me.
As your children mature, you can build on the skills they’ve learned so they have a fighting chance in case they have to face an emergency on their own. This, of course, is our end goal—to prepare our children for life.
(To be continued in Part 2.)