Do nothing, and results will follow

It was breezy and overcast, but we headed anyway to the kayak and paddleboard rental place on Nauset Marsh in Orleans on Cape Cod. Why hadn’t we thought to call ahead? When we got there — there were 12 people in our family group — we learned that the breeze and tide made it too difficult to paddle back in. Rentals were closed.

Nearby was Nickerson State Park, with lots of wooded camping and a boat rental place on a pond. We drove there in our three vehicles, and split up even further into an assortment of single and double kayaks, a peddle boat, and, for Lydia, a stand-up paddle board.

across the pond, August 30, 2013

across the pond, August 30, 2013

Last summer she tried the SUP board on a cool day with high winds, managing the standing part but finding the navigation part challenging. A goal for this summer was to use the board to actually go somewhere.

The kayakers and Lydia headed out across the pond, after getting some advice on the wind and current from the young guy manning the rental business. Jimmy and I peddled behind. The squared-off peddle boat goes so slow. Even though legs are more powerful than arms, the kayaks and SUP board were more streamlined. They and their passengers seemed to go quickly and reached the other side of the pond while we felt stalled permanently in the middle.

accidental photo of me, peddling, August 30, 2013

accidental photo of me, peddling, August 30, 2013

We saw them head back, their faces to the wind and the prows of their boats into the current. The kayakers seemed okay, but even far away Lydia, who never fell, seemed to be working very hard. Emily and David hovered in their boat near her.

Jimmy and I changed direction and attempted to predict their path and intercept them. Emily and David traveled on. As we got within shouting distance of Lydia, I asked if she wanted a ride.

She shouted back, “I don’t need help. I just want some company.”

So for the rest of the way back to shore we stayed within about 50 feet of her, hardly interacting (beyond the occasional photo taking). She rowed hard and made it.

As parents and teachers — and in my family this broadens to include lots of loving adult figures — we don’t always have to step in and do something. We can be nearby and offer our silent presence: not advice, not physical help, not even encouragement. Young people already have some skill and often great determination and strength. Also, although mistakes are one possible outcome, it’s unlikely that they will be disasters. For example, I know Lydia can swim well, and the worst that could have happened was a dunking and a challenging climb back onto the board.

When we are in a teaching/helping/nurturing/leading role, the impulse is often to intervene. The danger in the intervention, however, is that the outcome becomes ours. The person helped loses her agency.

I feel this myself, too. When I am faced with a challenge, I like the pleasure of working it out myself or, if I can tell that I need it, asking for very specific help. It gets my back up when someone offers to take over for me. And yet when I am doing something difficult or grueling, it can be wonderful to have a trusted person nearby, perhaps involved in their own parallel challenge, whether physical or intellectual.

To help most, therefore, it sometimes takes great self-restraint, an ability to have a thought and not speak it, to perceive a solution and not implement it, or to sense uncertainty and not resolve it.

Teachers, for the semester ahead, let’s remind ourselves of the value of our presence and the power of nonintervention. This is not to discount the value of our active teaching — that’s important, too — but simply to remember that we have more than one way of being and doing.

6 thoughts on “Do nothing, and results will follow

  1. Yes! This weekend I spent time with the windsurfing branch of my family. Many times I was suited up (wetsuit, lifejacket, kayak!) to paddle out and bring in one of the 12-year-old twins who seemed about to miss the corner of the cove and get stranded out in the wider ocean. I never needed to go. Hard to say who was more soothed: the girls or their dad! This post made me think of that–being ready, lowering the stakes, but making no move until needed. The dad did keep asking various people to go out and “keep so-and-so company” which I loved.

    (Later, Violet took out a board and a sail for the first time, and I did have to help there.)

  2. I love it that you have a windsurfing branch of your family.

    Such a good way of putting what ‘doing’ entails: being ready, lowering the stakes, but making no move until needed.

  3. When the kids were young we camped at Nickerson for two weeks every August. We have a great family story of capsizing our sailboat on that very pond. Everybody was fine but it still gives me a belly laugh when I am reminded of it. Thanks for that.

  4. I’ve been curious about stand-up paddleboarding, since there are several places nearby where you can do it. But reading this, I’m not quite sure I’m ready!

    I love the analogy here, and am in complete agreement about the need to resist intervening. And kudos to Lydia, too, for being so tuned into (and capable of articulating) her own needs: not a full-out rescue, but just “company.” It’s the rare person of *any* age who’s able to be so clear and specific about what would actually help. I’m going to try to learn from her example!

    • Rosemary, you can do the stand-up paddleboarding. I tried it last year with Lydia, and I was able to stand up without toppling over. If you have good yoga balance, you can do it. We did it in an ocean cover on a breezy day, and I found the paddling part difficult. I would like to try it sometime on a lake.

      I’m going to remember Lydia’s example, too. Sometimes I feel as though I need some support but not actual help, so I usually brush off a person’s offer. In the future, I may ask him/her just to be nearby.

  5. Yes, I believe in this principle, and I hope I’m applying it in my teaching. People can make each other smarter, more capable, just by being present in the same space. Even though I’m sure that people sometimes try to make neuroscience tell us more than it can, I would love to know if people have tried to investigate the effect of others’ sheer presence on our brains. I doubt, though, that it’s possible to prove anything that way.
    When we have in-class writing (which is every class meeting in one of my classes) I am certain, from my own experience and from observation, that it creates a different experience of writing for everyone in the room. I’m also certain that I can understand a student’s work differently if that student is present in the room when I’m reading it. I can’t explain these things, but empirically, they happen and they matter. We seem to be in danger, as a culture, of forgetting that the physical human presence matters in a way for which there is no substitute. Eudora Welty once said that the only thing that should never be forgiven, in the context of loving somebody, is taking your physical presence away from them — in which case, we have probably all done the unforgivable . . .
    This would be worth writing about more, would it not?

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