Imagine for a moment that you are on small rowboat approaching a dock. As you arrive at the dock, would you know what to do? At such a moment, there are two types of people—the feckless and the competent. The difference between the two: A simple figure-eight knot called the cleat hitch.
Tying a cleat hitch is easy, and there’s a satisfying beauty in its simplicity. Any child can master it in minutes. Every Viking knew the cleat hitch as did every Greek. Odin taught it to Thor. Odysseus taught it to Telemachus. Yet how many people these days know how to tie this simple knot?
Yes, one could argue that the cleat hitch is specialized skill, necessary for sailors, but unessential for the rest of us. But is it?
I contend that the cleat hitch is an essential skill. I contend that skills like these translate more broadly into understanding how to be to be a useful, prepared, and competent person. I contend that there's a place for traditional learning—math, grammar, and the like—but that there's also another curriculum, a more ancient and elemental one, that is equally valuable.
In the spirit of this "other" curriculum, here are four more skills, each old beyond memory, that schools don't teach but every parent should:
LESSON #1: WHITTLING
The benefits of whittling are three-fold. First, whittling is an excellent way to introduce a child to an ancient and useful tool—the knife. For thousands of years, humankind has depended on the knife for survival and sustenance.
An hour with a knife teaches subtle lessons that can't be learned on a smart phone or in a text book. True progress requires that we reconnect with the parts of our ancestral past that are worth knowing. I contend the handling and appreciating a blade falls into the "worth knowing" category.
"True progress requires that we reconnect with the parts of our ancestral past that are worth knowing."
Second, whittling allows a parent an ideal opportunity to teach knife safety and, by extension, the joy that comes when a tool is used well and the danger when it isn’t.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, whittling allows a parent to sit quietly with a son or daughter and share an extended moment in time—a pleasure all too rare in our hyper-connected and fast-paced world.
LESSON #2: TREE CLIMBING
These days, parents hardly let kids do anything unless it’s scheduled and carefully supervised. Schools are no different. Unstructured play, which fosters skills like creativity and problem solving, doesn't jibe in curriculums designed to measure success by standardized test results.
Tree climbing is the antithesis of sanitized playgrounds and classrooms, and that's precisely what makes it so invaluable.
Every tree is unique, parents and teachers don’t circle around them, and once a kid scrambles up one there rises an incomparable sense of triumph that cannot be conjured elsewhere.
Kids have been climbing trees for about six million years, which means that they are practically hard-wired for tree climbing.
The process is simple: Find a tree with inviting branches and let the kids have at it. The best thing a parent can do is stay the hell away. Is it dangerous? A little. But the potential benefits—grit, resilience, and bravery—far outweigh the risks.
LESSON #3: NAVIGATING (WITHOUT A SMART PHONE)
In this age of driverless cars and global positioning systems, you would think that the days of being lost are behind us. But are they? Digital location tools rely on imperfect infrastructures. No matter where you live, city or country, you still occasionally need to rely on old fashioned trust-your-gut navigation.
Scientists have recently discovered that navigation is a use-it-or-lose-it skill; if we don't use it, the hippocampus begins to shrink, which simply confirms what good parents have long known: Teaching kids to navigate gives them a bigger brain.
Navigation lessons are fun, as long as you don't force them down a kid's throat. Good parents teach navigations lessons gradually, often in subtle ways. They point out the north star, for example, or they use cardinal directions in conversations. Sometimes, they point out useful landmarks when hiking, driving, or walking. Eventually, when the time is right, they employ the find-your-way-home challenge (which can be as simple as "I'll buy you a milkshake if you can get us home from soccer practice"). Don't overdo it. That's annoying.
The ultimate goal isn't to turn a child into a Jason Bourne replica. It's simply to teach basic situational awareness, which in turn makes a child more cognizant and competent.
LESSON #4: BUILDING A FIRE
Fire has always been essential to the human experience. We rely on fire for warmth, cooking, and to light our way.
Wherever ancient humans traveled, they carried fire. There is also beauty in flame and comfort in the smell and sound of crackling wood.
Some argue that an understanding of fire is in our DNA. I wouldn't know if this is true. But I do know that fire building, whether it's in our DNA or not, is an essential skill.
And I'll add this too: When you look back on your life, will you wish that you had sat around fewer fires? I know I won't.
Fire is awesome, and its awesomness needs to be appreciated first hand. Obviously, fire building needs to be supervised until mastered, but supervision isn't a chore. It's fun. More importantly, a child who can build a fire is one step closer to self-reliance, and self-reliance is one of the greatest lessons a parent can teach.