Monday, June 05, 2006

Parent Shadows

You had this beautiful baby 15 years ago. He was the apple of your eye. As he grew up you taught him to walk and swim and ride a bike. As soon as he was big enough you shared your passion for sailing with him by taking him for rides on your boat. When he was ready you taught him how to sail. The two of you enjoyed many years sailing together and life was perfect.

Then all of a sudden the kid is as tall as you, he's sprouting a beard and he's into video games, playing the guitar and... girls. Sailing is taking a back seat in his life. Y
our own IQ (at least in his eyes) has dropped to around 70 and if he does deign to go for a sail with his old man he thinks he knows a damn more about sailing than you and isn't shy about letting you know. You love your son and want to spend time with him sharing the joy of sailing. But when you sail together there's no joy in it any more for either of you. What happened?

Sorry to break the news but this is perfectly normal. Your son is growing up. At this stage he is becoming more independent, wants to experiment and try out new things, needs to start making his own choices in life. It can be a stressful time for teenagers and their parents, and the sad news for us sailors is that sailing together can exacerbate the situation. You and your adolescent are thrown together in a small space, dealing with stressful situations. Whether you're racing or dealing with a sudden squall while cruising, sailing demands quick decisions with the skipper calling the shots. Sometimes there's no time for dealing with arguments from an adolescent testing your tolerance.

Look at from his perspective. He wants to make his own decisions, be in control. (Why do you think kids of this age enjoy video games so much?) He craves excitement and challenge. Tootling round the bay for the umpteenth time with Mum and Dad just doesn't turn him on any more.

So you need to rethink what your real objectives for your offspring are. Is the most important thing in the world that he spend every Sunday afternoon for the next three years being your spinnaker trimmer? Or do you want him to grow into a well-adjusted adult capable of taking responsibility, making sound decisions, dealing with challenges.. and maybe, just maybe, having an appreciation for the rewards of sailing? If it's the latter -- and of course it is -- you need to start letting go, giving your son more freedom, more space.

Before any of you feminists complain that I am only talking about boys here, let me explain. Teenage girls were a mystery to me when I was a teenage boy. I never had a daughter so teenage girls are still a mystery to me. Some of what I discuss in this series of posts on teenagers and sailing may apply to girls. Some may not. I haven't a clue.

I mentioned in my first post on this topic that I felt that the main reason that my own sons kept sailing through those teenage years was through luck rather than any particular skill at parenting on my part. The first stroke of luck was that I started off my racing career in a single-hander, the Laser, and when we moved to the USA in 1989 we ended up living close to a sailing club that was also dominated by single-handers, the Sunfish. My kids learned to sail in England in Optimists and so, in our new home, it was natural for them to graduate to Sunfish and Lasers too.

Without thinking about it we had headed off one of the major issues that affects parents who sail with their teenagers. Yes, we went to the same sailing club, sometimes to regattas and clinics together. But we weren't actually sailing in the same boat together. So there was no opportunity to argue about how dumb Dad was for choosing the wrong side of the beat; and no chance that the teenager would become annoyed because Dad was telling him that he was pinching all the time. Sure we had our tensions and arguments. But the very nature of our sailing meant that, for the most part they didn't directly affect our enjoyment of sailing.

The other beauty of sailing single-handers was that it meant the kids had the freedom to sail, or not to sail. The Sunfish fleet I mentioned actually meets on the lake across the road from our house. So if Dad wanted to get up early on Sunday morning and go out sailing at 9 o'clock and one son wanted to lie in bed and show up at noon, that was perfectly practical. If Dad was going to a regatta and one or both sons wanted to sail in it too,we could do that. But if a son had more important (to him) stuff to do that day, that was OK too; he wasn't depriving Dad of a crew by skipping sailing.

If you're not a single-handed sailor this solution may not be practical. At the club where I taught sailing for several years they had a different way of handling the problem. I headed up a junior sailing instruction program in Optimists and Lasers which kids attended until they were about 15. Afterwards if kids wanted to continue sailing their only option really was to crew on one of the club's one design classes - Thistles, Stars, E-Scows. Some kids crewed for their parents; many crewed for someone else - an uncle, a grandfather, a friend. It hadn't really occurred to me before I wrote this post but I see now that this probably was a way that had evolved to deal with the tensions of parents and kids sailing on the same boat.

So that's a couple of ideas on how to put some distance between yourself and your teenage kids but still be able to enjoy sailing together -- well sort of "together". I'm sure there are other ways.

Carol Anne at Five O'Clock Somewhere wrote a very perceptive post a few weeks ago about Man Shadows, the virtual wind shadows that many sailing women feel from the men in their lives. Parents cast shadows too. Make sure you give your teenager some clear air.

The next post in this series on how (not) to motivate your kid to sail is about the pressures of competition.


Fuff said...

It's a problem all round, I think, that spills over into sailing too if it's part of people's lives. A lot of parents, unfortunately, need to learn that controlling their offspring is not the best way to keep them close, but people are selfish.
I know a few people that have that problem with their parents' power struggles to this day and they are over 10 years past the teengage years. It doesn't involve sailing any more though, as they don't ever sail together as a result. Sad really.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, as is Carol Anne's.

I think there are "spouse shadows" that are pretty big. Not sure if they're always "man shadows" although I think that's most common. From my experience teaching sailing, formally and informally, it's clear to me that men and women approach it differently. And any time you are in a learning situation with someone to whom you have complicated emotional ties, there's a lot of pressure riding on the pace and style with which you grasp (or don't) what the other person wants you to learn.

I spent my teenage years racing with my dad. I still love sailing with him. He's the best teacher I've had, although we've certainly disagreed at times. And I spent plenty of time sailing with other people, and against him. You've made me think about why it worked for us. (My mother gave up racing with him after some unpleasant experiences, and only recently agreed to go back out for some races.)

Great topic. You've made me think a lot.

Anonymous said...

I am a Laser sailor and a grand-father too. Same language, but different culture being English and living in Wales! I have 3 daughters, all grown up and only one of them sailed as children. She is finding her feet in life, but she'll come back and sail with her old Dad. It's just a question of waiting....

Pat said...

Just when you thought you could solve the crew shortage problem by raising and feeding one from infancy... then you have to give him up to the boats you're sailing against?! Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Yep, I know you're right, Tillerman. I'm not so old I can't remember 15. You just figure it's not gonna happen to you - until now, of course - even though the exact same thing has happened to hundreds of generations of fathers and sons before you. Told him he should feel free to singlehand if he wants to this year; we'll see if he takes me up on it.

fuff, I assure you I'm not the controlling type of parent. There are very few things in his short life he has been forced to do. Learning Latin, yes. Sailing, no. I am riddled with glaring flaws, but being one of those loathsome stage parents isn't one of them. I just like spending time with him and always have. He's an interesting, highly intelligent, thoughtful human. This is my first time through the transition from Parent to Moron to Friend; perhaps it wasn't the most brilliant idea to expose my insecurity to the entire Internet but I thought doing so might prove useful to me and other parents.

I'm taking Tillerman's voice of experience to heart, along with scheherazade's happy ending and seadog's cheering thought that it's just a question of waiting.

And pat, yeah, feeding him enough for a small army. At least the other two, who also eat constantly, will still crew with Dad. For a few more years.

Thanks all - you've been a big help and comfort.

Anonymous said...


I don't think this only applies to teenagers, but your children of any age... sometimes luck has a lot to do with it... being a dinghy sailor definitely worked to your advantage.

Carol Anne said...

Before I took up racing in January, Tadpole had been crewing for several years with a lot of the very experienced racing skippers in the club. This means it's a challenge to sort out whether he's imparting knowledge gleaned from his experience or whether he's just being a teenager and trying to sound superior to Mom. We're working on the communication issue.

Tadpole is definitely a committed sailor -- possibly because he doesn't come from the typical background where one or both parents are lifetime sailors. We took up sailing as a family only six years ago. He hasn't had the chance to get burned out, since he isn't one of those kids who could sail before they could walk.

Yes, Sherry, I have thought about the idea that there aren't just "man shadows" but also "spouse shadows." I think the actual form of the shadow may differ -- men may limit women through lack of confidence in their skills, but women limit men by wanting them to stick close to home and do chores. That may be something of an oversimplification, but Zorro and I both have difficulty recruiting crew because of spouse shadows.

Anonymous said...

I'm a girl.

My Dad taught me to sail.

To this day I still go sailing with my Dad.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

But my brother... Well he developed a serious attitude... And no longer sails, because let's face it. He is a boy and is sooooo much cooler and knows everything and is just soooo smart.

Pity he wasn't smart enough to keep sailing.

Shopping City Chaplaincy said...

Way back in time (1977)My Dad bought an International Cadet for me and my sister to sail when we were teenagers.
After an unfortunate capsize my sister didn't want to sail with me or in any dinghy for that matter (I think she got a bit scared).

As a Father of 5 kids, I had great delight in taking my kids sailing with me and teaching them how to do it. My eldest daughter had her first experiance of sailing sitting on my lap whilst we were sailing along in my old Merlin Rocket. I let her hold the tiller with me and she loved it. She was most irrate with me when I gave the old girl away last year (I just couln't look after another boat).
Mind you she can be quite critical of my racing at times but we do sail together well.

All my boys love it but it isn't a passion for them and I currently race with my youngest daughter who is coming along very well as a crew and I hope in time to get her to have a go at helming.

I always found that the best way was to ask them if they want to go for a sail and not to be pushy. This works for alot of other activities aswell.

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