…give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish
and you feed him for a lifetime.**
Sometimes in the dead dark of night I worry. I worry about a lot of the same things most mothers worry about. Whether I’ve peeled enough carrot sticks for lunch. Whether I’ve remembered to sign the field trip permission form. Whether I’ve forgotten some major life event my kids will be traumatized by me not remembering. But mostly I worry I’m not doing a good enough job of teaching my kids how to fish.
Forget fishing. Sometimes I worry they couldn’t even order take-out sushi.
Like most, I started out with the best intentions…and like many, I usually fall into less than ideal habits along the way. My kids have chores and responsibilities, not to earn money, but because I believe they should contribute to the upkeep of their home. I expect them to do their part to ensure our place of residence does not resemble a hovel. Or something out of an episode of Lego hoarders.
It’s the middle of the afternoon and the dishwasher needs to be emptied…so I empty it. There are teetering towers of boy boxer briefs threatening to suffocate us all…so I put them away. It’s late after football training and they need to do homework…so I clear the table. They look weary under the weight of their backpacks…so I carry them on my bike.
It’s easier if I do it, quicker if I just do it, they’ll do it wrong and I’ll need to redo it so why not just do it right myself the first time?
I’m doing myself a disservice of course. They are more than capable of doing the things I ask, of them. More than that however, I’m doing them a disservice. Because by doing it all for them, I’m not teaching them how to fish.
It took me a long time and a lot of muttering to realize I don’t need to play Mama Punkawallah to my kid’s Lazy Lordships. It took me a long time to realize my kids aren’t going to sue me for motherhood fraud if I don’t get them every glass of water they ask for or acquiesce to every play date, if I make them clear the plates or sweep the floor or assume responsibility for themselves, their things, and their lives.
And that’s when the idea of teaching them to fish really became a bit of an obsession.
It’s possible I’m slightly more gung-ho because I’m raising boys and I want them to be well-rounded (and my definition of well-rounded includes knowing the working end of a mop and how to do a load of darks.)
More than simple household chores however, I want my kids to be able to do things. By themselves. Without me. I realize I’m outing myself as a quasi-free range mother, but I want my kids to go places and do things and make choices and decisions and have experiences. Without me. Without me advising or rescuing or informing or being on the other end of a text or packing a sandwich and a baggie full of Goldfish in case they get hungry.
I want the little buggers to feel confident enough to fish for themselves. To go out and catch their dinners. To cook them up and clear up the plates afterward and go to bed with a full stomach.
That kind of personal responsibility, the kind that leads to being able to take care of yourself? It starts at home. Making beds and clearing plates seem like minor things, but a kid who knows how to clean up after himself will eventually carry those lessons through into his adolescence and adulthood. Cleaning up your messes becomes a dirtier job as you get older. It’s one thing to pick up the Lego off the toy room floor, it’s another to pick up the pieces of a heart you’ve broken. But in the end, they are all part and parcel of the same lesson.
Learning how to speak up for yourself, taking responsibility for your belongings, not just the physical ones but the mental ones too, looking after yourself, physically and emotionally, all of those are fishing lessons. They are the stepping-stones between dependence and independence.
Teaching my kids to fish means giving them the skills they need to make toast without burning it, but it also means giving them the tools to be independent. To go forth. To ask, to question, to stand up, and yes, to fall down and screw up as well. To navigate their own lives without my constant intervention. Without me to always carry their burdens and fight their fights and clean up their messes.
They’re still young. I’m not going to push them out into deep waters and leave them to fend for themselves. I’ll be waiting behind the counter at Mom’s Live Bait ready to offer tips, to help untangle their lines, give them advice on lures. But as young as they are, the more I step back, the more I notice how capable they are, even at untangling the tough knots.
Eventually, if I do my job, they’ll be able to fashion their own custom rods. My hope is that one day, sitting out on the dock of their own bay, they will be able to confidently cast their rods, sure that they can handle whatever it is they reel in.
I hope I’ll have done enough to teach them how to fish. And at the very least, to order sushi without my help.
**I’d always assumed the fishing proverb had a Biblical source, but it turns out I was
wrong. Most sources cite Anne Isabella Ritchie, daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray as the original mid-20th century source.