Spotlight: Kid Stuff
Primers for Parents Who Paddle
And for Other Adults Who Work with Kids
By Farwell Forrest
July 15, 2003
In the grim years following World War II, George Orwell
the man who made nineteen eighty-four a year to remember wrote a regular
weekly column under the title I Write as I Please. It was a good name for a
column, and usually a good read, too, full of unexpected treats: an honest and very
funny account of the unhappy lot of the professional book reviewer ("Until one has
some sort of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the
majority of them are"), a lyrical defense of nature writing ("I know from experience
that a favourable reference to 'Nature' in one of my articles is liable to bring me
abusive letters"), even an elegy on the declining quality of English murders ("a crime
excite pity for both victim and murderer").
While writing as he pleased, Orwell once took up the cause of "good bad books," a
term coined by the English novelist G.K. Chesterton to describe books which,
though "quite impossible to call 'good' by any strictly literary standard,"
nonetheless remain readable (and widely read) long after more ambitious works are
consigned to the dustbin of students' summer reading lists. It was amusing stuff, and
perfectly true. Even diehard literary snobs will find it difficult to refute Orwell's
conclusion that "native grace
may have more survival value than erudition or
When discussing Bruce Lessels' and Karen Blom's Paddling with Kids
(Appalachian Mountain Club, 2001), however, I find it necessary to go Orwell one
better. Paddling with Kids cannot be called a good book. Nor is it a good bad
book. No. It is a bad good book, instead. What do I mean? Simply that it is an
attractively-packaged volume on an important subject, written by a pair of expert
paddlers and experienced teachers, with the imprimatur of an organization that has
produced some of the best outdoor guides in print and yet it is all but
Nevertheless, it may be worth buying. Paradox? Possibly. Contradiction? Maybe not.
But before I explain, let's take a look at the need for such a book.
Parents come in many types. At one extreme, some adopt what evolutionary biologists
call an "r-strategy." They invest a minimum of care and attention in each individual
kid, preferring to let nature take its course. Their kids are thrown into life at the
deep end, so to speak. After that, it's sink or swim, with mom and dad watching from
shore and cheering the survivors on. Such parents need no help from this or any other
At the other end of the spectrum are parents who follow what the biologists have
labeled a "K-strategy." Here the emphasis is on nurturing: K-strategy parents are
Nurturers with a capital "N." They make large investments of time (and money) in each
kid. They're hands-on folks, too. You won't find them watching passively as their
children struggle in deep water. They believe in the value of education, careful
preparation, and graduated challenge. In short, they're the parents who'll turn to
volumes like Paddling with Kids for guidance.
But I've just suggested that they'll be disappointed, haven't I? Why? To begin
with, it's important to understand that Lessels and Blom are trying to do two jobs at
once: assist parents who want help "encouraging their kids to paddle," while at the
same time describing "some basic paddling techniques" that "will help get kids started
in the sport." As luck would have it, though, the first job is probably unnecessary.
Most kids old enough to wield a paddle already have a pretty good idea what interests
them and what doesn't, and they don't need to be encouraged to do what they want to
do. In fact, it's all but impossible to hold them back. What are we to make of parents
who lament that their kids "aren't interested in anything," then? Perhaps only that
their kids don't share their interests. This is unfortunate, to be sure. What
parent doesn't want her children to follow in her wake, after all? Still, kids'
fancies often thrive or wither in ways that defy either analysis or direction. Adults
can only invite their children to join them. They cannot compel not for long,
at any rate.
Lessels and Blom fare no better in their second self-appointed task. To their
credit, however, they readily acknowledge their book's shortcomings as a paddling
primer. In fact, they refer readers looking for a comprehensive discussion of paddling
techniques to "the
many [other] how-to books available." It's good advice, and wise parents will lose
no time in acting on it.
All right, then. If the authors' encouragement is unneeded and their primer
incomplete, what's left to capture the reader's attention? Only a hit-or-miss
collection of hints, tips, and paddling anecdotes, unevenly edited and badly
illustrated. Here's a brief sampler of some of the more noticeable lapses:
Too Many Pictures Tell No Story
Of the forty-seven photos, more than half are little better than holiday snaps.
Most of these could be omitted without loss. And what of the others? Some are merely
perplexing (a badly-lit shot of a "low-head dam," for example). A few, however, are
downright misleading. In a picture purportedly illustrating "an all-purpose tandem
canoe preparing to set out on whitewater," for instance, the reader searches in
vain for any sign of flotation, spare
paddle, or bailer and soon notices that the knot securing the trailing bow
painter appears to be coming adrift, into the bargain. "Preparing"? Maybe. But
certainly not prepared. No way.
Better by far to substitute line drawings for some of the holiday snaps. The book
has just one such drawing, and it's excellent.
Waste Happens, but What Then?
Except for a cryptic admonition to "dispose of waste
properly," Lessels' and Blom's "Leave No Trace" guidelines are silent on the
subject of sanitation, a matter of considerable practical interest to parents and
children alike. A photo caption stresses the importance of "staying well hydrated,"
and the accompanying text cautions that properly hydrated kids "should urinate
frequently throughout the day." The rest is left to the reader's imagination (and
ingenuity). That just isn't good enough.
Is It Safe?
Safety is every K-strategy parent's primary concern, of course, and Lessels and
Blom make the expected cautionary and reassuring noises. Unfortunately, though, they
leave the most important truth unsaid: risk can be managed (a favorite, if somewhat
misleading, term), but it is always present. Even skillful, well-equipped paddlers can
die on the water, and death is no respecter of age. The British author Alan Byde pulled no
punches in his advice to instructors: "[D]on't ever say to an anxious parent [that]
'Mary, or Bill, will be perfectly safe whilst canoeing.' They won't.
bound to end with a fatal experience. It is just a matter of where, when, and
Don't deceive yourself.
A good maxim is to ask oneself, before
beginning a session in charge of other people, "What would I say to the Coroner?"
Such blunt some would say brutal talk is unfashionable on both sides
of the Pond today, yet it bears repetition. Canoeing and kayaking yield many pleasures
for parents and children alike, but these pleasures always come at a price. That price
may someday be the life of the paddler, even when that paddler is a child. No parent
can afford to forget this. However scrupulously risks are "managed," nature always has
the last word, and nature cares nothing for sentiment. Sometimes love just isn't
The Oracle Speaks
Pedagogy breeds obscurantism as naturally as road-kill breeds flies. That's of no
consequence to educators, for whom the professional jargon soon becomes a second
language, but it often comes as a bit of a jolt to the rest of us. What is the reader
to make of things like "Teaching is not merely the practice of presenting material,
but rather ensures that learning will occur"? This all too representative morsel is
attributed by the authors to Becky Molina, whose "overarching principles," we are
assured, "have proven to work well when teaching kids." Dorothy Parker would have had
a suitable rejoinder on the tip of her tongue, I'm sure. I do not. But I know that I
prefer simpler fare in a primer plain facts, plainly told, without the need for
oracular circumlocutions, let alone "overarching principles."
Enough. Paddling with Kids is a bad good book, but there are plenty of seeds
to be found amidst the chaff. If the kids in your care are starting to show an
interest in paddling, therefore, and if you have a little time on your hands, you may
well find that Lessels' and Blom's thin volume repays a quick read-through. (The
book's lack of an index makes any other approach impractical.) If not if time
presses, or if you simply lack patience turn to your local library, instead. Bill Mason's
Song of the Paddle (NorthWord Press, 1988) contains an excellent short
chapter on family canoe camping, and Barbara McMartin's Fun on Flatwater
(North Country Books, 1995) has plenty of no-nonsense advice in a section aptly titled
"Getting Started." Do you need more? Do you want practical help teaching your kids the
elements of boat control and related arts, perhaps? Then hunt down a copy of Alan
Byde's Living Canoeing (2d edition, revised; Adam & Charles Black,
1973). It's a British book (so "canoeing" means "kayaking"), long out of print and
somewhat dated in consequence, but you still won't find a better primer anywhere. The
line drawings are superb, too.
See you and your kids, I hope! on the water.
Adults have Deliverance.
But stories for kids with an interest in paddling are few and far between, and
good stories are rarer still. Next time, in "More Kid Stuff," I'll take a look
at some of the best books of the last 150 years for web-footed kids who also like to
read. Come to think of it, there might be something in the pile for us adults,
Copyright © 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights