Years ago, while eavesdropping on my then 12-year old daughter’s conversation with her friends, I caught her bragging about a four-pound channel catfish she caught in a fishing derby.
Already like her father, she bumped up the actual size of the fish, and concluded with a fish-that-got-away story. Instead of interrupting and setting the record straight or encouraging a little more humility, I simply walked away, feeling like a good dad. I had devoted an entire day to her in my busy schedule, and it paid off with memories for both of us.
I am reminded almost every week in my practice as a child therapist that there is no substitute for actual face-to-face contact with our children. The notion that quality time can make up for a lack of quantity is simply not accurate. And spending that time together in the outdoors, fulfills many of a child’s’ developmental and social needs.
Catfishing, in particular, provides a lot of precious one-on-one contact. Children do not need video games or $200 basketball shoes. They think they do, but only we know better. What they desperately need are opportunities to learn respect, humility, patience, empathy and about a million other life skills.
To date, I have found no better activities than hunting and fishing to fill so many of those needs. To illustrate, consider the following. Every year around January 25, I ask all the children and adolescents in my office what they got for Christmas.
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Ninety-nine percent of them for the past 15 years have had no idea. They cannot remember, despite the fact that some of those kids received big-ticket items like go carts, televisions, etc. I then follow up with, “now tell me about a time you went fishing or hunting with one of your parents.” If they ever had been, 100 percent of the time they remember every outing in vivid detail.
Generally, children over 4 through adulthood retain memories of incidents that were really good or really bad. The sense of pride and accomplishment a child feels when they pull in their first fish or spot their first deer with their parent present can be overwhelming. These memories help to block out the bad ones.
The pride they feel is a byproduct of their inherent need to please us. So when they know catching a fish is important to dad, it becomes important to them because they feel like they have done a good thing. Like hitting a home run with your parents in the stands, it can be their proudest moment.
But unlike organized sports such as baseball, soccer, football, basketball and others, catfishing provides exclusive benefits and parenting opportunities. Simply put, catfishing and some other outdoor sports are more interactive.
There is benefit to cheering for your child from the stands, but truly important life lessons are more indelibly imprinted when they are learned through close, personal contact. I always got a kick out of the times that my daughter glanced up at me from the basketball floor after she made a free throw, but I could see her adopting my morals and values more clearly after we spent a day sitting next to each other on the bank of a pond catfishing.
Be the influence
Too many parents believe peers are the biggest influence on our children. That is a cop-out, and clearly only the case when we have not spent enough time with them during their formative years.
Consider that 80-percent of parenting is done by the time a child is 14 years old, and the matter becomes urgent. Children who spend more time with their friends at the mall than with their parent in a boat, are more influenced by their peers. When this happens, the rituals and traditions our sons and daughters adopt come from other kids, and usually do not include standing in line at 3 a.m. for a duck blind with dad.
Though kids don’t see them at the time, the values they learn fishing with a parent are difficult disciplines to teach later, and will most likely not be passed on to future generations if not practiced regularly. Outdoor sport-minded parents often feel a sense of selfishness when they point their kids toward their favorite pastime. There are social pressures to sign kids up for multiple sports, and it is assumed all kids will skip a day on the lake to make organized sports practices and games.
Both the guilt and pressure to conform are misplaced. While it is mostly our place as parents to help our children find their niche and get involved in their hobby, it is OK to nudge them toward our pastimes as well. So while I struggled through four years of attending ballet practices, I also made sure my daughter knew how to call geese, track a deer and sit still in the turkey woods.
Because I planted the seed early, the outdoor sports are now a place of peace and escape for both of my otherwise distracted children. When a child is complacent or disinterested in an outing, it helps to include him or her in the set-up and preparation. When done light-heartedly and made fun, the resultant anticipation is almost as good as the event.
It also creates more opportunities to talk and interact with a child regarding something other than the standard, “how was your day,” or school. In fact, working together toward a common goal is one of the best ways to bond with anyone. Still not convinced catfishing is the best way to create lifelong, positive memories for children? Then do what I do.
Ask any child what he received for Christmas last year, and then ask him to tell you about the biggest fish he ever caught. Compare his reaction, length of response and facial expressions to both questions, and you'll never feel bad about taking a kid fishing again.
Besides being a full-time outdoor writer, Don Mulligan is a licensed, practicing child and adolescent therapist in Indiana.