Self Sufficiency – Lessons from a Mother

Recently I wrote an article explaining why I want my children to go cold and hungry. I’ve read a lot about resiliency and self sufficiency and I’m oft amused by the concept of resiliency being seen as a setup. A series of items as it were, all provided as a package and required to provide resiliency. Items on the shelf which we can point to and say, “See I have it over there.” Like a jar of peanut butter. There’s my resiliency.

This is a dangerous way to view things. In the same way that wealth is not a Porsche, a beach house and a Rolex, so too resiliency is not found in items, but rather in something quite different.

Resiliency doesn’t lie in having baked beans stashed, a log cabin in the woods, rounds of ammunition, or a purpose-built panic room stocked to the hilt in a suburban house. Resiliency lies in an ability to think and act in a certain way irrespective of what the world throws at you.

The reason I write about this on a financial blog is because self-sufficiency is crucial to business, to entrepreneurs and to investors. As an Angel investor I find myself constantly reviewing deals. Deals, business, heck the world, is really all about people, and successful business is all about flexibility, adaptability and the skill to navigate an increasingly dynamic world.

Flexibility is really another way of saying that challenges will arise and those challenges need to be met, then having the ability and fortitude to deploy the resources required to overcome those challenges.

While I spend most of my waking hours reviewing opportunities, and thus people, I dearly want to ensure that my own children are equipped to deal with the world…and this requires resilience. It is a great honor for me to count as friends, a traveling expat family that we met whilst traipsing across the globe ourselves.

I first met Jennifer and Tony Miller and their brood of amazing children online when researching home schooling strategies for our own children. Subsequently, we’ve met multiple times in person and shared adventures together. The best way to describe and introduce the Miller family, who they are and what they’ve achieved is to…well, introduce you.

Jenn maintains a blog which shares some of what the family are up to as they travel the world, educating themselves, working, learning, sweating, laughing and crying together.

Right after my last post Jenn wrote an absolute gem of a piece which explains to a tee what I was trying to get across in my own post. I’d like to share it with you below in its entirety. You can see the post here on her site.

Jenn, 13, chiseling out holes for the electrical boxes in the logs for the house.

Jenn, 13, chiseling out holes for the electrical boxes in the logs for the house.

June is graduation time for many families. Teens graduating high school. Young adults graduating from university. Kindergarteners graduating from their first attempts at formal education and into the long road ahead. It’s a time of celebrating milestones and also of giving gifts. We give gifts to celebrate their accomplishments, which are tiny steps and big leaps towards the ultimate gift we hope to give our kids: Self-sufficiency.

It’s got me thinking about the gifts that we give, as parents, to our children, not at holidays, or graduations, but everyday, over the long haul of a childhood. The gifts that affect who they ultimately become. The gifts that were given to me and how to intentionally craft those into the next generation.

I’ve given it a lot of thought and there are a lot of really important gifts to give our kids, but I keep coming back around to one: Self-sufficiency. Maybe you’d argue that there’s another, more important gift to give, and that’s okay, because there are certainly many that are indispensable. It’s not like we can give only one gift to our kids, we give hundreds of them, every day. But for me, self-sufficiency is the best gift my parents gave me, and the one I’m most determined to pass on. Let me tell you why.

Self-sufficient: needing no outside help in satisfying one’s basic needs, emotionally and intellectually independent

As a caveat, let me say at the beginning that I’m in no way suggesting that we should raise kids outside of community or society. I’m in no way downplaying the importance of building interdependence into our children or fostering a team work attitude. I’m not saying we should raise them not to need anything, or anyone, outside of themselves. That would be silly, and not such a good gift, in the end.

My mom and I have more than once discussed the sad state of my generation: the late-thirty-somethings of the world. She’s worried aloud about the state of the world should something cataclysmic happen. We’re both concerned that my generation lacks the basic skills necessary to make life a rich and vibrant thing without all of the plug-ins that allow us to check out, mentally, physically & practically much of the time. Most people are not truly independent. They don’t know how to take care of themselves. We’ve become entirely reliant on various systems to support our way of life. Too many of us are not self-sufficient.

Much fun is made of the current trend of twenty and thirty-somethings ending up back on their parent’s couch, eating Mama’s cooking, playing video games and going out with friends instead of struggling in a roach ridden one room apartment with a bare bulb to light their nights spent burning the work candle at both ends. I don’t think it’s funny. Are there reasons to move home as an adult? Of course. Life sucks sometimes and we all need to be humble enough to start over. Those aren’t the people we laugh about though. Are they? What’s lacking in these young people? Self-sufficiency.

Somewhere along the way too many people don’t get handed the gift of knowing how to struggle, suffer, do without and figure it out that our parents and our grandparents got; at least most of them.

What is it?

Self-sufficiency can’t be quantified in a check list that we can work our way through as we parent. Unfortunately. That would be nice and easy.

Self-sufficiency isn’t something we can explain to our kids and repeat fifty times until they “get it.”

Self-sufficiency is the deep rooted belief that you can take care of yourself and those around you. 

It is knowing that you can feed, clothe, house, emotionally care for, educate and overcome any obstacle that life throws your way. Why to you believe this? How do you know you can? Because you have in the past. Because you’ve watched others do it and you’ve learned from their example. Because you’ve struggled before with something bigger than yourself and you’re not afraid to struggle again.

What does self-sufficiency look like:

  • A toddler tying her own shoes
  • A five year old working to make his own lunch
  • A seven year old cleaning a bathroom
  • A nine year old walking into town to buy groceries for Mom
  • An eleven year old getting up and doing his school work & chores without being told
  • A thirteen year old who rakes the neighbour lady’s leaves along with his own without being asked
  • A fifteen year old who works a job, holds down a third of the home responsibilities and completes her school work without adult interaction.
  • A seventeen year old who, having graduated early, learns Spanish and stomps back into the Honduran bush, alone, on a humanitarian mission.

Self-sufficiency isn’t any one thing. It’s a series of accomplishments, confidences gained and courage to fail if necessary in the effort of completing a task.

How Do We Give The Gift?

Perhaps you’re quite self-sufficient but you’re noticing that your kids are less so and that worries you.

Perhaps you realize that you’re not at all self-sufficient and you’re angry that your parents never gave you the one big gift that would free you as a person.

Perhaps you’re doing your best to raise kids that are self-sufficient but you’re worried about what that looks like to the rest of the world and you need some encouragement along the way.

Be encouraged. You can learn to be self-sufficient, and so can your kids.

I don’t know why so many people are not self-sufficient, either as children or as adults. I have some theories, centering on parents doing too much for their kids, the government legislating against young people who would otherwise be doing great things, and the general innate human laziness being exacerbated by “labour saving devices.” But I’ll save my theories on what’s wrong with the world in favour of making some suggestions and telling some stories.

How do we foster self-sufficiency in ourselves and our children?

Struggle

There’s no other way to say it. If you’ve never struggled, it’s absolutely impossible for you to be self-sufficient in something. Sometimes we have to be reduced to tears of frustration, hit the wall of our own finite ability, scream at the sky because we simply do not have the tools we need and then return to the task, reassess what we do have, and find a solution.

Do your kids struggle?

If you’re carefully constructing a childhood for them in which everything is perfect, in which they are eternally “happy” then you’re not giving them the most important gift.

Does that sound harsh?

Life is  harsh. Life is struggle. Those who succeed know that, aren’t afraid of the pain, and get it done. Happiness, my friends, is a shell on a tidal flat. Sometimes it’s there to enjoy on the surface, sometimes it’s buried deep in the mud, sometimes it’s just plain gone. You know what makes me most happy? The struggles that were overcome.

Don’t raise your kids to be “happy” raise your kids to find happiness in the struggle.

People who are Self-Sufficient tend to be very content, happy people.

Require Them To Struggle

I know there are parenting models that suggest that kids shouldn’t be “required” to do anything, that they should be allowed to grow according to their natural bents and that they can be trusted to learn everything they need to know as they grow. I respectfully disagree.

My friend has virtuoso violinists for children. Four in a row. These kids love their instruments and their musical ability is central to their lives. There were points at which they wanted to quit. Hated practicing. Wanted to play baseball instead. She required them to stick with it, to struggle, and they overcame. She wrote about being Surprised by Excellence. Her kids are so grateful for the push she wasn’t afraid to give, no matter how it looked to the neighbours.

My Dad built my kids a boat. He positioned it several hundred yards from the house and provided three logs to move it, Egyptian style, down to the lake. Then he worked with them all afternoon to launch their ship.

Don’t Bail Them Out

It’s so hard as a parent to watch a kid struggling, I mean really struggling with something that is in our power to fix and to resist the urge to solve it for them. Solving it would be so easy. They would be so happy. And they’d be reliant on someone else instead of self-sufficient.

One afternoon my kids rowed that boat my Dad built them about a mile from the house before torrential rain started to fall. It rained for a good half an hour, hard. My mom and I, snug in the house, poured tea and set out a bar of soap as a joke when they got back. An hour later they emerged, 7 & 9 year olds soaked to the bone to tell their story:

“Mom, we rowed WAY out in the bay and then it started raining and it rained HARD and we were wet and cold!! We cried. We screamed for you to come get us. But no one came, so we sucked it up and we rowed home.”

“I know, Grammy laid out soap for you to take next time! Would you like some dry clothes?”

“Nope. Can I ride my bike now?”

And off they flew down the driveway towards the dirt road, water flying off of the ends of my daughter’s braids.

  • Let them spend a whole frustrated afternoon in tears sounding the bottom of the bay with a boathook in search of the fishing pole they stupidly dropped overboard.
  • Let them gut their own fish with a sharp knife. Buy bandaids.
  • Let them make a huge mess in your kitchen cooking for guests and then insist that they clean it up, all three times it takes to get the job done right.
  • Let them struggle. Make them struggle. Don’t bail them out.

Work Together

My parents were great at this. Not because they were reading every parenting book and diligently applying the principles, but because there was real work to be done and every hand was needed to get it done. Gardening, house building, hunting, fishing, canning, sewing, cleaning, cooking, and traveling, we all worked and we worked together.

I watched my Dad bang his toe with the hammer instead of the nail he was setting countless times. He’d curse, sometimes throw the hammer, then try again, set the nail and move on.

I watched my Mom frustrated on Thanksgiving Day when the oven died completely. She took that turkey in the pan two miles down to the neighbour’s and baked it in her oven instead.

I watched my brother pound nail after nail into a chalk line on the subfloor with a ball pean hammer. He was four.

One summer afternoon when I was 13 we built an entire section of wall for the back side of the second story of our house. The neighbours came to help us stand it up. We got it standing only to have my Mom step back and say, “You know… something’s not quite right…” And it wasn’t. All of the window openings were at knee height. We’d forgotten to account for the subfloor. The men heaved hard, pushed the whole thing over the side of the house and we started again, building a new wall, with the right measurements.

Let them struggle. Make them struggle. Don’t bail them out. Work together.

Pretty soon, you’ll be self-sufficient, together!

——–

The Miller family are far from “normal”, they skip to the beat of their own tune. They have done more, seen more and learned more as a family than many do in ten lifetimes. They are kindred spirits that I’m very fortunate to call my friends.

They are self-sufficient.

– Chris

“It was on my fifth birthday that Papa put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Remember, my son, if you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.” - Sam Levenson, American humorist, writer, teacher, television host and journalist.

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