The shrieking fools on the streets and campuses of the USA (and UK) are stark testimony to what can happen if you don’t challenge your children and encourage them to experience frustration, hardship and even defeat.
As we prepare our children for what look certain to be interesting times I thought about a few skills that when learned will provide a solid base to help them survive, succeed and even thrive in the world, to make them robust if not anti-fragile.
I have picked here five physical skills I think all children should be taught to mastery. It is best if they can be taught by a father or an elder. If you lack the skills yourself then, fantastic! you can learn alongside your child but I think you will be surprised how much you already actually know. These are foundational human skills and I have limited this list to five mostly because it required an end. The skills are not listed in order of priority.
These skills are of course a metaphor for life that we can practice in order to more fully understand and develop ourselves. Most of them will have little practical utility for children or adults in their day to day life but as T.J. Elpel states; “Primitive skills are a model for living that gives us the basic foundations, the very laws of nature, upon which all our solutions, in primitive and contemporary living must be built”
Skills that didn’t make the list are: Making shelters, first aid, navigation and map reading and fighting/punching. Make of that what you will.
The five foundational skills I have selected are:
Dressing game, basic butchery
Shooting or using dangerous tools.
Fun, rewarding and scary everything about making fires is fun and it is a skill kids really want to learn so you shouldn’t need to coax too hard on this one. The best thing about fire making is that once the basics are understood this can lead of into all kinds of fascinating areas, like friction fire, properties of wood, ecology even language skills. Don’t fret if you aren’t Ray Mears you will be surprised how much you actually know about how to do this even if using a lighter and toilet paper making a fire in the woods requires quite a wide suite of skills and knowledge. My daughter recently had a bit of an interest in fire making so I will illustrate this first point by going through what I did with her.
Like me she learns by doing and as an attentive and thoughtful girl she’ll ask questions as they arise. You will of course know your own child but it will be a rare child indeed who will learn like an adult: with an abstract discussion of the fire-triangle and wood properties etc…..We wanted to achieve so I set her to make one type of fire. First I showed her the exact type of sticks to collect and we made large piles of the various stages of sticks. I showed how to identify if they were correct for burning and the species of tree I wanted us to use (birch). “More”…I taught her to gather far more material than she thought we needed, she needed to be patient finding the materials in the woods. Then we went through how to lay a fire, and had a brief chat about the rational for using the different sizes of kindling and sticks. At five she is a bit too young for lighting the fire but I demonstrated how to do it and then how to breathe life into the fire during the beginning stages.
I didn’t expect too much and in the end, and trusting her to be safe, I left her most of the afternoon just playing with the fire, introducing sticks and experimenting with them. Direct experience is by far the best teacher but you need to know your child I’d be reluctant to do that with my son. You can go all sorts of way after this, the next day we made a fire with only forest materials which required a good bit of searching through the woods more floral knowledge and more observation. We discussed how Birch is a pioneer species how it is the first tree and the first letter in the Gaelic (our ancestor’s language) alphabet, what woods are good for hot or steady fires and then later in the day how to arrange a fire for cooking on. We can develop this into looking at different fire lighting techniques, fire lays and then get into safe and effective use of hatchets and saws.
We used my friend’s woods, but there are more campsites that allow fires now. equally this could be done in a garden after a walk in a local public wood, (yes yes local bye-laws!)
Firemaking is THE primal skill, it is the spark of life, to make a good fire requires a synthesis of physical skills, knowledge of nature and of natural laws. The ability to make fires in and of gives a person a real confidence and sense of accomplishment. It is the fantastic first step….
Dressing game,basic butchery
Dressing game might seem like it is a bit beyond the means or skills of most modern people. Of course I’m not really talking here about deer or elk or anything so large, indeed such animals are real work to prepare so you might not want your child helping as much as watching. In the UK hunting is not such a common activity as in many countries and deer stalkers tend to be quite shy due to a (misplaced) perception that the public doesn’t understand, or approve of, stalking. I have found children are very receptive to watching the dressing of game and find it fascinating. It can be useful to make sure any squeamish female (or male) relatives are not around as children seem to ape disgust and revulsion quite readily.
Most butchers will have paunched rabbits, and will happily sell you rabbits more or less as they get them in, the same goes for game birds. Hares usually come completely intact. If you cannot access wild animals in that condition fish can be bought whole and although there is an emotional distance between us and fish the exercise will remain the same. That is the processing, removal of skin, guts and inedible portions of a once-living being and turning rabbit into kebabs or what have you. This can provide ample room to explore the anatomical features of an animal, how the different parts cook and so on.
Butchery provokes fascination, thankfulness and requires knowledge of anatomy, biology and cooking.
Carving is the foundational skill par excellence for nearly all primitive skills, when I worked with Woodlore their instructor area was a mass of wood shavings and half completed projects. Carving develops hand eye co-ordination, hand strength, forward planning, accuracy. One needs to develop an understanding of different woods, anatomical features within trees. Deferment of gratification and of course the conjuring of an idea in the mind into physical reality. There are scores of children’s projects on the internet, and the best thing is that the projects can end up being used in the house. Knife safety is paramount and the complexity of projects has to be assessed on a child by child basis. It’s always a bit nerve wracking!
Sewing (yes Sewing).
I swapped out fighting (which I consider essential) for clothing repair basically because it’s so joyfully perverse to mend something in modern society. To sew torn clothing requires patience and diligence, it really is surprisingly difficult to make a repair that will last. This is something that can be expanded out into the maintenance and repair of other bits of kit. There is an extraordinary satisfaction in making something “right” again and it is a key skill for self reliance. It can also be used to develop a much more careful husbanding of resources and a more considered, appreciative attitude towards mundane items like clothing. As people who live “close to the ground” in their kit and clothing soldiers have an extraordinary obsession with kit and quickly learn how to adapt and repair items. If you can find some pre-industrial clothing in a museum look at how well made it is, the quality of the stitching and the quality of the material, how tightly woven the wool or linen. You’ll also notice (you’ll have to look closely) that nearly every garment has been repaired at some point and that the repairs are actually themselves of a high quality. There was a care and precision over everyday items that it is good and useful mindset to bring into the present.
Shooting, whether with firearms, air-arms or with bows etc. requires a great deal of responsibility, maturity and develops confidence and prudence. I have taken both of my children out target shooting with .22lr and have tried to engage them in archery. In a world where children are told that everything is “dangerous”, a result of lazy parenting, it is refreshing for a child to engage in an activity that actually is.
Confucius asked that the wise man follow the example of the archer for when he misses he looks for the fault within himself. It’s this wonderful self exploration and self development of a skill with the unforgiving objective marker of the grouping that makes shooting such a powerful teacher. There is no-where to hide. Shooting requires focus, restraint, patience, and attentiveness. I have noticed (I taught shooting for a few years) that girls are often better shots than boys, at least initially. Boys have a fair bit of energy and enthusiasm to channel as well as a cultural idea that they will be “naturally” good.
It’s also good for kids, especially boys to be brought into a traditionally male-space it’s not quite a rite of passage but it is good for boys to see how groups of men engage with each other.
People, especially Europeans can be a bit shy of guns or indeed any weapon, of course the reality is that they have been a necessity of human existence for millions of years. Comfort with and confidence in weaponry is an essential ancestral skill. There are gun clubs in most UK towns and is actually a hobby that is growing, archery too is available nearly everywhere.
Seek not the ancestors seek what they sought.
These five ancestral physical skills will develop strong, well rounded, practical personalities they can be expanded upon, and lead in numerous other directions and provide a sound foundation for developing other skill sets. While useful in their own right the traits developed by the practice of the above skills will stand any child (or adult) in good stead for the challenges the future will bring.