Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to share what we’ve learned about entitlement and the power of equipping kids to a gathering of summer camp directors and owners. What a treat to get to be in a room of folks who love kids. And they get it. And they’ve seen lots of changes over the years. Many of which center on parental over-involvement and kid over-indulgence.

As I was sharing, I remembered something about camp that helped shape my life. It lines up perfectly with what we know to be true. Not only do kids thrive on high expectations (we all do), but when you give them a chance to do something in the impossible realm, succeeding bleeds into other areas of their lives. As does failing and getting back up. On their own. Assistance at a distance, not stepping in before absolutely necessary.

When I was young, I often walked by my older brother’s room and gave into the temptation to take a peak at all his ribbons, medals and trophies. Unlike lots of awards these days, his had meets and tournaments to back them up. Most of his array came from the swimming world. Needless to say, he was a tenacious, hard-working guy who also happened to be fast in the water.

Though I didn’t fill my room with as much to show for my own efforts, I tried. One award I desperately wanted was one of his smaller badges of honor. I looked at it all the time. I think mostly because it seemed completely out of reach. Maybe I looked at it because he won it every year at camp. I wanted to get one, but was scared. Not only to try, but to fail.

It was his “Mile Swimmer” patch from Camp Longhorn.

When my camp days arrived, I literally thought about that patch from the minute I saw the lake where mile swims took place. Seriously – a mile. Across and back a Texas lake which on its best day had visibility of a foot. The thought of all the fish swimming along beside me in the middle of that lake was almost enough to sign me out rather than up for the swim. But the patch called my name. So up I signed.

When a camper expressed interest, training began. First, the aquatic staff needed to make sure you knew how to swim. So, we swam in the pool. Beginning slowly, campers started by swimming a few laps. Then as the days progressed, distance was added to make sure kids had the stamina before diving into what appeared to us as a bottomless body of water. Kids for sure had no idea the depth of that lake. There would be no stopping to stand and catch your breath. And no life jacket for support. Thus it went until the big day.

I’ll never forget my first mile swim. Someone had spotted an alligator gar at the dock earlier in the week. It scared the living daylights out of every little kid in the camp. And as the days passed, the length of that fish grew. By the time the mile swim came, it had to have grown ten feet and taken on the characteristics of a Great White shark.


Alligator Gar, courtesy of google images. Seriously creepy!

But a scary fish didn’t stop the swim. The call was made and in we jumped. Since swim team participation was a right of passage in our home, I was accustomed to the water – pool water that is. The lake thing had my blood pumping fast. I did my best to stay next to someone. But before too long, my little engine that could was huffing and puffing and fears of the fish cramped my muscles. Convinced that something was brushing up against me every few feet, I fought my fears as much as I did the length of the swim.

Rafts and boats were available for those who needed to stop, but I kept going. Cheering counselors spurred me on. I kept hearing my dad who told us over and over, “A Wills doesn’t quit.” He expected us, groomed us, to give anything we tried our full effort. Quitting wasn’t an option unless death was eminent. (Okay, maybe not that dramatic.) Still, on I swam and swam and swam. As the shore on my return got closer, my resolve grew. I found new life in my tired arms and legs. And I listened to words of encouragement that seemed closer than normal. I would later discover that counselors actually swam next to campers toward the end. A few swam the entire way. Not next to, but close enough if a camper needed help.

I finished the swim and received my patch. It was a small patch. Nothing exciting, just a fish with the words “Mile Swimmer” embroidered on the side. But it meant the world to me. The lack of fanfare made it all the more poignant. I had done it. Every time I looked at that lake, I remembered. Like I did standing in front of those camp directors. And it dawned on me: those experiences shaped my character. And I was grateful.

As I looked out at my audience last week and remembered aloud the story of that swim, I was convicted yet again about the importance of training. The critical nature of setting a bar high, seemingly out of reach. As silly as that mile swim might seem, it taught me something about myself. I could accomplish something that I once thought impossible. Even in threatening conditions. Quitting wasn’t an option. Leaning into the burn and facing my fears was good.

Words explaining the nature behind such an accomplishment remained unspoken. The action, now the memory, speaks for itself. It was the meat on the bones of “you can do anything you put your mind to.”

Remembering that mile swim put some fuel in my own equipping tank. It confirmed the importance of training and getting out of the way. It reminded me that fanfare, though nice, can often be a detriment. It strengthened my let-go-and-let-them muscles. We want our kids to lean into the feeling of stretching their wings… for it to be normal so that they fly and soar when it’s more than a mile swim that they face.

Thanks for walking the road with me.


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