3 Parenting Lessons I Learned From White Water Rafting

In preparation for our first float down the Gauley River 10 years ago, my husband and I learned three important lessons that we have applied to our lives and tried to teach our children.
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Have you heard of the Gauley River? It's a river in West Virginia best known for a large number of rapids of the wildest order with names like "Lost Paddle" and "Pure Screaming Hell." Naturally, people choose to go there for fun, thrills and increased bowel motility.

Fun, in this case, is when a force of nature allows you to skim its surface, until it tires of your puny humanity and tosses you, ass over tea kettle, into its roiling fury. You know, run-of-the-mill, hope-you-brought-extra-panties fun. My husband and I can count ourselves among the Gauley's playthings. But the Gauley, she's a wise river, and the humans who traverse her have learned a thing or two. In preparation for our first float downstream 10 years ago, my husband and I learned three important lessons that we have applied to our lives and tried to teach our children.

Rule Number One: You will exit the raft.

If you're lucky, you'll exit by choice. Perhaps to wade in the calmer sections of the river between rapids. But it's much more likely that you'll be ejected, cartoon-like, in a manner that makes you question your life choices and consider calling your sister to apologize for making out with her boyfriend in the rec room that one time, because, well, life's fleeting and dead women can't apologize over drinks. If you do exit via capsize, you'll need to mind the next rule.

Rule Number Two: Don't let go of your paddle.

Your paddle is what makes you a member of the propulsion system that the raft employs to navigate rapids. Not having it makes you, not to put too fine a point on it, dead weight. You're one of the guys in Star Trek who gets killed when Spock and Kirk beam down to the surface of a hostile planet with an away team. You're the babysitter in a horror flick. You're the unpaid intern. What's more is that the paddle is also a handy extension for your crewmates to grab should you need to be towed back into the boat in the event of a water landing. It's your lifeline. It's a fifth appendage. It's crucial for helping you execute the most important rule of all.

Rule Number Three: Be an active participant in your own rescue.

That's right, you're no victim! When the guide calls from the boat as you bob along in the river, heading for the Upper and Lower Mash, a class IV rapid that Wikipedia describes as "a complex boulder garden leading down to a swift flush, big breaking wave and pinning rocks," it's time to participate.

On the Gauley, as in life, grab that paddle firmly before you hit the swirling eddies because you went into this thing knowing you'd be in the water at some point. Extend it because that paddle is the difference between being a member of the Apocalyptic Movie Characters Who Survive to the End or the Guy Who Gets Crushed by a Meteor in the Opening Scene. Be active when you help haul the raft into the river upstream at the adventure's beginning. Be active when your guide tells everyone when to paddle and how hard. And be active when your drier boatmates call out, "I can reach it! Just a little further and we'll pull you up!"

Over 10 years ago, we learned the three things we didn't know we'd need for helping our kids to get all growed-up right. Scary things happen; don't give up your best tools; always participate.

Oh, and one more thing: Don't let someone else tell you what's insignificant. Because sometimes "Insignificant" is the name of a class V rapid that your mother may or may not have fallen into. (She did. But she kept her paddle and that, kiddo, is the untold story of how you ended up getting born -- simply because your mom didn't drown in a river in West Virginia.)