The summer of my fifth grade year, I went with my best friend, Billy Williams, to visit his relatives. They lived on a tiny peanut farm deep in southern Louisiana. Along with Billy’s mother, Pauline, we set off in an old Ford across several state, social and economic boundaries.
The peanut farm had no indoor plumbing. And no one wore shoes. I learned I could pull peanuts out of the ground and eat them raw – as many as I wanted. There were chickens all over the place and a few we caught, cleaned and ate for suppers. Billy had a bunch of cousins, mostly older girls. Once a week, Billy’s aunt put up a privacy sheet in a corner of the kitchen and each of us kids took a bath in a big metal tub. The oldest went first, followed by each child, in descending age. By the time it was my turn, the water was cool and mud brown. I loved it. I loved it all.
The hardest part of that summer was getting used to going barefoot. I had always been a sock-and-shoe guy, and the bottoms of my feet were soft and pink. The Louisiana ground was hot, especially at midday, and there were little stones and stickers hiding out in the sandy dirt.
All the boys and girls jumped around and played as if they had thick leather pads on their soles. But not me. Pain shot through my feet and up my legs each time I ventured outside. My feet blistered and swelled, but lacing up a pair of shoes was not an option. I wanted to be a member of the impervious “peanut patrol.”
Last year, I talked to Billy on the phone. He asked if my soles had toughened up. We laughed, but his question got me thinking about how life works out, how our bodies and emotions adjust based on what we experience.
Early on, I was saved from most of life’s stickers and stones. I had loving parents and older siblings. I lived in a nice little town. I was protected, and soft on both the outside and inside. For me, part of growing up included toughening up. My rough patches came later in life, and, for the most part, they were self-inflicted.
It’s a tiny example, but I still think about being a tenderfoot in Louisiana and fighting off the tears so I could stay shoeless and play with all of Billy’s cousins. My mother would have made me wear sneakers, but on my own, I had to fend for myself. Maybe that tiny experience helped me later, in some indescribable way, when I needed a bit of courage to get out of a jam.
I’m sure many of you have faced situations as parents and caregivers when you are uncertain when, or to what degree, you should step in and safeguard someone from difficult circumstances. Is it best to do all you can to protect people? Or is it best to expose them to challenges that force them to toughen up and work things out on their own?
If you have learned a helpful rule to follow, I’d love to hear it.