What's Tony Thinking

Self-Esteem and Accomplishment


We’re back from an excellent three day, two night back-packing trip in the Eagle Cap Wilderness of the Wallowa Mountains. The wildflowers were abundant (see photo).

We were three in number, including 12-year-old grandson, Colin, myself and my good friend David Laskin. (David is a wonderful writer. If you don’t know his work, check it out. Some of my favorites are the non-fiction works The Children’s Blizzard and The Family, and his recent coming-of-age novel, What Sammy Knew. He is also a frequent contributor of travel articles to the New York Times.)

We entered the wilderness from the east side, heading to Bonny Lakes for our first night. There had been a significant fire in that area late last summer, that took more of a toll than I had expected. What had been a heavily forested trail was charred trees and, at points, a more barren landscape. Sobering. So far this year, we’ve had no fires in the area. Nor have we had wildfire smoke blowing in from fires in other parts of the west. So far, so good, but the real “fire season” is still ahead of us.

On our return, Colin was particularly joyful. While he was happy to see his grandmother and enjoy a tasty taco dinner, I think the joy had a different source. He had accomplished something. A sixteen mile hike, crossing the 8700′ Dollar Pass, making camp, camp cooking, spotting wildlife, exploring streams.

There is a correlation between accomplishment and self-esteem. Colin was fully entitled to his sense of joyful accomplishment.

Too often, self-esteem is turned into an internal psychological mandate. “You should feel good about yourself!” Or it is something that children are to gain from the positivity and praise of adults. I guess there’s something to be said for that, but actually doing something may be a surer route to a healthy self-esteem.

As I’ve mentioned, many of the kids out here in the Wallowas tend to have “jobs” at an early age. They are raising their own livestock through 4-H. They help out on the ranch or farm. They learn to ride, handle animals and to hunt. Or maybe they assist in the family business or store. So kids here often have an accomplishment-based sense of value and worth. Lot to be said for that.

That may be harder to come by in the urban and hi-tech world. Not only that, our culture has become pre-occupied with safety, protection and risk-reduction. Free-range childhood has been replaced by lots of structured and supervised activity. Unsupervised play is reduced and replaced by screens. While actual confidence-building achievement may come from the acquisition of technical skills in the digital age, it often seems less tangible and more abstract.

At any rate, Colin, like his cousins, Levi and Lila, who have also done backpacking trips with me in recent years, was a “happy camper.” And Grandpa too feels good about sharing these experiences and passing on a few skills.


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