Hiking is Overrated

My kids were young when we first moved to Montana. I was thrilled at the prospect of getting them out of the city and into the woods. I read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods (an excellent read for city-dwelling parents to feel completely inadequate, on a side note); and, I made preparations for teaching my children all about the outdoors. I dug out my Girl Scout manuals and reviewed knot-tying, how to work a compass, and even dusted off my hiking boots. I was ready to show my children just how beautiful the natural world could be. 

On our third day in Montana, we ventured out for our first hike. Lone Pine State Park was a quick trip from our new digs in Kalispell and it seemed harmless enough for my kids’ first hike. Joe had just turned four, Stella and Ricky were 5, and Ted was 7. Easy peasy. This short hike would be the beginning of a new life in The Great Outdoors! 

Six hours, twelve bandaids, one bee sting, and four crying kids later, I began to rethink my grand plans.

I tried again a few days later and then once more just to be sure. It became evident that my children did not like hiking. They didn’t like trails, learning about trees, leaves, water sources, or anything involving dirt. I gave up and decided to look again at the library hours and then perhaps a trip to the movie theatre, and I sent the kids into the yard to play. 

Sometime thereafter, Stella and Ricky ran into the house asking for sandwiches and some string or rope or something to tie sticks. I obliged and sent them on their way. But curiosity led me to follow them. What on earth were they doing?

I followed them behind the condo, through the empty field, into a stand of trees. Lo and behold, they built a fort. Sticks, rocks, branches – everything they could find. They worked together, they learned to tie knots, they figured out which branches were stronger and which could be easily bent and tied together. Best of all, they were laughing.

Experts agree that play is an important part of child development. They weigh in often about the appropriate and inappropriate amount of screen time, as well as how and when children should be engaged in various forms of exercise. But what few experts talk about openly is the importance of “free play” for children. This is particularly important when it comes to playing in the outdoors. Play is critical. 

Play fosters creativity, social interactions, and forces children to discover the natural consequences of actions. There was a failure-success experience for my children when they figured out how to tie together the branches to form a make-shift doorway on their fort. Play is so important that the American Academy of Pediatrics says that it is “essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them to manage stress and become resilient.” 

Experts also agree that outdoor activities are essential to connect our children to the natural world. A connection with nature as a young child gives a sense of belonging in the world and gives reference to education in the natural sciences, physics, math, and the like. But just like a playground offers a different outdoor experience than an open field, a directed hike through the woods deprives children of the opportunity and responsibility to use their own senses, reflections, and intellect to engage with the world. 

So what does that mean for us Montana parents who want to share the outdoors with their children? Nothing. Keep doing what you are doing. But in the back of your mind, remind yourself how you discovered what you know now about rocks and trees and leaves and dirt and animals. Remind yourself how you learned to climb a tree, skip rocks, and make forts. Was it because your mother showed you? Or was it your brother? Your cousin? Your friend?

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Yes, I want my children to eventually learn the beauty of the natural world – mountains, rivers, trails, trees, insects, plants, animal tracks, and more. But the most important skill I want them to learn is how to discover – the world and themselves.

Then maybe I will have done my job.

The Best Job Ever That You Would Reconsider If You Only Knew…

Joe was an awful baby. He cried when I wanted him to sleep. He slept when I needed him to wake. He only smiled when no one was around. And often he would squish his face in disgust when anyone walked into the room. He never ate. When he did eat, it came right back up. In desperation, I weaned him off of the boob and onto food only to be told that we had to go back to breast-feeding a month later. What troubled me most of all about Joe was that I had no idea what I was doing. I was defeated. He was my fourth kid – it should have been a cakewalk. Yet, I felt hopeless, helpless, and deeply inadequate as a mother.

To make a long story shorter, I eventually figured it all out. Thanks to our beloved Dr. Lisa, I realized that I knew nothing. She taught me that raising children is a combination of learning to juggle fiery knives and trying to predict the weather in Kansas from within an Alaskan cave… while knitting socks for elephants… and humming the Ave Maria. The only thing that I could do is learn to listen to my babies and give them what they needed – not necessarily what I decided. As babies, my children were not exactly good communicators. But, I learned to hear their cries, giggles, coos, and translate accordingly. As toddlers, I learned to interpret the whining and No! into requests for food, sleep, and cuddles.

Now as kids and – yikes! – teens, these little people have the same needs but a different language. They are more capable of doing for themselves and actually have responsibilities and society. While I can certainly call the school and gear up my “Helicopter Mama” ways, I know that it doesn’t help them to learn to live in this world. Instead, I have to teach them to be independent and free to discover the realities of the world. Even if those realities are sometimes harsh and less forgiving that we want our children to experience. Since then, I’ve discovered there are varying degrees of allowing children to experience the world. The best practice I’ve found as a parent is to equip them for success and allow them to fail.

“The environment itself will teach the child, if every error he makes is manifest to him, without the intervention of a parent or teacher, who should remain quiet observer of all that happens.” – Dr. Maria Montessori

How this plays out in daily life is the reason that a Mother’s job is so challenging. Here are my best tips:

1. Assign Responsibility. In our house, everyone is responsible for their own “stuff”. Clothes, toys, books, homework, pets, etc. However, everyone has a checklist for what needs to be done on a daily or weekly basis. No one is above a checklist.

2. Teach. Don’t assume that everyone knows how to unload a dishwasher, fold a towel, or even feed the dog. If you expect your kids to take responsibility, at least give them an opportunity to learn how to do the task. Not only will they be equipped to meet your expectation, but they will be proud to have followed your lead.

3. Reward. Let’s be clear. Sometimes the reward for doing something is that you don’t have to suffer the consequence of NOT doing it. Whether or not you decide to pass out ice cream cones or just give a big hug should always depend on the situation, the task, AND the kid! (Joe is often given a simple “Good job! It looks nice,” for making his bed and Ted often gets a ticker-tape parade for doing the same!)

In the end, my job is to do the best job I can to grow good people. The task is always daunting and never easier than it seems. But the rewards are unmatched.