Could It Be This Simple?

One of my running buddies has had the unmitigated temerity to suggest that my parenting philosophy can be summed up in the simplistic phrase, "Take your kids camping." So I feel it is high time to amend my advice-honed over 30 years of counseling families-by adding another phrase: "Take your kids hiking too."

Of course my critical running buddy would have to be one of the most respected psychologists in the Southeastern United States. He writes books, gives lectures, serves on panels, and was president of his professional association. Charles knows Freudian psycho-dynamics like the back of his hand and, unlike this author, can tell you the difference between Carl Jung, Alfred Adler and Otto Rank without having to go to Wikipedia. Charles has as many letters after his name as I have letters in my name. So I listen when he says that good parenting can't be as straight forward as just going hiking and camping with the kids.

Still, I wasn't thinking about Charles at all on a recent, chilly February when my kids and I and some other parents and their kids came to a river, the same river we felt strongly that we had crossed twice previously in the past hour as we zigged and zagged our way up a--and I use the term loosely--"trail". We had been repeatedly "canyoned out", that is to say the slot canyon became particularly slotty, impassable actually.  

With no way up and over, we had taken off our shoes and sprinted through the 15 inches of frigid water across the 12-foot stream. But this time we wanted to keep our feet dry and remain on speaking terms with our toes who, we felt certain, might mutiny at any time.

So we built a make-shift "bridge." The kids grabbed fallen trees and threw them across the stream. Ten logs and ten minutes later, we were able to cross the river like Flying Walendas, our toes snug, dry, and warm in our cozy shoes. As great construction projects go, the pyramid at Giza has nothing to worry about.

Nobody said anything about our structure. There was nothing that needed to be said. But look at what was communicated without words: "That's my dad," the kids think. "He's the guy who solves problems with me; he's the guy who trusts me to come up with solutions; he's the guy who would rather be hiking with me than in his office or on his phone; my dad is the guy who gives me a hand and pulls me up on shore." And for the kid who slipped off our makeshift edifice and got wet up to his knees: "that's the guy who helps me get the dirt out from between my toes then gives me his dry socks when my feel are cold."

Are your kids thinking something else? Instead of the above, are they thinking, "That's my dad. That's the guy who is always telling me to do my homework. That's the guy who would rather return an email than take me hiking in the slot canyons by the river."

Dashill Hamnett has Sydney Greenstreet get it right portraying the villainous Casper Gutman in "The Maltese Falcon." Gutman has promised Humphery Bogart $25,000 (maybe a quarter million in today's dollars) for the stolen, jewel-encrusted statue. But Gutman hands the hardened detective only ten thousand dollars instead.

Sam Spade: We were talkin' about a lot more money than this.

Casper Gutman: Yes, sir, we were. But this is genuine coin of the realm. With a dollar of this you can buy ten of talk.

You can talk all you want about how much you love your kids, how you would do anything for them, how they are the most important thing in the world to you. But it's one thing to talk the talk. It's another thing altogether to hike the hike and give your dry socks to your kid with wet feet.

It would be naïve to suggest that psychological interventions are never necessary and that the only secret of bringing up contented children who get along with their parents and do well in school is to take them for walks in the woods. Maybe over the next 30 years of my professional practice, I will add another sentence to "Take your kids camping; take your kids on a hike." In the meantime, I'm going to ask my buddy Charles how many of the kids he sees in his office spent a lot of time camping and hiking with their parents.

4 thoughts on “Could It Be This Simple?

  1. Kevin Kelly

    Great post David and good opportunity to mention the related 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv. Nature deficit disorder is more urgent than ever for all of us.

  2. Henry Demond

    My wife took our 12-year-old son on a hike across England—the Coast-to-Coast—last May, and I cannot measure the value of the experience for the both of them. I frequently take both of my boys on (shorter) hikes, and their awakened senses of discipline and comity are appreciated when conflict or problem-solving occurs on other roads.

  3. David Altshuler

    Thank you, Matthew, Kevin, and Henry.
    When you talk to families with grown children and ask what they remember from those brilliant, glowing years when the kids were little, the answers aren’t all that surprising. No one talks about a homework assignment or even an athletic victory or academic achievement. The memories are all about the camping trips, the times when the kids and the parents all hung out together with no agenda.

    No surprise there, I guess.




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