It’s one thing to say, “I will be there for you.” Holding your six-year-old son‘s arm as he negotiates a tricky series of boulders conveys the message more emphatically. “I got you” is in real time. As you walk along these little rocks and negotiate those ginormous ones, I am right here, right now. That hand on your arm, steadying you, helping you climb safely? That is my hand, your dad.
Indeed, sometimes kids slip and fall. Especially as they clamber over smooth rocks as big as they are. Catch them. Make it a point to position yourself in such a way that the kids feel infinitely safe, secure, enveloped. They are free to explore but are unlikely to come to serious harm. This message cannot be conveyed while they are watching Netflix or playing violent video games. “I will stop returning emails and take you to the emergency room if you damage your finger changing channels on the remote” does not convey the same message as, “I thought you might slip off that boulder so I caught you.”
People talk about executive functioning issues. “Bring a pencil to class. Schedule study periods. Keep up with homework. Get to sleep before two in the morning so you will not be too tired to get out of bed or fall asleep should you manage to stumble to class.”
But the consequences of poor planning are often unforeseen. “You won’t be admitted to a good college five years from now” does not translate effectively into seventh grade world. Whereas Mother Nature is a mother. Forgot to fill up the canteen? The nearest water fountain is a dusty three-hour walk that way. Thirst is an effective metaphor, a lesson not soon forgotten.
Everything taste better in the outdoors. Everything. Even water. Especially water. Chances are, if you are reading this blog, you live in a house in which ice cubes are a thing. Whereas on a hike, ice water is an extraordinary item not easily overlooked. I have not been able to buy new cars for any of my four children. But I was often able to offer them cold drinks on hot hikes. It is hard to say which they would have preferred, the new car or the cold drink.
“Envision yourself calm and centered, in a place with no distractions. Imagine a view of the mountains.” Thus begins many a meditative yoga session. I am all in favor of both meditation and yoga. But why envision calmness and panoramas when you can just be there? A few hours of climbing over and around boulders can bring a family out to a million-dollar view of the valley.
Much is made of being between a rock and a hard place. Being between a rock and a hard place is a frequent literal occurrence when hiking. Unlike Monday through Friday 9 to 5, during a hike the space between a rock and a hard place is bursting with opportunity. You can give your son a boost over an enormous rock in the path. He can reach down and extend a hand to your daughter. Maybe you can find a path around the rock. Or you can help each other over the rocks. The possibilities are endless.
Although a buddy of mine refers to the outdoors as his “second favorite place,” children are unlikely to agree. Hiking is infinitely fascinating for little ones. Who knows? They might see a bug.
And speaking of the unexpected, you never know what you’ll find around the next curve. More boulders seem like a safe bet, another opportunity to figure out how to get from here to there. Is that a stream? If so, how do we get across? Is that Godzilla-sized boulder impassable? Let’s figure it out. Together. Now.
Your children cannot drive. They can help with grocery shopping and cooking but they cannot yet take full responsibility for planning and preparing healthy meals. They don’t have a lot of adult responsibilities because, well, they’re not adults. But on a hike, your kids can lead. You can give them complete autonomy and authority to choose the path. There are no bad choices. They can go off the path, you can get horribly lost, and be devoured by a mountain lion with no sense of humor but otherwise there are only good possibilities leading to somewhere else invigorating and pleasant. How great is that?
I have just returned from hiking a slot canyon in Southern Utah. Along the trail, I saw number of young parents with children. If any of those kids were oppositional, defiant, angry, depressed, anxious, acting out, refusing to go to school, flunking all their classes, viciously disrespectful, or addicted to Xanax, I did not perceive it. Does taking your kids on hikes ensure that they will grow up to be sober, content, high-achieving, pleasant citizens who become university presidents and pitch the seventh game of the World Series? You heard it here first.
“We were talking about a lot more money than this,” says Humphrey Bogart as detective Sam Spade to the maleficent Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon.
“Yes sir,” replies the criminal. “But this is genuine coin of the realm. With a dollar of this, you can buy ten of talk.”
Parents frequently opine that their children are the most important things in the world to them. Talk is, indeed, cheap. Take your kids hiking in the middle of nowhere. Your cell phone won’t work. You will be thoroughly focused on your children, their safety, their sense of wonder, their incredulity, their enjoyment. Your kids will perceive that daddy could be at work, could be with his friends, could be watching TV. But he’s not. He’s here on a hike with his kids. His cell phone doesn’t work. He could not check the score of the game even if he wanted to. In the woods, your children will know it’s all about them.
My last admonition about the awesomeness of hiking with your kids is silence. I’m guessing there’s no such thing as silence, not really, in your real life. Traffic noise, airplanes, refrigerator hum, leaf blowers, the woman snoring from the house down the street. No, wait a minute. The sound of a locomotive being forced into the garbage disposal is coming from my house. It’s a wonder the noise police don’t show up here on a daily basis. But the point remains: Two hours of walking over and around boulders can take you to a place where you can hear a bird sing.
I would write more, but my family and I are hiking a slot canyon in Southern Utah. My kids must be around here somewhere. It’s time for sandwiches, some ice water, and—assuming the mountain lions have developed a sense of humor—maybe even a nap. See you next Tuesday!