A Mother’s Reflections on Sharing the Great Outdoors with Our Kids
By: Nancy Mecure East
In my humble opinion, Raising Arizona is the greatest Coen Brothers movie of all time (yes, even better than The Big Lebowski). If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it soon. We could all use more laughter right now.
In short, it’s the story of a misfit, infertile married couple who decide to kidnap a quintuplet baby from a furniture mogul and his wife because, “they’ve got more than they can handle.” When H.I., the husband, returns from the baby-napping escapade and brings Nathan Jr. to Ed, his wife, he tosses a stolen copy of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care book to her and says in earnest, “I got the instructions.”
If only kids did come with instructions, moms might lose a hell of a lot less sleep fretting over every decision we make, which may or may not send them to a therapist’s couch one day. From deciding if we should let our babies “cry it out” to letting our teens cry on our shoulder after a first love breaks their heart, parenting is a constant barrage of both decisions and acts, all with the end goal of helping to shape good and kind human beings.
As the mother of three teenagers now, my hope has always been that hiking and backpacking with them will teach some of life’s greatest lessons and serve as a springboard for an outdoor hobby that carries into adulthood. But if I’m being honest, most days I don’t feel successful. Hard, rugged trail miles, blisters, bad weather, bee stings, and the like have often reduced them to tears and statements like, “Do we have to do this again, Mom?! What’s so great about it?”
If truth be told, they have never and probably will never ask me if we can go on a hike together. It will always be the other way around. But since their mom is a one-trick pony and the primary trip planner of the family, hiking often makes up the majority of our family time spent outdoors, especially since we live in the paradise of western North Carolina with hundreds of miles of trails close by.
Don’t get me wrong, my kids enjoy the outdoors and have their own independent recreational interests, like bike riding and fishing. And whether they will admit it or not, they even have moments of joy and contentment on our hikes too.
But since my teens are mature enough now to form opinions with logic behind their statements, it’s not as easy to lure them on a hike with their favorite candy as a hiking snack or the promise of a stream to look for salamanders.
Nowadays, when they have free time, they’d rather create Tik-Tok videos, play XBox Live, or FaceTime with their friends. And once they get their driver’s license, well, good luck keeping them at home (at least when the world isn’t battling a pandemic with stay-at-home orders). Digital and social competition for the attention of teens is fierce, and that isn’t going to change. And I suppose, to some degree, the desire to start distancing themselves from their parents is a normal and healthy thing. All this is to say, I’ve lived in fear for quite awhile. I’ve worried that taking my kids on hiking and backpacking trips has affected their relationship with the natural world in a negative way rather than bolstering it. They’ve never craved these experiences like I do, and the older they get, the more openly resistant they are to the idea.
A few nights ago at dinner, as I watched them eat more food than a thru-hiker during a town stop (they are teens after all), I asked them to give their Dad and me some honest feedback about the impact hiking and backpacking has had on them, good and bad. Little did they know, I was dreading their answers, wondering if I’d ever have the gumption to plan another trip into the backcountry with them if all I heard was how much they disliked it.
Amazingly, their answers were as jaw-dropping as the first time I laid eyes on the Mont Blanc massif during our family’s grandest hiking adventure last summer. Once they realized I wasn’t trying to trap them into thru-hiking a long trail with me by admitting they sometimes have fun on hikes, they gave me the most memorable Mother’s Day gift ever with their words.
Perhaps my oldest son, Aidan, summed it up best when he told me, “Mom, you’re a hiking maniac, and I mean that as a compliment. I’ll never enjoy hiking like you do, but I understand why you like to get us out there and I think it’s a good thing, even if I don’t always act like it or want to go.”
His statement opened the door for a longer discussion, with some of the following commentary from our kids:
“It’s made me stronger mentally and physically and taught me the importance of having a good attitude when things get hard.”
“I like reaching a destination and knowing it wasn’t easy to get there and that I worked hard to achieve it.”
“I have inside conversations with myself when we’re hiking, and it’s given me lots of time to think and get problems and other stuff figured out in my head.”
“It’s taught me to respect Mother Nature.”
“I’ve gotten to go places and do things that most people never get to do. It’s worth it for the experiences we’ve had.”
“It’s made me feel smarter in school. When we went to Arches National Park and took the ranger-led hike, I learned about tardigrades, which are really cool. When we learned about them the next year in school, I felt pretty smart.”
“It puts things in perspective and I realize how small I really am in the world.”
“It makes us spend a lot of time as a family and gets me off technology.”
“I’ll make sure my own kids get exposed to outdoor hobbies one day too. I’ll start doing stuff with them as babies like y’all did with us, so they get used to the woods and aren’t scared of it.”
Of course, they didn’t hold back telling us what they don’t like either. They confessed that they will probably never choose to hike or backpack as adults (although I’m a bit dubious of that after our dinner conversation). While they have clearly gleaned everything I hoped for from our adventures, hiking just may not be their thing.
And you know what? That’s okay. If the effect of exposing them was fostering a deeper understanding of themselves and the value in protecting our public lands, while piquing their curiosity for what outdoor hobby might make them the equivalent of a “hiking maniac,” maybe my husband and I have done our jobs well after all.
As a bibliophile, my bookshelves are packed full. They are lined with everything from trail guides to novels and, yes, even an array of parenting books of different mindsets and doctrines. Like H.I. and Ed, I think we all wish we had instruction manuals as parents, and I’ve certainly sought the counsel of a few to get some pointers along the way.
Hands down, my favorite of them all is the well-known book authored by Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv wisely reminds us that, “We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children's memories, the adventures we've had together in nature will always exist.” Nearly 17 years into the biggest adventure of my life as a mom, I think I finally believe that statement applies to my experience as a parent too (whew).
So, adventuring moms, if you’re like me and constantly live in a cloud of uncertainty about whether or not taking your kids on hikes and/or backpacking trips is squashing their love for the outdoors, or if you’re a new parent and not sure if it’s worth all the extra work and energy to take them with you (because, let’s face it, the zen-like moments of hiking are fewer and further between with kids in tow), I’m here to tell you that it likely is, whether they readily admit it or not and no matter how much they, and even you, may question the choice in the moment.
This Mother’s Day, I hope you’ll join me in patting yourself on the back for being their kick-ass mom, for expending the limited energy we often have as parents to expose our kids to the natural world in a meaningful way. And, above all, enjoy the exhausting ride. I’m beginning to understand how it ends so much faster than I could have ever imagined.
Nancy lives and plays in the mountains of western North Carolina with her husband, three children, and rescue dog. She is an avid day hiker and backpacker and is passionate about her position on her county’s search and rescue team. She is a small animal veterinarian, but her focus increasingly shifts towards outdoor education, such as equipping hikers with the knowledge and skills they need to survive any unexpected ordeals in the backcountry. She is also a strong advocate for curing “nature deficit disorder” in children and leads by example, showing what’s possible in wilderness areas with kids on her family’s many adventures. Follow along with Nancy’s work at: Hope and Feather Travels.