how to take a hike with kids
We’re driving up to the mountains. I’m aardvarking up the last dregs of an iced mocha, determined to extract any remaining particles of caffeine and sugar. Rose is sighing heavily between interrogating us on the exact plans. She seems to be mistaking innocuous words like “hike” and “picnic” for something sinister. “So, we’re gonna hike? How far? What’s in this picnic?” Heavy sigh. Col has fortressed himself behind the fifth book in the Heroes of Olympus series and is utterly unreachable.
And it’s my birthday. I’ve requested that we take a short hike up to a mountain spring, have a campfire and picnic dinner. The kids are miserable about this plan. They want to know if we can leave them with friends, if we can skip the actual hike, if we can eat in view of the car.
I understand this. Truly I do. My kids love being outside, they love exploring and playing and tinkering in nature. They don’t love hiking. It doesn’t feel playful or fun. They could exert 500X more energy on the trampoline/soccer field and hardly notice, but a 1/4 mile walk can feel like I’m dragging them uphill naked through the thistles. Plus, it’s always suspiciously our idea.
Dan and I get many needs met through hiking: connection, exercise, meaning, relaxation, learning, participation in the beauty, harmony and order of nature. The kids? They want fun! Play! Laughter! They get nervous about the unknown: how far are we going? How hard will the hiking be? How hot? How cold? Mosquitos!
And yet, after approximately 103 hikes with these kids, we’ve noticed something. The kids always eventually have fun. If we can help them release their fears and judgments they can relax and come alive in their wild world.
How to take a hike with aggrieved kids
- Don’t take it personally. People’s behavior always says more about them then you. The fact that my kids are not on board with my birthday plan does not mean they don’t appreciate me, or don’t see the importance of celebrating this day.
- Don’t catastrophize. Because my kids
aren’t excited aboutwould rather clean the toilet than go hiking doesn’t mean that they’ll turn out to be nature-phobic adults who hysterically call exterminators when an insect crawls across their kitchen.
- Look for feelings and needs and empathize. “I know hiking doesn’t sound fun. It sounds hard and long. You don’t like all the unknown. You wish you had more choice in our activity. I can totally understand that.”
- Offer information. “This is the plan I’ve chosen my birthday. It means so much to me to be in the woods with all of you. There will be chocolate.”
- Remember kids may be acting childish because they’re children. If your child is showing her displeasure in an immature way, it’s likely because she is a child. Maybe she fears she won’t be heard unless she whines, threatens and criticizes. Try not to make the whining or criticism the problem (It has more to do with her immature pre-frontal cortex than any true disrespect of you, see #1). Use every opportunity to model the way you want to be spoken to and treated.
- Employ self empathy. If you can identify and take ownership for your feelings, you are less likely to get stuck in blame and judgment of others. As we were hiking on my birthday and the kids were drooping and complaining, I felt frustrated and disappointed. When I gave myself care for that, I stayed out of judgment of their actions.
The hike is entirely uphill and requires a lot of stopping, literal hand-holding, and goofy hijinks to keep moods elevated. I spend much time running through steps 1-6 while practicing my childbirth breathing. As we climb higher, the views open up onto neighboring peaks. Wildflowers pop into focus and aspens sway in the wind. We arrive at the spring a full hour later. The kids immediately shed shoes and pants and get down to business. Rose cartwheels around the small pond, singing a medley of Taylor Swift songs, while Col gathers materials to build a dam.
Dan makes a fire, pulls out a surprise birthday beer, and grills a gorgeous deer backstrap studded with chopped garlic. The kids discover caddisfly pupae encased in DIY shells. They create a target practice course, nailing sticks with propelled rocks. Dan and I take in the moment, the shimmery aspens, the elk tracks crowding the pond, and the kids, happy and engaged. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” Dan says, “if tonight, as we’re tucking the kids in, they tell us that they were actually glad they came.”
We pull the kids from their target practice course to eat dinner. We all exclaim over the perfection of the meat, crisp on the outside and tooth-tender rare on the inside. The sun slides west, mingling with the aspen canopy. Swallows dip and dive. With meaty juices painting her chin, Rose announces, “I’m actually glad we came here.” Col nods. “Yeah. Me too. It was a hard hike, but I can’t really remember that anymore.”
Dan and I smile at each other. There’s a lot of things I could say, some of which involve cussing. I discard the told-you-so, the mini lecture, the if-only, and say, “I’m really happy to be here with you all. This is exactly what I wanted.” And it’s exactly true.