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Hiking with a Child

Lessons in finding balance and focusing on the journey, not the destination

With the fall equinox on September 22, autumn is officially in full swing. Depending on where you live, the nights might be noticeably cooler, the trees might be drenched with crimson, copper, and gold, or you may be harvesting your garden’s bounty. Now that the sun and air aren’t so scorching-- unless you’re still experiencing wildfires—getting out for a hike might be on your to-do list.

This blogpost is inspired by a friend who posted on Facebook about her preschooler: So, hiking with Madeline today, I vacillated between being annoyed at the painfully slow pace as she had to stop and play with every rock, stick, flower, etc. and feeling guilty about being annoyed and just letting her dawdle and play. Part of me wants to train her to actually hike, stopping along the way occasionally to explore, and part of me feels bad about rushing her along. Any thoughts to share?

She got a range of valid responses, from “push her somewhat” to “follow her lead”. What would you advise?

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The first thoughts that pop into my head are it depends on the child and it depends on your goal.

Regarding the child, you might consider temperament, interests, and developmental level.

TEMPERAMENT: When you’re out and about, does she like running ahead or dawdling behind? Does he do well with unfamiliar situations or is he naturally cautious? Hiking requires exploration, energy, a sense of adventure, tolerance for being uncomfortable. If you have a cautious, sensitive, intense, and/or focused and persistent child, you may come up against, “It’s too hot/cold/steep/boring/tiring.” (Translation, “I don’t like being uncomfortable.”) Or “I HATE this trail.” (Translation: I’ve never done this before so I’m going to assume that I’m going to have a miserable time!)  Or, “No!” (Translation: I’m so focused on what’s capturing my attention that you can’t distract me or make some stupid game out of fulfilling your own agenda.) Some kids are so easy and agreeable, you can say, “Hey, I bet I can beat you to the top of that hill!” and they’ll take the bait, happily. Other kids are so set on their own agendas that you have to decide whether or not this is a battle worth fighting, or as my sister often says, “Is this a hill I’m willing to die on?”

INTERESTS: What is your child into these days? Does she enjoy being outside, or does she gravitate toward indoor activities? Are he and his fire truck inseparable? Does she enjoy hanging out with friends? Whatever your answers to these questions, simply arm yourself with these insights and plan accordingly. For example, if she’d rather color, bring crayons and a sketchbook and do some nature drawings (you too!) Fire trucks can travel, and you can suggest which spots are good for wheels on the ground, and yes, fire trucks can fly if you use your imagination. Bring along a friend, which can boost your child’s energy and cooperative spirit.

DEVELOPMENTAL LEVEL: Here’s where your own realistic expectations come into play. Even though to you, your kid is a big, mature, active, and capable child (which is true if you were to compare this stage to the newborn period, which we ALL do), it’s important to keep perspective. Even teenagers can’t always keep up with adults, physically, emotionally, or mentally. Just because your four-year-old can run circles around you in the backyard doesn’t mean he’ll race you up a mountainside. Compare their little legs to yours. ‘Nuf said.

Regarding your GOAL, you might think it through. What is most important to you? Do you need to make it to a certain destination by a certain time? Perhaps you’re hiking to a campsite, or you want to arrive at the waterfall by a certain time so you can make it back to the car before dark. These are legitimate goals, and again, you might have a kid who’s willing or able to go along with that plan. But if it’ll be a battle, what’s the point in that? Adjust your goals to fit both of you. After all, if you had a friend with allergies, you wouldn’t insist that you all go on a hayride. Have the same respect for your child’s strengths and challenges as you plan the outing. That’s not to say that you can’t encourage a child to stretch and take a risk. But that’s where baby steps come in. Don’t insist on climbing to the mountain top the first time out. And don’t fall into the trap of my parents made us march, so, that’s what parents do! You don’t have to do to your kids what was done to you--- even if you still wonder if it’s “character-building.” There are better ways to build character, like modeling consideration and respect for the child’s abilities, needs, and preferences. The world will mete out plenty of trials and tribulations without parents gratuitously adding to the adversity in the name of building character. What makes children resilient is at least one adult who is a source of comfort, calm, responsiveness, respect, and encouragement. Be one of those adults.

In short, depending on your child, be prepared to charge up the mountain or sit by a stream. Depending on your goals, adjust to what’s realistic. By being attuned to your child’s needs and balancing them with your own, you can both enjoy the journey.

Alas the comment box on Facebook doesn’t invite a dissertation. So here’s my succinct FB summary:

Years ago, I read an article in the Crested Butte rag, a writer/mom telling the story of her "hike" with a toddler, and it really is a lesson in stopping to smell the roses. After an hour, she could still see the parking lot, but she reveled in exploring nature like a kid again. It's all a matter of perspective. The question is, do you want to train her to hike or teach her to enjoy being out in nature... with her parent. Also remember, she's still a tiny child. You have years ahead of you for awesome hikes with her. As her legs get longer and her horizons expand, she'll get more interested in the forest than each tree, and her explorations will take her and you much farther. Still, I totally get the destination thing... so that's what adult time is for. And if you really want to get to a particular place by a particular time with her, make it into a game that compels her forward, or pop her into a backpack, which still counts as hiking. :) First and foremost, my goal is always to enjoy. Another rule of thumb: work with your child instead of against her. Go with the flow. Follow the path of least resistance. Oh, and breathe deeply.

Postscript: Madeline and her mama are meeting in the middle, with plenty of free exploration and time in the backpack, and they are both enjoying the journey.

Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and author of 6 books, including one about perinatal hospice titled A Gift of Time.

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