Getting your kids to hike hard stuff, or parental pacing duties

img_7747When I was growing up, my parents took us backpacking in the Sierras every summer. We usually base camped at a lake, and as people familiar with Sierra lakes know, many of them are in basins carved out by glaciers. This means that quite a few Sierra lakes involve a tough climb during the last mile. It wasn’t a requirement, but many of the last miles often turned into a trail of tears, with lots of “I hate hiking,” and “I can’t hike any more.” My parents weathered these (and many other) tearful storms with patience, knowing that when we eventually got to the lake, and the packs were off, my brother and I would be bouncing up and down, begging my dad to set up the fishing poles, while my parents just wanted to lie face down in the tent (preferably with a small flask). Where we had been convinced moments earlier that we could go no farther, we were clearly just fine. My parents knew that kids are not always the best judge of what they are capable of doing, and they consistently helped us rewrite our own limits. They operated in our ZPD, or, for the non-education nerds amongst us, our Zone of Proximal Development. This concept, coined by the psychologist Lev Vygotsky, is mostly used with learning, but I believe applies here as well. Your ZPD is basically what one is capable of doing with support– your zone of development plus one level more. In other words, my parents weren’t trying to get us to scale Mt. Everest– they were getting us to go further than we could have on our own. A bit further. And it clearly didn’t scar us for life. We didn’t associate backpacking or hiking with pain and suffering–both my brother and I have become huge fans of the outdoors and of the joy of physical exertion.

Since becoming a big person, I have also become an ultra runner. For many people in races of 50 miles or more, people elect to use a pacer. A pacer is someone who joins you mid-race and keeps you moving through various means of keeping you in your running ZPD– making sure you eat, making sure you don’t get off-trail, waiting for a minute if you are feeling yuck but also gently (or not-so-gently) urging you onward. The theory is that a good pacer will help you go further than you might be able to on your own. It’s not going to cause a miracle– you still have to be in shape to run the race, but with a good pacer, you can sometimes push through rough patches on the trail, much the same way a parent can help their child navigate a rough patch.

In the past few months, I have embraced the concept of parent-as-pacer. Pacers can help runners rise to challenges they thought impossible, and parents can help their children rise to challenges they did not know they could do. I believe these moments of challenge are important. I want my child to learn that she can do hard things. I want her to learn that sometimes, we think that we can’t go on any more but then it turns out that yes, we can. It just takes a little patience with the situation (or ourselves), maybe a snack, and then going on. Please note before you start calling Child Protective Services– I’m not talking about forced marches across the desert. I’m talking about being with your child while they have a mini-tantrum, wailing for someone to carry them and not carrying them. Or going back.


Trailhead to Shirley Lake.

Last June, we went up to Tahoe for part of BAFO to run this race. While that was happening, the almost-four year old and I went off to hike Shirley Lake, which was billed as an “easy to moderate” hike. This “easy to moderate” hike then suggested that you continue 1 mile up to High Camp and catch the shuttle down. I figured this would still be “moderate” hiking and thought, well, the kiddo has done 3 miles before, and if this is just a little more, and we took lots of snacks, we’d be fine.

Weeeelllll, if that hike is billed as “moderate,” I’d hate to see what “strenuous” is. In doing some more googling, post-hike, I should have yelp’d it out– the yelp reviews write things like, “wonderful, challenging trail,” or “you have to be in shape,” “Not for the weak!” Also, there was 2,100 feet of elevation gain to Shirley Lake, and another 600-800 (depending on whose Garmin you trust) up to High Camp. Yeah. So maybe I should have google’d better.

That said, this hike was a watershed moment of sorts, and I felt like my parents’ teachings coalesced with my pacing knowledge, because we managed to make it up to High Camp–the kiddo did really, really well. Don’t get me wrong– there was a meltdown at one moment but the overall combo worked. Except for the moment when we ran into another 3 year old who was being carried. That was a tough one. Fortunately, they moved on from our turtle pace.


Playing on the trail.

What happened to help this kiddo go farther than she thought possible? A few ideas, garnered from pacing + parenting:

  • Kiddo having a desired goal. Last summer, it was taking the tram down, earlier this year, it was getting a treat at the top of Mt Diablo.
  • Something special- gummy bears/M & Ms to have during the hike. When you don’t have a lot of gummy bears in your life, they can really get you through a lot.
  • Small chunks of time to make it through (15 minutes, to the next flags)
  • Being undeterred by the waves of emotion. That would be me, the parent, being undeterred by the waves of emotion. Preschoolers are generally undeterred by their own waves of emotion, once they pass. It’s everyone else who needs support. (See small flask comment, above.)
  • Having some spaciousness in our timeline. We found a snowbank to play in for a few minutes, and we sat on a rock admiring the view while hikers streamed past us.

I post this because I’ve heard a fair amount of “my kids could never do ____” and it makes me a little sad for everyone involved. We were hiking on Diablo and a solo hiker looked at the 4 year old and said, “I could never take my 6 year old out here– all he would do is complain.” I don’t pretend to know everyone’s children. Maybe it’s true that your kid would do nothing but complain for 4 hours straight. However, very few children have the commitment to complain for 4 hours straight. (And I’ve worked a lot with teenagers, a group particularly attuned to the art of complaining.) I think the truth is more along the lines of “I don’t have the patience to wait through my kid’s complaining.” If that’s true, cool. No one’s required to bind themselves to a personal sufferfest. But don’t put it on your child. Your kids CAN do a lot–probably much more than you think they can. When considering your hikes for this year, I hope you choose a hike that challenges your kiddos and maybe yourself. Breathe deep, have a snack, and keep moving.

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