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Kids & The Outdoors… Can Suck.

Posted Mar 11 2011 7:40am
My son turned ten just the other day
He said, “Thanks for the ball, Dad, come on let’s play
Can you teach me to throw”, I said “Not today
I got a lot to do”, he said, “That’s ok”
– Harry Chapin

I was reading a post from a fellow paddle blogger this morning about a kayak trip with his kids.  It looked like a great time.  In fact we often read about parents taking their kids out on paddling / camping trips and having the most wonderful and memorable trips of their lifetime.  That’s nice.  Really.  Thing is.. sometimes it sucks.

I’ll never walk around the kitchen with a “World’s Greatest Dad” mug in one hand and a copy of “Parenting Monthly” in the other.  I never went on camping trips or canoeing with “dear old dad” when I was a kid.  I never wore plaid, portaged a canoe, or made flapjacks on a wood fire.  Not everyone in Wisconsin does actually.  Some of us are urban types from screwed up backgrounds that had to figure out parenting on our own. What sucks is, that almost everything you ever read is way too much Flanders in a Simpson’s world .  My kids were never all that into the outdoors.

With my older kids it made sense.  I wasn’t into the outdoors when they were young, so they had no grounding in it.  We were too freaking poor for the Norman Rockwell lifestyle.  Back then, the “outdoor life” meant walking across town in January for a half gallon of milk because your car had a flat tire and a dead battery (Not to mention digging change out of an ashtray to buy it!).  Later, we learned to buy state park stickers because for $15 we always had something we could do. (THAT was an epiphany by the way…) Oh, then I started to actually make a living which meant a few years of consumer gluttony to make up for all the years of poverty. TVs, DVDs, game consoles, toys, house stuff…. In the end, we never really worked out the whole Outdoor thing.

Now with my 10 year old, things have always been different.  We’ve had the stability and I’ve been paddling now since he was very young.  Thing is, he never liked it.  He didn’t like water.  Didn’t like boats.  Didn’t like camping.  The outdoor life seemed to him like we were punishing him. It’s too hard! Nature is soooo boring!

To be real, I did get some games going. I found some things he did enjoy.  Still there was never enough to keep him from putting on the long face and just the mention of a hike or paddle.  For a parent who loves the outdoor life, nothing can be more disappointing than having to drag your kids along.  You start wondering why you should bother at all.  You start feeling a bit of green envy toward all those perfect parents with perfect little nature scout kiddies.  Ugh.

Well there is hope, even if none of the published advice from picture perfect outdoor parents seems to work. Don’t get too worried if all the tips about tiny paddles, waterproof toy containers, favorite snacks & books become exercises in futility.  We’re not all super dads & moms.  Our kids don’t always “get with the program”.  Still, there’s no reason to give up. Sometimes the answer is simply time itself.  Some kids just need to grow into it.  They need to find their own place in the outdoor world.  For my son, the hikes never got better because of “nature”.  It was not about the birds, trees or a fascination with the environment.. Frankly, he didn’t care. No, it was about Super Mario.

It should have been obvious to me, that for my son, I had to bring HIS world outside. He loved Super Mario. He loved imagining video games. (Still does.) That was where our victory came.  I should mention that his eyesight is not very good and he has some focus issues as well.  The combination makes it very hard for him to experience the environment in a other children might.  He goes internal very quickly.  So instead of spending too much time taking in the “outdoor” world, we chased the evil Bowser through an imaginary world. The trails were created by Bowser’s evil minions to slow us down, every step another challenge.  But we beat him every time! (We also made it through a tough hike… but that’s a secret.)  I made up another game, a weird sort of follow-the-leader, where we would run the trails then suddenly jump onto rocks along the way and strike all sorts of poses, like plastic people atop trophies: Running Guy, Victory Guy, Statue, etc.. In the end that was a break-through.  Video games as the doorway to imagination, as the doorway to nature…

Paddling was a struggle as well. He hated it.  I mean, we’re doing it all the time.  It’s like washing dishes or mowing the lawn.  It’s just something that we do.  So for the longest time, Gryphon simply wanted to find a beach and go play.  Suddenly though, last year, at age 9 he got a real grasp on boat control.  What’s more, he learned he loved playing all the crazy balance games I play on my kayak. Standing, sitting, head stands and the like.  That turned the kayak into a beach toy.  By the fall we had moved on to rescues and the like.  Why?  Well, he simply matured enough to find his place in paddling.  Time was the answer there.

I guess the moral of this post is that if your kids meet the outdoors with “Meh.”, don’t get too discouraged.  Don’t beat yourself up, and don’t drive yourself crazy thinking you’re just a sucky parent.  Just keep doing what you’re doing.  Pat yourself on the back for spending a lot of time with your kids outdoors and accept that we’re not all wonder parents.  Chances are, the fact that you just spend time with your kids will get you there… eventually.

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