A few months ago we started hiking with a new group of people. Ryan and I believe that life is better when lived in community, and that one main reason humans exist is to be in relationship with others in that community. So we put this group together. We wanted to meet others like us, and provide encouragement and support to other new parents who either like hiking or want to start hiking and bring their little ones along for the ride. Our group goes out on hikes a couple times a month. Our party spans babies and toddlers in carriers, and bigger kids who hike on their own. It’s great.
On a recent hike to an alpine lake, we had enjoyed a lakeside lunch and were hiking back down the trail when we passed an older gentleman. He may have been in his sixties. He smiled and looked directly at my toddler son Johann who was happily lounging in his carrier, then said to him “You’ve got good parents. When I was your age I was sitting on my mother’s lap while she smoked a cigarette.” We all burst out laughing. To date, this is the funniest and most unique thing anyone has ever said to my kid on a trail.
I overanalyze most things, so I couldn’t just leave it at that.
So, I’ve given a lot of thought to this gentleman’s comment. What did he really mean? Was he saying something about our generation somehow being different than the previous? No, that couldn’t be it. After all, today there are still people who smoke cigarettes while bouncing babies on their laps. And, there are people who smoke in their car with an infant in the backseat. And, we’ve all seen moms and dads pushing strollers around while smoking. (You’ll find no judgment here, but…pray tell me, why?) But, I digress.
So, it doesn’t really seem like a comment about generations. No.
Then, was his comment about geography?
With the fresh air of the Cascade Mountains and Puget Sound practically blowing through our backyard, our personal choice to get outside is an easy one. I couldn’t help but wonder if Ryan and I would have had different childhoods if we had grown up here in the Pacific Northwest, a place we both haven’t been able to get enough of and have been head-over-heels in love with ever since we moved here. The answer I’ve come up with is…probably not. We’ve met plenty of people here, our age or older, who were locally born and raised but never went hiking until recently.
Replace mountains with cornfields, and you’ll see Ryan and I in our pre-baby era a few years ago enjoying the countryside surrounding our former home in a small town in Wisconsin. We’ve accumulated many happy memories on the rivers, bike trails, and country roads that zigzag through the valleys and rolling hills of those parts.
We chose to pursue those activities. And, it’s true that not everyone enjoys the same activities we do. But, in talking with our new local acquaintances who have recently discovered the joy of hiking, I got the impression that they didn’t grow up doing these things because their parents didn’t either. When I was growing up on the other side of the world, in a crowded metropolitan city in India, to be exact, I played outside a lot. My “outdoor play” usually meant playing with neighbor kids in the parking lot of apartment buildings, or after school on my school grounds. My husband, on the other hand, grew up spending most of his playtime out in the woods surrounding his home in rural Texas, where his closest neighbor was miles away.
So, it’s not about geography either. Is it about taking advantage of good weather?
Sometimes, extreme weather makes getting outside more complicated, and less fun. The dry heat south Texas was often uncomfortable during my husband’s childhood. And, in addition to its severe heat and humidity, the coastal city of my childhood was prone to frequent cyclones and urban flooding. These things often made it impossible or very difficult for us to get outside. When I moved to Wisconsin almost a decade ago, I complained steadily through my first couple of winters there. One of those winters brought a record-breaking one-hundred-plus inches of snow by December. But our two dogs still needed to be walked. So we made the choice to spend twenty minutes suiting up in heavy snowsuits, winter boots and accessories to cover our various exposed parts just so we could get outside and endure the bone-chilling cold and icy, below-zero winds for another twenty minutes. All this, only to come home and spend twenty minutes stripping all the insulation off and promptly crashing in front of our pellet stove, dogs at our feet, trying desperately to feel our toes again. Even though I’m grateful for the mild weather of the Pacific Northwest, ironically, today it takes me about twenty minutes to get myself and my kid ready to go anywhere, even if it’s just for a stroll around the neighborhood.
So, it’s not really about what the weather is like either. To me, this comes down to individual choices.
As children, our parents shaped our choices. Ryan and I don’t remember our parents spending much time outside with us for fun, at least not in the same ways we do now. (Meaning, no hiking and such.) But, we were very lucky that they encouraged us to get outside. Heck, sometimes they even kicked us out the door to do so. They believed that outdoor play time was good for us, and so they encouraged us to use our imaginations, invent games with the neighbor kids (in my case), and to simply be outdoors no matter what our environment looked like. We are eternally grateful to our parents for shaping our choices.
Our personal hope is to take that one step further by not only encouraging our own kids to get outside, but also participating right alongside them.
Don’t lose heart if you are not the getting outside type, even if your kids are. Our parents weren’t. Because, this isn’t really about getting outside either.
Then what is this about? To me, this is about the small, daily choices we make to encourage our kids. Figuring out what the right kind of encouragement looks like will take some work. No one has it all figured out. But it is possible for me to encourage my child to pursue something even if I myself can’t participate or don’t know anything about it. It’s about small daily choices to steer our kids down a life-giving path. Small, daily choices.