Learning From My Outdoor Parenting Mistakes

Last May, we made a bad parenting mistake. We let our younger son ride The Ribbon. The Ribbon is a gorgeous expanse of slickrock high above our valley which connects to a series of singletrack trails ending near our home. Our older son loves this ride and he was pretty sure his brother would love it too. Dad was enthusiastic and so without a second thought, I drove them to the trailhead and dropped them off.

Hours later, I got a call informing me that they were delayed (I already had guessed that). Our younger son had taken a fall, which resulted in his bike going over a low cliff and him scraping along the sandstone (this, I hadn't guessed). He was mightily scared, but he got back up and finished the ride, swearing that he would never again mountain bike. He has been mountain biking exactly two times since that escapade -- under duress and with loud recriminations directed toward us, his bad parents. Our formerly enthusiastic fat tire cyclist now says that mountain biking is "stupid" and wants nothing to do with it. So much for family mountain biking.

Parenting and Mistakes Go Hand-in-Hand

Like most parents, my husband and I are sometimes overwhelmed by the parenting "mistakes" we've made: Words we've said, threats we've levied and teaching opportunities we've let slip by. Parenting requires quick thinking and quicker reflexes, but also discretion and patience. These attributes never seem to fire all at once and so we make mistakes. Our only hope is that our kids are resilient and none of the mistakes we make are long-lasting (yes, we are fooling ourselves).

Unfortunately, some of our worst mistakes have been related to the activities we love the most: Biking, hiking and being outdoors.

We've been lucky with skiing. I think because we started our kids so young, we recognized that we couldn't push them. We let them set the pace and they did. We let them take the lead and they did. We let them grow to love the sport on their own and they did. Too bad we didn't learn from our success.

Here's what we've learned from our mistakes.

1. Know Your Goal. For many outdoor parents, the goal is to instill a love of the outdoors in their children and to enjoy outdoor activities together. This is a great goal and most kids take to the outdoors naturally. What they don't take to naturally are pushy parents, who after years of pent up desire, have unrealistic expectations for what kids can and will do. Remember, it only takes one frightening hiking experience to bring an end to family hiking. Don't highjack your own goal.

2. Don't Push Too Hard, Too Fast. Recent media debates over Chinese mothers and pushy parents notwithstanding, outdoors is not the place to get your kids in over their heads. Introduce them to your favorite activities, but choose trails and activities appropriate to their ages and abilities. Think babysteps, not Ironman.

If your children express discomfort or fear of an activity, stop. Let them rest and talk about what's bothering them. If they are frightened, don't push them. Don't berate them, don't cajole them, don't bribe them in hopes of getting them to "finish" the hike or ride. Finishing the activity under duress won't make your child want to do it again. Fear, stemming from a bad experience, is a huge obstacle to overcome. Don't go there.

3. Listen To Your Kids. Give them options and listen to them. How far do they want to go? Do they want to take this trail or this other trail? Let them take the lead. Look for things along the trail that interest them. Maybe you can help them find some cool rocks or fossils or beautiful flowers. Get them involved in planning and executing the outing and it will be a success.

4. Know Yourself. My husband and I are goal-oriented and we usually don't want to stop until we've completed the trail, climb or whatever. We want to log those miles, usually at a record pace, while achieving some level of cardio-fitness. We also enjoy being outside together as a family. The problems arise when our adult-goals don't mesh with the kid-goals. If we want a strenuous workout, chances are we shouldn't bring the kids along. There are times to be an outdoor family and there are times to be outdoor adults. As our children have gotten older, these times seem to coincide more and more. For this, we are thankful.

5. Set Them Up For Success. One of my goals in teaching my kids to ski was to ensure that they grew in confidence each day. I did this by (mostly) keeping my mouth shut and letting them progress according to their own desires. When they told me they wanted to ski a black diamond run, I let them. But I often chose the black diamond run that I thought would be most conducive to success. I never wanted to say "No, you can't do that," or transfer any fear to them, so I took their lead and structured it for the best possible outcome.

When my son said he wanted to ride The Ribbon, I could have suggested he go alone with his father, so that they could go at a slower pace. With no pressure from big brother, the wipeout might have been avoided and the ride might have been a huge ego boost, instead of an ego-buster.

Luckily, Kids Will Forgive You

Recently I was sitting with this same son, on the eve of his birthday. I was telling him how pleased I am that he is my son and how happy we were when he was born. He was a little squirmy, maybe a little embarrassed, when suddenly he looked up at me and in verbal shorthand said, "Can't choose parents. You are good parents." Let me tell you, that was one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. Mistakes and all, he does forgive us.

Who knows what the summer will bring? Perhaps this summer, taller and stronger, our son's fears will have receded and he will climb back up onto his mountain bike. Or maybe mountain biking will never be his cup of tea.

He is going to ride his road bike in the MS 150 along the Front Range in June. It was his idea to do it this year. He asked to sign-up and I asked to stay home. I know myself and I know that this event is not conducive to me being a good outdoor parent. He'll be in good hands with his dad and his uncle.

It seems I really can learn from my mistakes.


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