If I could offer a piece of advice to parents of little ones, it would be this: don't forget to think about parenting beyond the now.
I know that feeding schedules and potty training, and getting that afternoon nap nailed down are hugely important. And I know you want your little ones to be healthy, adventurous eaters, and to learn how to share, and to say their ABCs. But I want to remind you that those things will happen and then you'll have the whole rest of their lives to be their parents. What will you do with that time? You'll want to have already built relationship with them. You'll want to have made heart connections with them.
Now is the time to start thinking about how you will make those connections. You need to plan for the future by creating space and time for relationship building now. One of the simplest ways I've found to do this is by hiking with my kids.
My kids and I hike together every single week, often more than once. And while our hikes are partly about having fun, getting exercise, being with our friends, and taking our learning into the great outdoors, they are also an intentional part of my parenting. Hiking is time I spend making heart connections with my kids.
What I found early on in my parenting journey is that hiking provides space for talking. As we walk together on a trail, our bodies are busy and there is so much to see and be excited about together. There is actually time for talking when we're hiking, because there are so few distractions on the trail. That is a precious commodity in our busy world. All these things open the door for different kinds of conversation to come easily and naturally.
Beyond talking, hiking also provides a simple, beautiful way for us to just be together. There is something very intimate about having nothing else to do but pick up shells, point out birds, admire trees, and share the thrill of finding a really awesome bug or snake. As we walk, there is a lot of, "hey Mom!" as each of them falls in step beside me and tells me all the different things on their mind. Someone often walks up beside me and slips their hand into mine. For the ones that think they are past the hand holding stage, I make a point of ruffling their hair, of hugging them, of looking into their eyes and saying, "I love to be with you." No one is plugged into anything but the world around us and into each other. It's a precious, sweet time, and one I value and protect fiercely.
The older my kids get, the more I recognize the critical importance of this ritual we have made together. It is my prayer that as they become teenagers and young adults they won't feel awkward talking with me in this way because we've been doing it since they were small. It's not forced or uncomrfortable because we aren't going somewhere "just to talk". Instead we 're on the trail already, for the sheer pleasure that hiking and being out in nature brings us. The conversations and heart connections that happen as a result are simply the natural overflow of our time together on the trail.
Like I said, it's such a simple solution. But for me it's already proved to be profoundly wonderful and valuable for my family.
Now keep in mind, none of this just happened. This has been an intentional part of my parenting journey. When my kids were little I made hiking a priority. I worked hard to cultivate a love for hiking in each one of them. Because that is a huge part of this equation! I wanted my kids to love hiking so that they'd actually want to hike with me as they grew up. And I believed that if I started hiking with them when they were little, I’d normalize it and it would become a beloved part of our family life.
Thus far, that has proven to be true. And I don’t see their love of hiking dimming in any way. On the contrary, it just keeps growing. They have their eyes set on bigger and better hikes. They want to climb to the top of the mountains we’ve only hiked part way up. They want to go on overnight backpacking trips. They want to hike the Alps! And I want to do all those things right along side them, talking, connecting and building relationship with them along the way.
Here are some practical ways I’ve cultivated a love of hiking with my kids, and how you can too.
Make hiking a priority. That means setting aside time every week or at least every month to hike. It might mean giving up a Saturday morning to hike as a family, or choosing a mid week hike instead of another activity or class. Your kids will never love to hike if they never do it.
Make hiking fun. Don’t ever make the hike about getting in the miles. Stop and play in a creek. Collect shells and rocks. Climb trees. Watch butterflies. Look for lizards. Admire wildflowers. Bring along field guides to help you identify the flora and fauna you see. Bring art supplies to draw them if that’s something your kids would enjoy. When a hike is about enjoying and experiencing nature it becomes more enjoyable when little legs get tired.
Start with short, doable hikes. When your kids are very small, don’t try to hike 8 miles or climb a mountain. You’ll end up carrying them and they won’t be experiencing the joy of hiking on their own two feet. Instead, go to a nature center, with flat, marked trails, and let them hike at their own pace. As they grow older and stronger, add mileage onto your hikes. They’ll get better and better at hiking and you’ll all love it more.
Pack good snacks and extra water. This is key to a great hike! I like to make sure that I have some of my kids’ favorite snacks on hand. They all pack their own backpacks with their own snacks and then I carry a small cooler bag with meat and cheese for sandwiches. I have a baguette strapped to my pack, and always have an extra water bottle inside. I also bring a special treat, a few cookies, a chocolate bar or even gum, for when kiddos are tired at the end of a long hike. Having good eats make a hike even more of a special adventure.
Bring friends on a hike. I make a point to hike with our friends and without. Because hiking with only my kids provides opportunity for lots of one on one talks and relationship building. But hiking with friends allows relationship building to happen between my kids and their buddies. And even for me and their friends. I love having time to talk and connect with my kids’ friends. I want to know those little people too. Besides, hiking with friends makes those long, hard hikes a lot more fun. I know my kids will go further with their buddies and surprise themselves by what they can do. Also, it’s fun for us mamas to hike with our friends too. Especially when we’re nervous about venturing out on the trails on our own.
Hike the best trails. This may seem like and obvious one, but its not really. Often we stick to the trails that are easy, safe, or close to home. But if we search out that trails with the beautiful waterfalls, or the amazing wildflower bloom, the incredible views, or the best climbing tree, we keep making hiking fun and exciting. We’ll keep them wanting more.
There are lots of different ways for my children to spend their time. It seems like much of the world around me is telling me to enroll my kids in classes and sports and activities. But I notice that most of these things are pulling my kids away from me rather than toward me. I want more than anything to keep my kids close, both now and as they grow up. Building relationship with them matters so much more to me than them being in all the “right” activities. So we’ll keep hitting the trail and making those heart connections along the way. I love this verse as a reminder to treasure what is really important: "But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Matthew 6:20-21
If you are a parent of young kiddos, or older ones, figure out ways to draw your children to you and how to keep them near as they grow up. Don't fall prey to the assumption that they'll drift toward their friends as soon as they become a pre-teen. That doesn't have to be your story. But remember, if you want to write another story, you actually have to write it. Otherwise, it might write itself and you might not like the direction its going. So make a plan! Get out on the trail, or start doing that thing that will bring your family together now and in the years to come. I mean, I'm planning on hiking with my grandkids. I've got this story written for many chapters to come!