Our family adventures gave our kids the self reliance to go on their own adventures as they became adults. When our youngest, Jenny, graduated from High School she was 18 years old and my son, Ben was already in college and was 20. The two of them and one of Ben’s friends, who had been at our house on and off for years, came to us with a plan for an adventure of their own. They wanted to take a two week driving trip to Glacier National Park, Idaho, and back through Montana and Colorado. They borrowed our Tahoe and took the GPS and mapped their route, through the national Parks and federal campgrounds and all of the sites they wanted to see. Ben was studying geology and he knew specific areas he wanted to cover. They took the cooler and did mostly camping, but occasionally stayed at a hotel for showers and better beds. They made plans for the amount of money they needed and packed everything up and off they went. They stayed in contact, so we knew they were doing well and they posted pictures frequently on Face book and Instagram, of the gorgeous campsites, mountains and streams they were seeing. They actually planned ahead and took organic shampoo and they cooked over the campfire. As parents it was a little scary, but we knew they had the skills to handle the adventure and we were proud that they had the self confidence and drive to plan and go on this adventure. Everything went well and they returned with great stories and we could tell that they had bonded and seemed even closer than before they had shared this special adventure. After they had returned, I happened to be at a neighbor’s garage sale. She had a son Jenny’s age. He was at the sale hanging out with some other friends. He asked how Jenny was doing and I said that she had just gotten back from their adventurous driving vacation out west with her brother and his friend. He was really animated and excited and said that he had seen Jenny and Ben’s pictures on Instagram and mentioned one particular one with their orange tent in the foreground and the mountains in the back. I told him they had come back with some great stories about how they had gotten lost at one time, but Jenny then found their way out of that situation by navigating, and how they had met one guy in the campground who had taught them to bake bread in a Dutch oven over a campfire. The young guy’s mother was overhearing our conversation and asked me with a look of disbelief. She said, “They went by themselves?” I told her “yes,” and repeated the details, “my son who is 20, his friend who is also 20 and Jenny who was 18.” She repeated in disbelief again, “but by themselves? I said “yes.” “With no adults?” she said. I said “No, they are all adults. Jenny is 18 and the other two are 20.” She looked at me and said insistently and in a firm tone with her forehead furrowed, “No I mean real adults.” I responded, a little confused and in a slow way, “They are real adults. “ She walked away shaking her head. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t tell this story tocriticize her as a Mom. God knows raising kids is not an easy job, we all make mistakes and there is no perfect way. But what struck me is that we try so hard to protect our children sometimes that we lose track of the reality of their age. In fact her son was also 18 and even though she felt he was not a “real” enough adult to be trusted to go on a road trip to some National Parks in the western United States, in fact he was adult enough to walk to a local recruiting office, join the military and be surviving in the deserts of the middle east and, all of that could be done without her permission. The one thing I have learned in hindsight is that our kids at every age would always live up to our expectations. When we showed confidence in their abilities, they had confidence in their own abilities and could be successful. We taught them early on that mistakes were OK and trying new things was essential, for a fun and full life.
In planning adventures for our family, we always tried to make the adventures age appropriate. I remember our first white water rafting experience. Our kids were probably between the ages of five and nine years old. We were on vacation in Idaho and the “white water” was more of a slow shallow river, as it was tailored to young families. But at their age it was exciting and the raft company did a great job of making it seem more wild and dangerous than it really was. They praised the kids for paddling hard over the “rapids” and let them hang in life jackets over the side of the raft, in the shallow area and take a little swim in the river. When the kids were teenagers, we were on vacation in Colorado and we actually went real white water rafting in the Royal Gorge. Now that was real excitement and because we started things like that when they were young, they were always game to go bigger. On vacations we always looked for new experiences and have done everything from snorkeling, skiing, scuba diving to train rides, hiking, camping, and kayaking, dancing and fossil hunting. When my son was a senior in High School and my daughter was a sophomore in High School and their older sister had just started college, we agreed to have a German foreign exchange student stay with us for the year. My Ben was 18, Lukas from Germany was 17 and my Jenny was 16. They got along great and the entire situation was perfect in hindsight. This was a fabulous experience for many reasons, but one of my fondest memories is when we took the three of them to the Florida Keys for Spring break. We rented a two bedroom condo on the beach at a resort. It had great sand beaches, nice pools and restaurants and a large pier for fishing. We brought the blender along for smoothies to save some cash and the condo had a kitchen so we could do some of the cooking for this crowd, because it seemed like they ate constantly. We had driven down so we had our vehicle and we had gone sailing, snorkeling and every evening we went to the Lorelei across the street to eat appetizers and have drinks at the sunset celebration. It was a good time. The kids always stayed up later than us sitting on the beach in front of the condo or playing games and talking. My husband and I were sound asleep one night in our beach condo, when all of a sudden the bedroom door burst open and almost went through the other wall. It was Ben, Jenny and Lukas all talking at the same time. They were loud and excited and their initial busting in almost caused us a heart attack. I finally realized in my sleepiness, which quickly went away with the adrenaline pumping through my veins that they were excited fun, not excited, call 911 because something bad happened. As we heard them talking all at once as excited as anyone should ever be allowed, they were all repeating “we caught a freaking shark.” Finally, it registered as they were shoving their cell phones at us showing pictures of the shark they had caught on the fishing pier at our resort. I grabbed my glasses and took Ben’s phone and sure enough there it was, Jenny holding up a small shark by the tail. As I looked at the picture closer I could see it was curling its head up towards her hands. I said, “Was it trying to bite you?” All of them answered almost in unison, “Yes, it was trying to bite us the whole time”. They said they caught it on a frozen shrimp from the freezer. I looked at the clock and it was after 2 a.m. Had they not learned anything from their favorite movie—Jaws? Who fishes from an Ocean pier at 2 in the morning? After looking at their pictures and hearing the whole story about the big scary catch and how they were using the Muskie fishing rod they had brought from Minnesota, tied to the top of the Yukon, I could not help but be proud of their craziness and a little scared about their good judgment. We heard how they each held the shark and took a picture for Facebook and to send to their friends, and how they had to hurry with the pictures so they could safely release it. None of my kids were ever in any serious trouble, but these kinds of shenanigans were commonplace and added to all of our fun and our family stories. I have never regretted the money and time we spent on doing fun things and vacations.
“Quality time” with our kids is overstated and overrated. Did anyone ever ask the kids how much time they want to spend with us? Who said that we as parents should play every game with our kids and take every nature walk with them? Now don’t get me wrong, we should spend time with our kids, but not all of their free time should be consumed by us. They need time on their own and time with their peers. Do you remember your parents hovering over your every move? I don’t and I wouldn’t have wanted them to.
I remember when I was young I’d be gone for hours and sometimes most of the day with neighbor kids or just my brothers and sister. We built forts and went exploring. Once we tried to build a raft and float it on the shallow creek that cut through our farm. We ran in and out occasionally to get tools or food, but no one’s parents ever interfered in what we were doing or even came to snoop. We really would have considered that an intrusion.
We knew they were there if we got into any trouble but they went about their business and we went about ours. We knew the big rules, such as no one could do anything to harm someone else or someone else’s property. We hung out with a group of neighbors and cousins with kids that varied in age. We were much better, back then, at being inclusive rather than exclusive. We never seemed to get into any real trouble. We occasionally got hurt, but nothing serious. We occasionally broke things, but nothing irreplaceable. We learned to make good decisions, to be self reliant and careful. It built our self esteem and prepared us for the bigger world.
Now it seems as if we don’t allow our kids enough time to explore the world without us. It occurred to me one day when my kids were planning a trek into the woods behind our house. They had water bottles, a flashlight (even though it was the middle of the day), some snacks and a bucket for nature finds. I said this looks good, what are we going to look for? They all looked at me as if I was speaking a foreign language and in the silence I could read their faces. They didn’t want to hurt my feelings, but they clearly had not planned on inviting me. Inviting an adult took away the adventure and the uncertainty. It took away the excitement. I gracefully backed out and said, “oh, I forgot I have to fold the socks,” and they all smiled and said, “yeah, maybe next time,” and ran off. Kids sometimes just need other kids. How else will they learn independence and self reliance? They need room to make small mistakes before they are allowed the big decisions.
I heard on the news a while ago about a house burning down because of children playing with matches. The children seemed to be too old to be setting a house on fire by playing with matches. I got to thinking. I know that a preoccupation with fire can be a sign of abuse in children. I also know from growing up and from being on enough camp outs that fire is a fascinating thing for anyone. We all poke and dig at the campfire and try to cook things over it. We all like starting the fire. Kids are no different. However, if they have never been allowed to touch matches or lighters, the fascination becomes even more intense. Back on the farm we used to be able to burn our paper trash. We were responsible for this at a fairly young age. Our parents had taught us that fire was hot and then trusted us to be careful with the matches and burning the trash. I decided one day that I didn’t want my children to be 16 years old and not know how to respect fire or worse yet, be 10 years old and be so fascinated with it that they had to secretly try matches and maybe end up burning something down. One day I told my 9-year- old son and 12-year-old daughter to get the box of matches and start a fire in our fire pit and burn the sticks that had fallen in the yard. They both stopped dead in their tracks and said, “We can?” I said “sure,” much to my husband’s dismay, but he could tell where I was going with this.
I told them to be careful. They spent hours at the fire pit and went through an entire box of matches. I never went to the fire pit during the burning but occasionally looked out to make sure the woods were not on fire. If anyone burned their fingers I didn’t hear about it and every stick in the yard was cleaned up. When they were done they hosed out the fire as they had seen us do. They reported back that they were done and had put out the fire. You could tell that they were proud of a job well done, but more proud that they were entrusted with the task.
I have come to the conclusion that we may sometimes be over protective with our kids, to their detriment. We are raising a generation of kids who may not have the confidence to be self-reliant and know how to make good decisions, despite all of our talking. We have been very successful adults in part because we were given experiences early on to gain independence, self reliance, leadership skills and responsibility. We were expected to make good choices, but not every little choice was scrutinized, criticized or even known about, much less discussed to death.
If we don’t let our kids make small mistakes and some bad choices growing up, how are we going to expect them to make good choices on the big issues. We cannot keep them totally protected and then all of a sudden release them and expect them to be able to handle all the choices, obstacles, dangers, and responsibilities of life. They learned to walk by starting to crawl and gained more and more independence. They need to do the same with responsibility and independence. Hug your kids tightly, but don’t suffocate their independence. We need to be there for them, but not insist on having them spend all of their free time with us. Love them, trust them and show confidence in them to complete difficult tasks, even if they are at a young age.
If you show a high level of confidence in them and their abilities, they will live up to your expectations. If you expect a lot you will get a lot and they will gain the skills necessary to have confidence in their own abilities and to make good choices.