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Hike Your Way to Better Parenthood

Hike Your Way to Better Parenthood

How a trek on a trail can help you focus on what really matters


Parenting is not easy. Spending quality time with our kids is challenging, especially in times when our schedules have never been busier. Our kids are distracted by school, apps, and shows. We are distracted by work, notifications, and anxieties. So what are exhausted parents to do? We know we can do better, but reading about yet another ‘parenting hack’ is not the answer. For truly connecting with your kids, modeling healthy habits, and finding opportunities for meaningful conversations with the people you love most, I recommend the simple and regular practice of hiking.

‘Gentle parenting’ has recently become a buzz word in the parenting world. This concept recognizes that screaming at your kids to stop screaming is obviously counterproductive. It suggests using time-ins instead of time-outs to foster the sense of security and empathy that children need to work through their emotions. If we want our children to reach their potential, we need routine, quality interactions with them. Easy to say, more challenging to do. When was the last time you had a great conversation with your daughter, or when your son really opened up to you?

Part of the reason we are in our current predicament is that we spend so much time inside. Studies have shown that Americans spend an average of 90 percent of their lives indoors. The average US child spends about 1,200 hours in school every year and more than 1,800 hours in front of television, phones, and other screens. The characters in TV shows and video games are far from ideal role models for your children, and the ones on social media for your tweens and teenagers are no better. Kids need to spend more time moving their bodies and being with you. Sending them outside has been proven to be one of the best ways to counter not only screen addictions but also the increasingly common problem of childhood obesity. Adults need time away from screens, too, especially in a time when both entertainment and work have become increasingly digital.

Backyards and parks are good options for time outdoors, but they are lacking in one major way. Parents are not fully engaged in either of these settings. At home, chores and work nag in the background. At the park, buzzing phones distract. Playground equipment is designed for kids to enjoy by themselves. This is fine, but grown-ups are usually stuck on the sidelines as guardians, not participants.

When was the last time you had a great workout with your kids? To model healthy habits, having your kids see you exercise is vital. Gyms are not kid-friendly, and memberships are expensive. Wouldn’t it be great if there were free places where you could exercise with your children and not have the distractions of your phone and home? Better yet, what if there were a way to engage with them for hours and have regular opportunities for deeper conversations?

These places exist! They are called hiking trails. The United States boasts more than a million miles of formal hiking trails. It’s no exaggeration to say that we all live within a short drive to various trailheads, from those in nearby municipal parks to those farther away in wilderness or rural areas. Hiking is a wonderful form of exercise and a safe, inexpensive, low-impact, all-season activity with the added element of adventure. On a hike, babies and toddlers marvel at how big and new their surroundings are. School-aged kids love to romp over fallen logs and across creeks. There’s no need to check Instagram when you are surrounded by natural beauty. You might even find, as I have, that your favorite hikes are the ones with no cell phone service.

We hike on Saturdays and have been doing this since our kids were in the womb. Over the years we have spent countless hours and over one thousand miles together in nature. Hiking can be an easy stroll or a strenuous climb up a mountain. We go slowly, stopping to look at the lichen on a rock, a field of wildflowers, or a herd of bighorn sheep on a rocky outcropping above us. My toddler asks, “Bird?” while looking up and “Who lives there?” while pointing to a hole. My preschooler asks, “Why is the moon out during the day?” and “Why do I always want to do wrong things?” From simple questions to profound ones and short hikes to full-day treks, my memories are full of growing our minds, bodies, and souls together.

We talk and listen. We pray and reflect on what really matters to us. On one hike to Virginia Peak outside of Reno, Nevada, we found ourselves discussing our family’s goals. For five hours, we chatted about what changes we should make. We hadn’t planned this conversation, it simply happened as we put one foot in front of the other. The day ended twelve miles later, leaving us with full and grateful hearts and a memory I know will last a lifetime.

Every weekend my kids count on having time to talk to Mom and Dad. They know we won’t say “Just a second” or “Give me a minute” or “Not now, honey.” Not every hiking experience provides groundbreaking epiphanies, but with regular, undistracted opportunities to have fun together, gain trust, and lovingly engage as a family, hiking provides fertile ground for family bonding. You can’t schedule “have deep and meaningful conversation with child” between grocery shopping and soccer practice, but with a day in nature, you can allow wonderful things to unfold naturally.

By taking your children on hikes, you can be a model of healthy living for them. You can teach them about their surroundings, or better yet, learn about nature together. Put your phone away, so your children know you love them more than it. Breathe in fresh air, and get clear perspective on your media consumption and life. Find the freedom spending time in nature provides, and you’ll also discover you’re a more fit, attentive parent.

Elizabeth Barile is a mother of two and the co-author of the forthcoming book, Base Camp Reno: 101 Hikes from Sage to Snow, releasing April 5, 2022 everywhere books are sold.

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