When our kids were little, we would pack up a rental RV every spring and fall break from school and head to the national parks. We covered all the ones we could drive to, and even flew to rent an RV for a remote park that was too far to drive. As we would pull away from the curb to start each adventure, we’d blast Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” from the tape player. The kids practically grew up in national park campgrounds. It was never clear how much they enjoyed the parks versus their love of traveling and sleeping in an RV, but it didn’t matter because we adults loved the parks even though sleeping in the RV was never very comfortable for us.
We wondered, though, how old our kids would have to be to notice a beautiful sunset, the gentle and graceful flight of geese, or the shadows on the walls of the Grand Canyon at dusk? When would they first marvel at the palette of fall trees, the snowcapped peaks, or the spray from the ocean hitting the shore? I can tell you one thing—it didn’t happen during their childhoods. Kids have a dense filter covering their eyes and a barricade in their brains that somehow let them wander through life without being awed, or even aware, of the natural beauty around them. Mountain lakes, galaxy-filled nighttime skies, wildflowers in bloom? Nope. Kids don’t see the forest or the trees! Well, that’s not entirely true. Kids do notice ants. And spiders. And they like skipping rocks on mountain lakes. The disconnect between adults hoping to imbue their kids with an appreciation for the wonders around them, and kids who seemingly couldn’t care less, can be disconcerting for parents. Our kids developed the annoying (but admittedly very cute) custom of responding to our “Hey, isn’t that waterfall gorgeous?” with “Wowwww, Dad,” droned in an unimpressed and pseudo-bored cacophony. At least their response confirmed they were occasionally awake on our hikes in the national parks.
So, what’s a parent to do when your best efforts to make outdoor moments special with your kids are rewarded with a collective yawn? Expect it, accept it, and be comforted by two important truths: first, what makes your moments with your kids special is not the scenery—it’s the company; and second, kids do absorb your enthusiasm and energy, even if they miss the bluebirds and the lily pads. They’ll balk at hiking, but they’ll remember that their moments in the woods were fun because they were with you, sleeping in a tent, roasting marshmallows, eating s’mores, and telling stories. The lollipops and licorice we bribed them with to keep them moving on the trail. They’ll remember the big rocks that they thought were bears, the tree roots they thought were snakes, stopping at the drive-through for root beer, and being grossed out at the camper dump site. Yes, they’ll ignore the full harvest moon, the rainbows, and the fossils and fault lines in the hillside rocks, but at least they won’t be playing video games or online chatting in their room. They’ll be with you, in the fresh air, doing things you can feel good about.
And then, sometime in late adolescence or early adulthood, a magical awakening occurs. The fog in their brains clears, and they start to notice the beauty of the world around them without your having to narrate or nag. And we have proof. Our adult kids have each shown an appreciation for the outdoors, hiking, and even camping. And…our youngest son, now 31, and his wife are planning a vacation in the national parks IN AN RV! He was too young to remember the details of many of our trips, so some of their stops on this trip will be to revisit the places he doesn’t remember.
And when they get back, we’ll show him the pictures we took of him on the very same trails.