Pack Mentality

The tribe knows best.

Folk Wisdom

"Loosen up on the reins. Let your kids explore and try sports you're not familiar with. Encourage this. Overbearing and overprotective are all over. Be supportive and happy and let them be." —CONRAD ANKER, climber and alpinist, is planning a fami

My wife, Kir, and I have a tribe of kids: Chapin, 12, Lacey, 10, Natalie, 8, and Teagan, 2. We're obviously part of the problem. I think it was inevitable—Kir's the oldest of four, I'm the fourth of five—but mostly I know that our happy towheaded family is the result of a series of spontaneous, perhaps even ill-advised decisions. (I'm still not sure how Teagan was conceived on a backcountry hut trip with 18 friends.) But we wouldn't have it any other way. We ski, hike, climb, ride, travel, and paddle together. Snotty noses, skinned knees, and tangled hair—strangers run as we approach.

Here's how it works: We have no choice. At times it's managed chaos; control is frequently lost. We try to balance needs, and the kids know that sometimes their siblings come first. Kir is a master planner, and the house rule is always pre-pack the night, day, or week before to stay alive.

A successful tribe must have a hierarchy built on trust. This means giving kids freedom to teach and lead their kin, and it begins with the first kid. When he was just 12 days old, we hiked Chapin up Colorado's Mount Sopris in a sling. He weighed a scooch over five pounds, and Kir nursed him in a talus field. Later, we stopped at Thomas Lakes and skinny-dipped. I suppose that counts as his baptism. By the time Lacey and Natty came along, Chapin was a skier. He watched Auntie Tort and Uncle Fletch race in the 24 Hours of Aspen downhill and forgot how to turn. Thus the girls learned to ski, shrieking joyously as they chased Chapin. We shrieked at all of them to slow down.

Here's what I know: Our philosophy of family experience won't change. The best example of parenting we can think of is to keep living by letting our kids take the sharp end and lead routes at City of Rocks State Park, cliff-jump and play in the mud on river trips, and sleep on the trampoline and listen for the neighborhood bear. Yes, leaving the tribe in charge can be scary. Watching a video my son made of himself jumping his bike over his sisters brought mixed emotions: terror, anger, pride (when he cleared them), and, finally, laughter as the girls jumped up and danced, gap-toothed smiles and faces beaming in the sun. It's inverse parenting. The more freedom we give them, the more the tribe thrives.

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