A parent’s purpose is to give their children skills to become independent adults. This means empowering them with decision-making abilities and plentiful chances to learn from their mistakes. When it comes to outdoor adventure, the hardest part for lots of kids is knowing when to bravely go for it and when to play it safe. Making things even harder, today’s overscheduled, overmanaged children often freeze when given the chance to take charge of themselves.
At the start of last summer, my two young sons expected to have their days planned to the minute. This is what they and most of their friends were used to. But in the hopes of helping them follow (and find) their own interests, I decided to give them two unstructured hours a day to do whatever they wanted.
Those first couple of days, they were lost. Thinking I was helping, I gave them ideas—climb a tree, draw, clean up dog poop. My ten-year-old son, Kai, would do whatever I suggested, looking miserable the entire time. By the end of the first week, I stopped making suggestions.
Once I backed off, something shifted. Soon they were running to the beach from our house in Santa Cruz, California, boogie boarding down the stairs, and constructing elaborate Lego treehouses.
I was feeling really good about myself, until one day I walked into the room to find Kai trailing his precocious six-year-old brother on some adventure, and it became clear that all their activities that summer had been orchestrated by my younger son.
Concerned that Kai needed more chances follow his own lead without his little brother taking charge, I decided he should plan a mom-and-son adventure. There were boundaries—I’m aware he still doesn’t have a developed prefrontal cortex—but he got to pick the region and what we did with our time. My hope was to empower his leadership skills so that when he entered middle school soon, he could lead, not follow.
Kai decided he wanted warm water, fish tacos, and surf. Because neither of us wanted to fly far from home, we ended up at the Grand Palladium Resort on the Mexican coast just north of Puerto Vallarta. When we got there, the concierge handed Kai a swag-filled backpack that said “Family Boss” and asked if he wanted his bubble bath drawn that night or another. His eyes flicked to the game consul in the lounge and he whispered, “Later?”
“Kai, let’s go swim,” I tried, hoping to distract him from that lurid machine.
But Kai offered his best pleading smile and asked if he could play a game we’d never allowed. I could only swallow my disappointment and shrug. “It’s your trip. We’ve only got three days here,” I said.
An hour later, he said, “Let’s swim.”
On the boat to Las Caletas, a slice of Banderas Bay, Kai studied the activities available to us. “We should snorkel,” I said, noting that this 1,000-foot-deep bay is home to turtles and tropical fish.
“Nope,” he said, pointing at the Teen Adventure Center on the map. “We’re doing the waterslide and the zip line.”
“But…” I bit my lip, reminding myself that this was his gig, not mine.
The zip line wasn’t so bad, though I screamed like it was. Nor was the Blob, a giant raft where one person crawled along a hot, slippery surface to the rounded edge, while the other daredevil ascended a two-story ladder and then belly flopped onto the raft, sending the first adventurer soaring into the water. I never made it to the edge, nor the top. But my adventurous kid did, limbs wild, rocketing into the air.
Over at the launchpad, a slide jetted riders from the mountaintop back up into a U, soaring at least 20 feet before flying into the water. I could not hide my glee that adults were not allowed to experience this ridiculousness, but that was quickly replaced by the fact that my little boy was about to zoom off the edge of a mountain wearing only swim shorts and a loose helmet. I curbed the urge to hold him back and instead watched him catapult into the sky, whooping with a joy unlike anything I’d witnessed all summer.
After lunch he decided we could finally snorkel. We’d been warned that baby jellyfish populated the waters, so Kai asked me to swim ahead. He trailed so close that I kicked him in the face, so I reached for his hand and pulled him to swim in-line with me. We were chasing a fluorescent fish when Kai pointed out a small sea snake.
I pulled him to the surface. “We’ve got to get out,” I said, fear tinting everything.
“Don’t worry,” he said, moving closer. “It’s just a baby.”
I’d heard about the ways young men challenged their mothers’ comfort levels. I’d surely had my share of playing goalie and climbing trees, but I had always urged my son into uncomfortable waters. Now the earth tilted. He was luring me farther out into an insecure sea. I was following.
You’re an idiot, I told myself as I swam closer to the creature slinking around my baby’s toes.
The waves were overhead the next day, and my son wanted to surf. And though we both surf, I wouldn’t call either of us good enough to rock seven-foot swells. The hotel’s surf coach, Eder, sized me up and gave me an out, saying I could paddleboard. “No way,” Kai nearly yelled. “You’re surfing with me.” A flash of emotion crossed his face. I understood.
I’ve been swallowing fear since I found out I was pregnant. To raise strong, independent children means encouraging them to be brave, to go beyond what they believed they were capable of, and letting them fail. But it also sometimes means having to accept that we, too, must be courageous ourselves.
Kai spun to face the waves. On his first try, he held back for a few seconds too long and lost his chance. Then just before the next wave peaked, he caught a ride. The swell was so tall I could not see my child from behind until he flew up, a mess of feet and board. Wishing that playing it safe was an option, that reading books about parenting was the same as actually doing it, I started paddling toward my kid, wanting to make sure he was OK.
“Ready?” Eder said, reaching to push me into the waves as if I were his prey.
“I don’t want a big one.” Now that Kai was not around, I could admit my fears.
“The big ones are easier,” he said. “Paddle.”
Much has been written about the divine experience of standing on top of liquid, but few talk about falling. I held my board close, realizing the most daring thing I’d done in the last ten years was breed. Empowered by the bravery I saw my kid exhibit just moments before, I took a deep breath and ducked under the coming wave, and then the next. “Get out of there,” someone called. I didn’t need urging.
I told Kai I was done and thought he should get out, too. But he said he wanted to surf more, and Eder promised he’d stay with him. On the sand, I reconstructed my terror, as we so often do, piecing together a new edge in the puzzle of parenting. Because of the mistakes I’d made as a young person while traveling, I now know how to hold back when necessary (like getting out of the water when the waves are too big), and I can face the challenges of adulthood.
But playing it safe is not always the best option for youth—there’s a developmental reason children don’t arrive with an intact prefrontal cortex that influences their decision-making. We should be there when our kids first flex their leadership muscles. But that also means backing off, giving them the chance to lead us and, more importantly, themselves, into adventure, infusing them with responsibility, both away and at home.
When he and Eder got out of the waves, Kai said, “Next time I get to plan an adventure, it’s going to be a full-on surf trip.”
When we got home, it didn’t take Kai long to return to his natural tendency to have his activities prescribed. At first I was bummed out, until I realized that as a parent, the learning process must continue. This isn’t some one-off fix that will change everything but a starting point for a life of decisions and mistakes. I’m now organizing this year’s summer travels, and Kai will get to plan a part of our whole family’s trip. He’s complained a bit, but it forces him to dig deeper into his own sense of adventure and ultimately take responsibility for choosing the best way for us all to access this experience.
If a parent’s ultimate goal is to prepare our kids to become good adults, then we must give them space to brave the dangerous ocean and find their own limits. On these journeys, we can be within swimming distance. But we must allow them to stand atop their own waves.