Adventure Parenting: Keeping It Real

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15-year old Jordan Romero on his quest to bag the 7 Summits [Jordan Romero]

Now that the holiday madness is almost over, I finally have some time to reflect on the happenings of the past year. I’ve been lucky to have so many great adventures, and Raising Rippers is one of them. But as I sit down to write my final post of 2011, I can’t help but wrestle with a question that’s been nagging me for the past few months:

When we encourage kids to do cool things outside, and write about them, are we exploiting them for our own benefit? 

As parents, we want our kids to be better off than we were when we were young: We wish for them a more normal family, nicer teachers, kinder friends, more and better opportunities, and sooner. We want them to learn to ski before they can talk, so that they’re too young to remember that awkward, flailing stage, and we want them to grow up ripping powder on big, majestic peaks right out their back door rather than waking up at 4 in the morning to ride the school bus across New Jersey to the icy lumps of the Poconos. We want for them the best and most technical gear, not the shapeless navy blue bibs with the elastic waistbands our mothers dressed us in. We want them to be rad and fearless because, when we were their age, we weren’t. 

And that’s one of the biggest pitfalls of adventure parenting: It’s tempting to use it as a giant do-over, to see it as our best chance to improve upon all the things we wish had been different about our childhood and ourselves. Feeling bad about who we were then helps us feel better about who we are now. Their successes make us look good. Except when they’re throwing epic hissy fits on cross-country flights, and especially when they're summiting the highest peaks on seven continents by age 15 (like Jordan Romero did last week), kids can be major ego boosts. 

So we go out of our way to cultivate baby badasses—most of the time for all the right reasons: wanting them to feel joy in the simplicity of playing outside in the fresh air, of drifting down a lazy desert river and watching them turn into muddy, buggy, sunburned river kids. Wanting them to take pride in linking their first wobbly turns on skis. Hoping that someday soon they’ll be big enough and strong enough and not yet sulky enough to take a few runs or raft a few more rivers with us. That’s not about ego; it’s about love. 

But there are times when our motivations maybe aren’t so pure. Do we have to make a ski video set to Foster the People and post it on YouTube? Do we have to blast out news of their first 5.5 climb to our 1,398 friends on Facebook? Should we really be blogging about their first bike ride or tweeting about their first peak? Every time I sit down to write Raising Rippers, I can't help but wonder this. 

I want to give my daughters the chance to live the biggest, most adventurous lives they can. I want to teach them to be curious and compassionate caretakers of the environment and, as my husband says, “to think the outdoor life is normal” but never, ever to take it for granted. I can do my best to give them this wild life without writing about it. But I’m a writer, and I write. And I want to inspire other parents to get their kids outside, too.

 A few nights ago, after Christmas dinner, my sister and stepmother and I watched old home movies my dad shot in the late 80s. Many of them featured my sister and me as awkward, fashion-challenged teenagers, goofing around outside on their Virginia farm. We built a split-rail fence and pretended to whack each upside the head with the boards. We rode my step-mom’s very fat horse around her ring (me, very poorly). We ran a 10K race in Tretorn sneakers and sat for fake sports interviews conducted by my dad and then rode home in the bed of his pickup. We walked down a dirt road in our L.L. Bean Bluchers with our grandparents and shimmied across a creek on a downed tree. We laughed a lot. We had adventures, but none of them were glamorous or exciting or news worthy. My dad, a professional photographer, captured our mundane antics on video, but they never saw the light of day. That didn’t mean they didn’t happen, and didn’t shape us profoundly, and weren’t some of the best, most ridiculous and memorable times of our lives. 

“Adventure,” circa 1986: Prince Edward Island bike tour [David L. Arnold]

Shortly before my dad died last December, I told him I was thinking about starting a blog. He replied, somewhat ambiguously, “Make sure it’s about something important.” At the time, I worried he meant it ought to have some global weight and, by extension, be something that would bring me recognition as a writer of Serious Things. I thought he meant that first and foremost, it had to reflect well on me. But now, judging from the way he conducted his professional life, as a photo editor at National Geographic, modestly and in service of his photographers and his magazine, I think I misinterpreted his words. I think he meant that it ought to be important and feel right to me, and as long as it did, it would serve some greater good. 

In the case of Raising Rippers, I like to think it’s helping my kids and other kids be physically active, inquisitive, strong. That’s how my father raised us: to live in the natural world with curiosity, humility, and good humor. This mattered to me then, and it still matters to me now. So perhaps if we can write and tweet and blog and blast sick footy to the masses in the name of inspiration, not ego-serving recognition or admiration, then we’re not exploiting the kids or pumping up our own kicks. Maybe.

I’m not sure this answers the question, and I don’t know exactly what lies ahead for Raising Rippers, but I’m feeling optimistic about what’s to come in 2012. We have a family yurt trip on the calendar in March and with any luck will be rafting the San Juan River again come spring. I’m sure there will be plenty of everyday, backyard antics that will never qualify as rad or rippin’, and just as well. And I know I’ll continue to be amazed and invigorated by kids and their parents who are living fresh-air lives for all the right reasons, without fanfare. There’s lots to write about, always, and so much to inspire.

Here's to keeping it real in the New Year. Stick around!

 —Katie Arnold

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