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It’s important to give kids the opportunity to experience the natural world at their own pace. (Photo: Rialto Images/Stocksy)

I Don’t Care if Your Toddler Climbs a Mountain

Stories about kids who break hiking or climbing records feel like the continuation of an outdated and unhealthy attitude toward outdoor recreation

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Last summer my toddler hiked a mile uphill. She was barefoot, because I’d driven an hour to the trailhead and forgotten her shoes, and she was wearing a pink tutu and Mardi Gras beads, because she insists on picking out her own clothes. And I was thrilled.

Jo has been “hiking” several times a week since she was 11 days old, though most of our hikes are short jaunts on trails near our home aimed at tiring out our terrier mix. Still, hiking has been a regular part of Jo’s life for more than three years now, so you’d think she’d be a pro at it. Instead she spends most hikes either begging me to carry her or ricocheting between a flat-out run and a complete standstill. We pause for long periods to examine mushrooms and spiders, eat snacks, or play. Some days we’re out for four hours and barely cover two miles. Some days she resists leaving the house at all. This is fine. It’s what I expect from a toddler.

All of this explains why I was so thrilled that she actually hiked a mile last summer—barefoot, no less!—and why I’m floored when I read about kids roughly her age who have thru-hiked the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail or summited all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot-peaks. Those kids, and their parents, enthrall me. I am awed by their stamina and patience. Yet when my editor asks me to write about such feats for Outside, I explain that I would rather not.

For one thing, I don’t want to perpetuate a narrative that makes ordinary parents feel inadequate when their kids are toddling down the trail at a rate of roughly one mile every six hours. While it’s sometimes necessary to prod your child along so you can make it home before nightfall, I think it’s also important to give kids the opportunity to experience the natural world at their own pace. I don’t want to write anything that pressures parents into feeling like their kids should be hiking faster or farther, or that they’re falling behind if their child isn’t in ski boots at two and a brand ambassador by age four. (True story.)

What if we also celebrated the family who just took their ten-year-old camping for the first time, or whose five-year-old played unsupervised in the ditch behind her house for hours?

Plus, breathless stories about the youngest person to summit a mountain or complete a trail feel like the continuation of an outdated and increasingly unhealthy attitude toward outdoor recreation. For much of the past century, the Western mentality toward outdoor rec has emphasized being first, highest, fastest, or best. Even if few of us actually attain such superlatives, we’re nonetheless influenced by the media’s coverage of them, from the Victorian-era race to reach the South Pole to the modern-day quest to climb El Capitan’s Nose route in less than two hours.

The message these stories impart is that the outdoors is a place of conquest, of list-making and box-checking and limit-pushing—which, at its worst, can lead to risky or irresponsible behavior. And now that most of the mountains have been climbed and the rivers descended, we’re adding youngest to that list of superlatives to define what makes outdoor recreation worth writing or reading about. Youngest person to kayak the Grand Canyon. Youngest person to climb Kilimanjaro.

I don’t mean to diminish the experiences of children who find joy in scaling mountains, nor of their parents, who should absolutely be proud. The problem, I think, lies in the way the media latches on to these stories, often comparing the accomplished family to us plebes who have “trouble getting [our] kids away from electronics and outside,” as NPR recently put it. It’s meant to be inspiring, but too often it just feels like another layer of pressure.

And parents are under enough pressure. I live in a Colorado mountain town, and my social media feeds are full of two-year-olds snowboarding and three-year-olds riding bikes without training wheels. Last winter I took my daughter skiing, not because I was even remotely excited by the idea of shoving her little feet into rigid plastic boots, but because all the other two-year-olds I knew were doing it, and it felt like we were falling behind. Outdoorsy parents like to believe we’re more chill than parents in, say, Manhattan, but sometimes it feels as though we’ve simply replaced the competition to get our children into the best college-prep preschools with competing over our children’s participation in outdoor sports. Our kids may be fostering a lifelong connection to the natural world through these sports, but sometimes I worry that filling their outside time with structured activities undermines the outdoors as a refuge of free play and exploration.

What if we changed the narrative? What if we also celebrated the family who just took their ten-year-old camping for the first time, or whose five-year-old played unsupervised in the ditch behind her house for hours? What if we talked about the realities of hiking with a toddler? That—for me at least—involves bribing my child with candy and feeling equal parts blissed-out that I get to slow down and annoyed that I can’t just go the way I used to.

Ensuring that our children’s relationship to the outdoors is one of gratitude and joy rather than competition and conquest may require a shift in our own deeply entrenched mindsets. I know it does for me. So the next time I feel annoyed that my toddler doesn’t want to crush miles, I won’t haul her onto my shoulders with a sigh or take out my phone to alleviate my boredom. I’ll try to let go of expectations of what we should be doing and remember to be grateful that we’re out here together at all.

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