Nature Is the Best Teacher for Life’s Hard Lessons
Let your kids learn from misadventure
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Last month my family and I loaded our compact car with plenty of snacks and an iPod full of Magic Tree House audiobooks, and we drove to Canada.
We were all there: my wife, Hilly, four-year-old Theo, one-year-old Julian, and Mono, a stuffed woolen monkey the size of a chipmunk that we bought for Theo last Christmas in Mexico. As we drove, we remarked on Mono’s unlikely story—born in Mexico, residing in Montana, vacationing in Canada. It was a comfortable life for a stuffed monkey. I could see him in the rearview mirror, clutched in Theo’s sweaty palm, loved almost to life.
We drove to Fernie, British Columbia, and spent the night at Island Lake Lodge, an alpine resort on 7,000 moose-inhabited acres at the base of the Lizard Mountains. The next morning over breakfast, we thumbed through our hiking brochure. We picked a six-mile loop that was labeled “advanced” on the map. It started out idyllically. The trail was hemmed with thimbleberry and huckleberry bushes, and Theo scampered along it gleefully. Hilly nursed Julian to sleep in a front pack. We climbed above the tree line, over boulders, and across snowfields. I convinced Theo that I could turn a pebble into a fruit snack, and he genuinely believed it was magic. We were hopped up on endorphins in the Canadian Rockies. The air was fresh and our children were full of wonder. What could go wrong?
Sometime after lunch, we circumnavigated a hulk of limestone called Baby Bear and stopped for a rest on a saddle below the adjacent peak. I set down my pack to take in the sunbaked grandeur of the Lizard Mountains. We had some water and a snack. From there we walked steeply downhill, over dusty talus. We were glad to put this section behind us. When the trail leveled out, I realized with a cold panic that I didn’t have Mono. I made a desperate, fruitless search of my pack. I emptied my pockets. Nothing. We had left him on the saddle.
I hissed to Hilly in Mono’s native tongue: “El amigo de nuestro hijo está perdido.” Her face fell. And then, because I have an almost masochistic compulsion for honesty, I blurted it out to Theo: “We left Mono on the mountain. I’m sorry.”
Theo was riding on my shoulders, so instead of seeing his reaction, I heard and felt it. His body crumpled into anguished sobs. It was like I’d just told him that all of the Backyardigans had been murdered. Hilly shot me a look that said: You had to tell him now?
It’s important to feel for your children. This was a big loss for Theo, equivalent, perhaps, to me leaving my fly rod at the river. So for ten minutes, I said a lot of this: “I know, I’m so sorry. You really loved Mono.” To which Theo replied a lot of this: “Go back and get him! I want Mono. I want Mono!” The mountains echoed with his cries. Going back was out of the question. It was too far, too late, and we were too tired. But I would’ve done anything to stop Theo’s crying.
My sister-in-law once told me about what to do when your kid drops his ice cream cone. It’s tragic to see them bawling over the fallen scoop, still clutching the empty cone. Most parents will do anything to put out the fire. They’ll buy another cone or promise another treat. That may dry the kid’s tears, my sister-in-law said, but it also stifles a moment of emotional growth.
So when we returned from Canada, I called up Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. I told her about Mono and about how Theo reacted to his loss. She assured me it was normal. “Losing a treasured thing is a small death to a child,” she said. “It’s a very, very big deal. He was experiencing grief—the kind of grief he would feel if someone he loved were to vanish.”
So how should a parent respond to such turmoil? First, acknowledge your own discomfort. “It’s really hard to sit there when our child is in grief and there’s nothing we can do,” Markham told me. “The most important thing parents can do is to not be defensive or blame the child.”
“One of the amazing lessons of nature is that nothing is permanent. The tree falls over. I don’t think that’s lost on children.”
Instead of blame, Markham suggests empathy. “The job of the parent is to say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,’” Markham said. “It’s OK for him to cry, it’s actually good for him to cry. We want to honor the grief. You sit with it and allow them to feel it. You don’t try to make them feel better. You can do that tomorrow.”
If that sounds coddling, consider the alternative. “The other path is to tell him to buck up, that it wasn’t real anyway,” Markham said. “You could tell him that, but if you do, he’ll never cry his full grief. Then you’ll have a child who can’t love with his whole heart.”
Of course, Theo’s life seemed pretty cush. He was shedding his tears over a lost stuffie while on vacation. But two weeks earlier, his grandmother—Hilly’s mother—had died of cancer. Theo spent his summer swirling around her hospice bed. Perhaps loss was on his mind. In any case, Markham said, emotionally intelligent children are raised by parents who allow them true sadness and an acknowledgement of their pain until they come out the other side. This is important, because kids who understand their feelings become resilient to life’s guaranteed hardships.
In this regard, nature is a particularly good teacher. When kids go hiking, they learn to leverage fatigue, hunger, and pain toward an earned reward—a peak, a lake, or a picturesque lunch. When they’re paddling a canoe with someone, they learn to work together—and if it flips, they learn about fear.
Other lessons are more philosophical. “One of the amazing lessons of nature is that nothing is permanent,” Markham told me. “The tree falls over. I don’t think that’s lost on children.”
When Theo lost his monkey on the mountain, he touched that impermanence. “It will be a lesson for him about the way the world works,” Markham said. “Things disappear, people move away. Every one of us will suffer losses that there is no way to undo.”
Except there was one way to undo this one: While Theo cried the whole way down the mountain, Hilly and I plotted ways to recover Mono. We would check the lodge’s lost and found. We would show the staff a photo of Mono in case someone brought him back later. We would leave money for postage. They were long shots, and by the time we got back to our room, Theo had stopped wailing. But then he thought of Mono alone in the dark with the wild animals, and his tears flowed anew.
I hadn’t talked to Markham yet, and I hated to see Theo sad. So the next morning I woke up before dawn and hiked back up the mountain. The climb was faster without my kids, and my pace was quickened by what a therapist might call a messiah complex. Shortly after sunrise, I reached the saddle, sweating and breathless. I scoured the ground with mounting anxiety. And then—sweet relief—there in the cold grass at my feet was Mono.
I ran all the way down the mountain, aware that one day, inevitably, everything Theo loves will be lost. But not today, motherfucker. Today Mono was back from the dead.