In the wake of Bro Day, I have been feeling like I’m losing touch with the purpose-driven fervor with which I started this sabbatical. I had, and still have, many goals for this “mini-retirement,” and it feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface on a few, while others remain untouched. I think it may simply be the slower speed of summer settling in. I’m enjoying my life. I’m seeing friends. I’m being active. Yet there is still this nagging feeling like… I’m not doing it all. Like I’m “supposed” to be doing something different or better or more when I choose to simply relax, be in my body, breathe, and stare at the trees for twenty minutes, or when I choose to go be social with a friend. Letting go of the idea of how things are “supposed” to be is one of my sabbatical’s ongoing pursuits.
SUPER MUCH FUN HAS A PRICE, AND IT’S A PRICE I’M WILLING TO PAY
I’m learning to embrace the balance that having “super much” fun (as my four year old would say) requires. Not just ordinary, go-for-a-jog or play-a-game kind of fun, but coordinated events, travel to exciting destinations… super much fun. Namely, it requires planning. It usually also requires a period of cleanup and decompression afterward. When you are in planning or cleanup mode, it is harder to be present in the moment and enjoy the now. That’s the price of having an epic Bro Day or a first-time camping adventure with your kid. It’s a worthwhile price to pay – exchanging the time of planning and cleanup in order for next-level experiences to be had. I just have to remind myself that it’s OK to have humdrum days too, and there is peace and joy in them, if I’m willing to be mindful enough to see and feel it.
TENT CAMPING WITH A KID
For the first time ever, I took my oldest to a campground for the weekend. Just the two of us. This was on my “must-do list” at the very beginning of summer. Why? It’s one of those things I just had a gut feeling about. An intuition that this is the summer where the age is right and the time is now. I love the outdoors and getting by with fewer amenities than I have around me in everyday life, and I want to share in that love with my children. So my six year old child and I embarked on a two-night tenting adventure into Minnesota’s St. Croix State Park.
Here are my top takeaways from the experience:
- There is a fine line in parenting between giving your kids agency over their own choices and giving them firm direction on how things must go. I believe in both approaches, depending on the situation. When it comes to camping and being outdoors, there are certain things one has to do. Make a shelter. Get water. Apply bug spray. I found that proposing how things will go was a useful frame for both of us. It set the kid’s expectations and put us on the same page for the next minutes of life. Comments such as, “We are going to do this, and then I’d like your help with…” or “Here’s the plan. I want to make sure this all sounds good to you. First we’re going to ___” were useful ways of me directing the flow of activity while keeping the kid engaged.
- Kids love jobs. I couldn’t give them enough jobs. The key was really selling it that my situation was dire, that I desperately needed aid, and that I couldn’t figure out the exact solution on my own.
- “I could really use your help with these dishes. I don’t have enough hands to use this drying towel to dry them after I’ve washed them. What can we do?”
- “Can you do me a huge favor? This might be a really tricky job, but I need someone to go around and find little sticks for the fire. Do you know how to do that?”
- If the situation was such that I did want to give the kid a chance to choose, I would propose a short list of equally acceptable choices, rather than an open-ended question which could have less than agreeable outcomes. So instead of, “What do you want to do next?” it was, “Up next we could go for a hike, go to the beach, or go on a scavenger hunt. What sounds good to you?” I was good with any of those options, so it was a guaranteed win-win.
- Kids love cold and hate hot. I knew this before camping, but it was reinforced with their relentless, unending love for swimming in frigid lake water and with their sincere trepidation around a bright, hot campfire. It is quite clearly a survival instinct to fear being burned and to be completely at ease around cold (because water is naturally cold!), but it is odd how we grow into loving hot beverages and hot showers as we become adults. Kids have an instinct that these hot things aren’t as good for us as their colder counterparts, and they’re right. Hot beverages can burn your tongue. Hot showers do dry your skin. Part of my parenting journey is learning to be more like my kids, because they have innate wisdom I have somehow unlearned.
- I was reminded that children of all ages are still developing verbal skills. They don’t have the communication acumen to actually say what they need or are thinking all the time. (Come to think of it, neither do I!) A disgruntled, “Ugghhhh, this is taking for-ev-er!!” while on a hike is really just their way of saying, “I don’t know where we’re headed and am afraid I’m going to get tired before we get there. I feel lost. And I’m bored with this. Can we make this fun somehow please Dad?” It’s easy to get triggered by kids’ complaints. I continue to ask myself, “What is my kid really saying here?” and it is an incredibly useful reframe that helps me co-regulate with them and move us both back into calm and joy more quickly.
- Spontaneous hugs from your kid because they are just feeling pure happiness toward you might fill my heart up more than anything else in the world.
- Queen-sized air mattresses. You’d think they’d offer plenty of space for one adult and one child. Heh. We would start the night with each of us on one half of the bed. As the sun comes up, I would wake to find the child’s half of the mattress completely empty and bare, the kid located in my spot, wrapped like a tight burrito in all of the blankets, and me balancing on the mostly-deflated mattress edge with the slightest scrap of sheet around my ankles. Next time, we’re getting cots.
- Car camping with a six year old is almost all the same gear as camping solo. It really was not much more work at all. I packed one extra chair and pillow, a few extra clothes (which are small), and an extra box of spaghetti. And bubbles.
- Kids don’t like “hikes,” but they do like “searching for raspberries.” They will hike 5x farther with a little rebranding.
On our final night in the woods, we made a campfire. Two weeks prior to this camping trip, we had our first encounter with sparkler sticks – the classic 4th of July variety. As sunset turned to dusk around our campfire, my kid got the idea that they wanted to create their own “sparkler” using a stick and igniting it in the fire. Up until this point, the responsibility of fire had been left solely to me, but this seemed like a golden opportunity to begin to have a deeper learning and experience with fire. They brought me a stick and asked if they could stick it in the fire, but I replied that this stick was too wet and wouldn’t burn properly. So they found another one and asked again, but I answered that this stick had green leaves on it, which meant it won’t burn properly because the wood is too new. Again, they searched the ground for the right “sparkler” stick, and this time, they were sure of the stick’s caliber. I could tell by the look on their face; this must be a good one. And while the stick was not wet, nor was it green, it was laughable in size – it was a piece of bark no longer than an adult thumb. I instructed, “This looks like a good type of wood, the only problem is, look how short it is. If you tried to hold it to the fire, in order to get close enough for it to light on fire, what would happen?” And they looked at the fire, and down at their thumb-sized piece of bark, and back at the fire, and finally gazed up at me and, with a nod of approval, replied, “Hm. Good problem.”
As they retreated to scour the campsite yet again in search of the perfect stick, I was struck with that phrase. Good problem. The kid meant it. They were happy to have been given a good problem. One worthy of their solving. One that presented a challenge yet was reasonably solvable. One that was not a “no,” but was an invitation to work toward a solution. With a child that is intrinsically motivated to find a solution, a reasonable problem is the ultimate brain food.
Ultimately, they did find the perfect stick, and we had ourselves a fire ritual. At the kid’s request, I lit the end of the stick in the fire and then handed the flaming stick to the kid. While it didn’t expel sparks, the flame died out and transformed into a glowing, smoldering ember, much like a stick of incense. Under a starlit sky, with the orange ember glowing, the thin stream of smoke drifting with the breeze, and the feeling of power that comes with wielding fire, 100% of the kid’s being was there, in that moment, completely absorbed by the now. So was mine. It was a special moment to share together. I cannot recall a time in my life where I’ve spent more minutes staring at a stick. Our first fireside ritual is a memory I will take with me always.