How do you structure your kids' time? And how much does it really matter?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Stop. Don't panic. If you cry, you can't think about what you need to do next. Look around you, and find the next place to put your foot." She drew a ragged breath and clutched her dad's hand. Another breath. Then she looked down.

The next logical step was unclear, even to me. We'd chosen this trail because a guide had told us it was perfect for kids. In one sense, it was. They'd climbed the walls of caves and discovered waterfalls, and the views were enough to make even little boys pause.

But this trail was much too dangerous for small children. The boulders went straight up, the water below was fast and cold. For the last hour we'd picked our way through uneven rocks muddied with ice and slush. My kids are accustomed to the hard work of hiking, but this was too much for any of us. All the same, here we were. We'd gotten up the steep embankment somehow. Now we had to get down it.

I looked again at my little girl catching her breath beside her dad. She wasn't crying because she was scared. So far, her fears are limited to Swiper the Fox and the monster she insists lives in our laundry room. She doesn't understand how easily something could go wrong right now. Instead, she cried because she thought she couldn't do it. We knew she was wrong.

I stood a few feet below her, my toddler in my arms, and watched warily. And as I watched, I realized how important this moment would be in my little girl's internal life.

I'm past the baby wearing stage of parenthood. The breastfeeding wars and pros and cons of co-sleeping are behind me (though I still can't get my kids out of my bed). Our baby days are drawing to a close, and these days my reading is focused around how to raise good kids. Rather, I want to know how to raise kind, responsible, confident-but-humble, internally motivated adults. It turns out that question is as hotly debated as breastfeeding. Only now, the issues around character boil down to how we dedicate our children's time. Do we schedule activities, giving them many opportunities to experience hard work and success on stages and Little League fields? Do we nurture and develop their talents and interests early in life through lessons and performances? Or do we send them out into  cul-de-sacs to learn the complexities of success and failure naturally?

Ask five families and you'll get five different answers. Ask them at different stages about their individual children, and the answers grow more complex. So far, in my house we have not taken the scheduled activities path. We treat time as our most precious resource (because it is), and we simply have not wanted to fill it up that way.

Instead, we believe character is formed outdoors. Because of the ages of our kids, we stick to hiking and biking, though I can easily see rock climbing and kayaking in our future. Hiking and biking require you to think under pressure, to work together, to notice and support strangers along the way. You learn to use your body to do something hard, you get the endorphin rush from exerting energy and pushing yourself. But just as importantly, you learn you CAN do hard things, and that nobody else can do them for you. We can climb beside you, we can hold your hand, but we all have to do our own work. And when we do - when we all persevere and support each other - when we all work hard together, we all get to the top of the mountain. We all win.

Along that slushy path, my little girl was learning to trust herself. To make a plan when she'd rather give up, to take a deep breath and collect herself when it would be easier to despair. She's never worn a leotard or had a single lesson in anything. Instead, she's forging her character in the canyons along the edges of the Rockies. Still clutching her dad's hand, she angled her feet sideways for better traction - as she'd been taught - and took a shaky step. Then another. Then she was moving fast, sure now of her next steps. Within a few seconds she was standing on solid earth again. "I did it!" she cheered. I grinned with her. "Yes you did."

Are we right? Are our kids better off outdoors than they are in lessons? Time will answer that question. But maybe developing character in our kids is just like breastfeeding and crying-it-out. Maybe how you do it isn't nearly as important as your motivation. Kids can smell our intent, and that - more than our methods - becomes a part of their internal landscape. Maybe all of my kids will become avid outdoorsmen, or maybe they will hate hiking as adults, because of all the times they were drug up a mountain during their childhood. Either way, they will know how much their parents valued teamwork, perseverance, and kindness. They will know we loved them enough to make nurturing their character an integral part of family life. They'll know they can do something hard even when they don't want to, and they'll know how to take a deep breath and collect their thoughts when they'd rather cry.

Maybe it isn't about structured time versus unstructured time, or strollers versus slings. Maybe we don't need to worry quite so much about the methods we choose to love and nurture our kids. What matters, really, is that we do it. That is what they will remember.

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