Here’s Why We Do Hard Things WITH Our Kids
Doing hard things is admired in many circles.
Decide to run a marathon, get your MBA, do a DIY remodel of an old house, or move into an RV and traverse America in a year, and people will fawn over it. Sometimes you can even get a reality TV show doing stuff like that. People are, generally, impressed by others who take on large tasks and complete them.
We often pull back from this attitude, though, when it involves our children. In fact, we all kind of collectively grimace when we see someone asking their kids to do something *we* deem “too hard.”
It seems too burdensome to not only do hard things ourselves, but to do them alongside our children, coaching and parenting them, while also reining ourselves in.
And it is hard. REALLY hard.
Harder than doing hard things alone.
And maybe that’s the exact reason we should do it.
WE STARTED HIKING– WITH THE KIDS
Doug and I have been hiking together since our early days of dating. And on the rare occasions when we’ve gotten away together, just the two of us, we would almost always take time to hike as a couple.
But we were under the impression that kids couldn’t do real hikes.
Or at least, little kids.
Last fall, we took our family (including 2-year-old Theo) for a 3.5 mile hike, and he completed almost all of it, which was awesome! (He got a piggy back for the last half mile or so.)
In May, for Doug’s birthday, we took the kids to Mt. Rainier, and Theo blew us away when (now 3 years old) he hiked nearly SEVEN miles. And toward the end, there was a good bit of “I can’t do this mama!”, BUT: he did it all! On his own two feet.
And he was beaming with pride at the end of it.
After seeing what he could do, and what we could do as a family, Doug and I began talking about doing a long multi-day backpacking trip with the kids. I was getting excited…
ATTITUDE EXPOSURE ON THE 10-MILE HIKE
Everything changed, though, when we did our next test hike. We carried packs; we went a longer distance. We wanted to see– can our 3 year old do this? What is our average speed as a family? Can our big kids carry a moderate amount of weight for a full day?
We chose a loop trail that had a shorter track, in case it was too much.
It turned out NOT to be too much for 3-year-old Theo. He impressed us all, and passed the test with flying colors. He went the full 10.7 miles.
But it turned out to be too much for his 36-year-old mama.
My anger flared, specifically toward my oldest (14 year old) son, in ways that are shameful. I was belligerent and combative– calling him out again and again with my words, attitude, and tone. (***Note: he has read this & gave his permission for me to share it.***)
The whole drive home, though I was proud of my kiddos for completing the whole hike, I felt humiliated and defeated.
“There’s no way we can do the long multi-day thru-hike. We can’t do it because of ME.”
What a failure! Instead of encouraging my kids in something hard, I berated and belittled. He’d probably never want to hike again.
So, at some point on the drive home, I turned down the music and spoke to the whole family. I asked for all their forgiveness, and his, specifically. “This is why we all need Jesus… Mama too.”
But I still felt like such a failure. There’s no way we can do this together. Like that old show’s British gameshow host would say: “I AM the weakest link.”
I WANTED TO DITCH THE BACKPACKING TRIP
So Doug’s heart was still in it, but mine was not. I felt like if we did any more difficult backpacking than easily-doable day hikes, I would be exposed. Pushed to the edge. Perpetually defeated.
More foundational than that, I just didn’t want to be the source of any more damage or wounds in my precious son’s heart. Ultimately though, as we talked it through, I realized that by advocating for us to stop doing difficult hikes so my attitude wouldn’t be pushed to the max,
what I was saying was, “it’s fine for that stuff to BE there in my heart; I just don’t want to have it excavated and shown to the people around me.”
The truth was, I just wanted to avoid exposure.
And that’s not a Christian attitude. If it’s IN me, coming out, I’m merely seeing the spillage of what’s in my soul’s “cup.”
So… in the days that followed, I did the hard, relational work to talk through these things with our son. It was hard, and painful, and I felt very exposed, many times over.
…so this is why people don’t write much about parenting teens…
IT IS HARD TO BE SEEN and KNOWN.
It is just HARD, isn’t it?
To have those ugliest things about us exposed and KNOWN to people we love? To hurt them in deep ways you know they’ll remember? To potentially even (because we live with flesh and blood who don’t always phrase everything exactly in the least-painful, most-perfect ways) have our sin and hurts and failures thrown back in our face?
It’s so much easier to stay in the shadows and feel like we’re doing OK… but that OK is (in many ways) a falsehood. The stuff is still IN the ‘cup.’
THE POOP IN THE CUP OF MILK.
So, Ethan and I talked. It went something like this:
E: Maybe we just shouldn’t do harder hikes. It makes us both say and do things that hurt each other.
Me: That does seem to be true. It seems like it would be easier to stop– to me, too. That’s my natural inclination.
It’s like this: we both have cups. Our cups can look clean, like they have pure white, ice cold milk in them. But the truth is, we’re Christians who still have our flesh with us. So, in addition to milk, we have poop in our cups. You can’t see it most of the time, because it settles down and everything looks all clean and nice and the smell is hidden deep down in. But the germs and the stink are really still there. When you and I hike, and I say things that hurt you, or you do things to your brothers and sisters that hurt them, that’s really just the reality of our cups getting bumped. It means that what’s deep inside comes up to the surface.
And sometimes that means we get splattered with each other’s poop.
Suddenly, we start to SEE and SMELL the poop that was there all along. The poop didn’t START being there because the cup was bumped. It was already there. The bumping just exposed the reality that our cups aren’t only filled with the purest, whitest milk. There’s poop inside, too.
E: Yeah. Hmm.
Me: I don’t know if I want to do harder hikes, either. I just told Daddy that I don’t. I hate hurting you. I don’t want to say things that make you feel rotten.
But I know one thing: stopping hiking won’t change what’s in my cup. That stuff still needs work, whether I see that it’s there or not.
E: OK. I can see that. Hmm.
It didn’t change our minds immediately.
But we kept doing practice hikes. On those hikes, I worked not to give in to the easy “pressure release valve” of letting off steam by criticizing my kids. (Ugh, that’s really embarrassing to write. But it’s true, so I’m leaving it.)
MY SELF-CONTROL GREW, BUT I STILL BLEW IT SOMETIMES.
On practice hikes and bleacher runs from then on, things (mostly) went well. I reined myself in, and worked to be an encourager and to notice the good. We made a lot of good memories this summer, and we all grew in our abilities to do really hard things with a mostly good attitude.
I would love to be able to say that I increasingly matured toward Christlikeness and never yelled at him/the other kids again.
But that’s not true.
WE DID THE BIG 12-DAY BACKPACKING TRIP
In fact, we had our biggest fight ever– a yelling, tear-filled ugly mess of a fight (on both our parts)– in one of the most beautiful places on earth, in the snow and boulder fields on our way up to the Panhandle Gap on the Wonderland Trail, a 95-mile loop around Mt. Rainier.
We were on day 6 of our trip– both working about as hard as we could possibly imagine…
- going uphill
- both carrying serious weight
- coaching the 3-year-old so he could avoid stumbling
- about a mile into 11.3 miles– our highest-mileage of the trip
- helping the 3-year-old across mountain streams
- interacting with one another as a family, trying to NOT let off steam toward the family members we have less “easy” relationships with
… and a couple of bad choices later, we were in the middle of the angriest conversation we’d ever had, for which we’d both feel great conviction and sorrow over the rest of the day.
My growth in this area has been more like 2 steps forward… stumble back and fall on your stinking face.
Angry, we both sat down. But we knew we had to work through it and keep going. We had to talk it out (in between heaving breaths and pushes uphill). Explain our thinking. Work to understand each other’s perspectives. Resolve our misunderstanding. Ask for forgiveness. Give forgiveness. Receive forgiveness. Work to smile at each other again.
It wasn’t easy. Working through hard stuff isn’t.
But I think it was better than either of us pretending that that stuff isn’t there on a normal day when we’re sitting on the couch.
See, that’s the thing: the hike wasn’t what MADE us yell at each other. It simply exposed tendencies that were there all along.
- It exposed his tendency to do the thing that set me off (which isn’t the point of this article, so it’s not worth clarifying beyond that)
- It exposed my tendency to respond hastily
- It exposed my tendency to assume the worst about his motives and thinking
- It exposed his tendency to overinflate his actual hurt
- It exposed my tendency to badger and judge him before actually hearing him out
- It exposed both of our tendencies to want to shut down and quit rather than working through things.
These same things exist every day, when we’re sitting on the couch watching Amazing Race. On a smaller scale, in a location with less grandeur, we are still apt to do these same exact things. We just don’t always get to see it so clearly.
Going on the hike didn’t create these things; it merely excavated them and allowed us to see them with dazzling clarity.
And I’m thankful for that. The hard thing– backpacking around Mt. Rainier– exposed deep, true things about us. Things that it’s very very hard to see and to own up to, but that we NEED to see and own up to.
It is actually really good for us humans to see the reality of just how rotten we are. How much we need God to change us.
Otherwise, on an average day, we can look in the mirror and see our pure-white cup of milk and think we’re mostly doing OK.
HE WAS THE ONE WHO WANTED TO CONTINUE
Fast-forwarding a couple days, we considered quitting the hike. (For a lot of reasons– not primarily having anything to do with this.) Doug and I discussed it together in hushed tones, first. Then we pulled in the kids and asked them to consider it over the remainder of our afternoon hike that day.
That night, more than any of our other kids, it was Ethan who convinced me that we should continue. He didn’t want to give up.
He saw the value and beauty in this hard thing we were doing; and he helped me to see it, too.
And there was such wisdom in his counsel.
- We are better as a family for having taken it on, and finished it, than we would have been had we never done it, or had we given up.
- We’re stronger in bodies, and stronger in relationships.
- We had some of our favorite days of hiking after deciding to stick it out.
- We are each better for seeing ourselves as we really are.
SO WILL WE DO MORE BACKPACKING TRIPS?
It’s one of the first things people asked us, after exclaiming their joy that we were actually still alive. (No joke, we actually had a lot of people say that.) Soon after that sigh of relief, though, was:
“So would you ever do it again?”
And even that first week, I could say- “yes, I think we would.” But now, a month out, I can say– “definitely, we would.” We plan to do more backpacking… not in these last two months of THIS pregnancy… but yes, we plan to do more.
WHY DO WE DO HARD THINGS *WITH* OUR KIDS?
Even more than the hiking (which may or may not be your cup of tea), why take on big challenges alongside our children? Why not wait til they’re out of the house? Or until they’re all teens (which — not incidentally– will never be a stage we neatly fit into, but I digress…)? Or just save the hardest things for us adults to do alone together?
One reason (there are many!) why we value this is because it pulls off the masks. It enables us to see them, and them to see us, all as we really are.
Because even though it’s really hard, and even though the poop in our cups got exposed and splattered, we see value in choosing to not just do hard things on our own… but alongside them… so we can all grow stronger together.
IN THE COMMENTS, PLEASE SHARE: When have you seen something HARD produce GOOD things in the life of your family?
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