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Dad Next Door: Because I Said So

A little encouragement from across the fence


Over the long Labor Day weekend, my sweetheart Jess and I took a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada with her daughter Pippa. Even though she’s only six, Pippa carried her own pack, stuffed to the brim with her clothes, her sleeping bag, and her water supply. We hiked to a campsite over six miles in, in 90-degree heat, with 2,000 of elevation gain. It was five solid hours of whining, complaining, crying, cajoling, demanding and bribing. And by the end of the weekend, we were filthy, stinky, exhausted, mosquito bitten and ready to sell our souls for a warm shower and a piece of fresh produce. A rutabaga. A stalk of celery. A moldy zucchini. Anything.

So right now you’re probably trying to decide whether to report us to Child Protective Services or to have us involuntarily committed. Surely only insane or sadistic parents would subject themselves and their child to that kind of abuse.

But don’t turn us in just yet. Here’s what else we did: We peered into canyons at creek pools so still and clear you could count the rocks on the bottom from the rim 100 feet above. We climbed the cracks and ledges of sheer granite walls to reach hidden waterfalls tumbling down among thimbleberries and emerald ferns. We caught brook trout and frogs and grasshoppers and garter snakes. We stroked their skin and scales, smelling their musk on our hands after we let them scamper and slither back into the grass. We stripped off our clothes and plunged into glacier melt streams that made us gasp and shiver and tingle and squeal with delight. We did all that and more — much, much more.

Raising kids is exhausting. Most days it feels like a triumph just to get them fed and bathed and into bed before you pass out in mid-sentence halfway through their bedtime story. The path of least resistance is so tempting that it’s hard to imagine choosing any other way. But sometimes you have to do the hard thing to get to the good thing. And later on, when the hard things have long since faded into oblivion, the good things become kids’ indelible childhood memories.

Parents are always asking me how they can get their kids to try something new. “Just force them to do it,” I tell them. They laugh nervously and try to figure out if I’m serious. I am.

I don’t mean that you should make them do things against their will. Well, actually, that’s exactly what I mean. But not forever — just to get them started. Remember, no matter how precocious kids are or how much of the world they see on the internet or how often you need their help just to make your phone work, you know more than they do. A lot more. And sometimes it’s your job as a parent to push them. (Just not off of a granite cliff . . . even if it’s 93 degrees in the shade and they’ve been whining for five straight hours. But I digress.)

The only way kids figure out if they like things is by trying them. But trying new things can be scary. It works a lot better if we’re right there next to them, trying just as hard as they are. The best way to help our children discover something new is to discover it alongside them. It could be anything—nature, art, science, music, sports—as long as it’s something you can do together. Because after I tell parents, “Just force them to do it,” I always add this footnote: “Make sure you do it with them.”

That first day, at the end of our long hike, we camped at a high mountain lake ringed by steep walls that rose up around us like a granite cathedral. We dropped our packs, peeled off our clothes, and splashed in cold, clear water until the layers of sweat and trail dust gave way to glistening, sun-kissed skin. We ate our fill of simple camp food, which tasted far better than it had any right to, and Pippa’s whining was magically replaced with giggling and singing and bad knock-knock jokes.

That night all three of us snuggled in a hammock, piled on top of each other like puppies. There were so many stars it looked like someone had tipped a jar of glitter into the sky.

“This is the best camping place in the whole world,” Pippa whispered.

Told you so.

Jeff Lee lives, writes, and eats the occasional moldy zucchini in Seattle, WA.

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